How Do We Solve the School Drop-Off Debacle?

Where there's a school, there's likely a long line of waiting parents in idling cars. Tonktiti/Shutterstock

It's been quite a few years since I've taken part in school drop-offs or pick-ups. But I still remember the hectic rush as parents and students jostled to get in and out of the carpool horseshoe while tempers flared and courtesy waned. My son typically took the bus, but there were occasions when we had to rush to a doctor's appointment or piano lesson after school or I didn't want him waiting for the bus during a downpour. On those days, I'd brave the line of parents who were regulars and knew what they were doing.

But what was true then is still true today: morning and afternoon carpool lines are a mess. Many schools do their best to prevent issues by asking drivers not to idle their vehicles and trying to keep students on the curb. But the environment and the kids aren't always safe.

Because some parents don't want to get stuck in the back of the line (or have to rush to make practice or an appointment), they've been known to get to school 20 or 30 minutes early. If it's very hot or cold, they'll leave the car running so the heat or air conditioning stays on. Forget those "no idling" signs. Yet a 2017 study by University of Toronto researchers found that students who linger around school pick-up zones breathe elevated levels of pollution from all those cars, which sets them up for health problems later in life.

And no matter how many teachers you have riding herd on the kids at the curb, it's hard to keep all the antsy little ones still. At least a couple end up breaking loose from the pack when they see a familiar SUV pull up. Hopefully no unobservant driver will open a car door or start rolling ahead when a child darts out.

Banning the carpool lane

students walking to school
Today, less than 15 percent of students walk to school. Anna Grigorjeva/Shutterstock

An increasing number of schools in the United Kingdom and a few other countries have moved toward ending school drop-offs by vehicle. Fast Company's Eillie Anzilotti points out that nine schools in Edinburgh have banned car drop-offs and Hackney, a neighborhood in London, has shut down the roads surrounding five schools. In Vienna, cars are banned from 7:45 to 8:15 a.m. on school days on the roads around schools. A similar initiative years ago in Bolzano, Italy, now means about 80 percent of students walk, bike or take the bus to school.

The Living Streets nonprofit is encouraging schools in the U.K. to work with families to encourage students with its Walk to School initiative, offering challenges and motivation to get kids pounding the pavement. They point out the benefits are healthier children, cleaner air and less congestion.

In 1969, about 41 percent of school-age students and teens in the United States got to school by "active travel," which was walking or biking, according to a 2007 analysis of school transportation trends. By 2001, the number had dropped to 13 percent. Along with that trend came the popularity of the suburbs, where schools are often on large campuses miles away from homes and neighborhoods. With the growth of suburbia, walking is often no longer an option.

Here's a look at a North Carolina elementary school morning drop-off. According to the description, walking or taking a bike isn't an option, because it's a rural school with some students living as far as 15 miles away.

Finding another solution

Sometimes kids don't walk or bike to school because they've never considered it or because they're not sure the best way to get there. Schools can work with the National Center for Safe Routes to School, the group that coordinates national Walk to School and Bike to School days. The center can help implement safe walking procedures and offer suggestions for motivators such as bike racks, which can make alternative forms of transportation easier and more appealing.

no-idling sign near a school in Denver
This no-idling sign is in a school parking lot near Denver. Jeffrey Beall/flickr

If, like in the elementary school example above, walking and biking is just not an option, schools can encourage other solutions to keeping students safe and their roadways less congested. Parents can show up at PTA meetings to help implement suggestions like these:

Have an efficient carpool layout. Haphazard carpool lanes invite trouble. Organizations such as Clean Air Carolina offer organized layouts for efficient drop-off and pick-up zones.

Consider staggered dismissal times to keep people from converging all at once on the school.

Work to educate parents about the health and environmental impact of idling. Install signs and send home materials. Get started with information from Clean Air at Schools: Engines Off campaign.

Don't think your actions will make a difference? Clean Cities project leader and mom Kay Kelly writes at

Waiting in the line of cars to pick up my sons from school each day, I realized that my children and their classmates were walking out into invisible-yet-harmful fumes created by the dozens of idling vehicles outside their school. It concerned me, and I wanted to do something about it. That was three years ago, and today I'm happy to report an 85% decrease in the amount of carpool-lane idling at my children’s school.