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School drop-off and pick-up zones can cause traffic congestion if not properly planned and designed. Photo: Pam Broviak

School may be out for the summer, but I can't stop thinking about picking up my child, who attends the local public school.

Over a period of several years, our local school district, facing declining enrollment, decided to close four of its five school buildings. All the city's elementary-age children were to attend school at the single remaining school. To accommodate the increase in students, an addition was constructed. The architect leading the project was certain that he also had added enough parking to accommodate the increased bus and car traffic. He was wrong.

Testing a traffic design is kind of like pressure testing a new sewer installation—you know right away if it isn't going to work. Soon after consolidation, problems with school-related traffic arose. Parents, teachers, and school administrators began contacting the city to solve the mess that occurred each afternoon when parents came to pick up their kids. Some short-term solutions were provided, but a more permanent fix was needed. Unfortunately, funds were not available until recently. To solve the problem, I researched the design guidelines for school pick-up and drop-off zones. I soon realized there is little information on this aspect of traffic design.

Officials at the Texas DOT have also noticed this deficiency. Last year, the Texas Transportation Institute completed a report for the Texas DOT on the design of school loading zones. Project 0-4286: Operational and Safety Guidelines for Roadway Facilities Around Schools discusses existing limitations and develops guidelines and examples for the design and operation of school loading zones and other related facilities.

I used this report, available online at http://tti.tamu.edu, as a guideline for my design project. However, I felt somewhat uncomfortable not having additional resources from my local DOT. Because the state engineer performing the design review has few design standards to apply to this situation, the plan review process will be more difficult and time-consuming. I know, in the end, we will come to a consensus on a good design and the traffic mess at our local school will be alleviated, but having guidelines ahead of time would have streamlined the process.

Why has it taken so long for traffic around school zones to become an issue? Years ago, we all walked to school. Now, most children are driven to school, and as a parent with a full-time job, I understand why. In order to make it to work on time, I can't wait with my child for the bus. And with all the child abductions, I do not feel comfortable letting him wait alone or allowing him to walk to school.

Living and working in a small community, I may not have to deal with this type of design situation in the future. But I know the problem will eventually arise in other cities. I think the Texas DOT is on the right track—the design community must become more aware of the lack of guidance for school zone layout and design. Other DOTs could follow their lead and develop their own standards, or the Federal Highway Administration could research this and issue a report to help each state.