You’re inching along in a line of cars on High School Road to drop your kids. You’re either late — or about to be. Sound familiar?
School gridlock is a common woe of parents across the valley. But why is the problem on High School Road so bad, and can anything be done to mitigate the traffic that frustrates drivers year after year?
Put five schools in a small area with limited entrances and exits and you’ve got a problem.
According to Director of Public Works Larry Pardee, the town of Jackson hasn’t performed a comprehensive traffic analysis in a decade. But 2006 data shows that the average daily traffic is 5,066 cars on South Park Loop, 3,877 cars on High School Road, 1,543 cars on Blair Drive, 941 cars on Middle School Road and 3,099 on Gregory Lane.
Pardee thinks those numbers have almost certainly increased.
“There’s not a lot of redundancy and not a lot of access points,” Pardee said. “Couple that with a single lane in each direction and this is the outcome we see.”
Jackson Police Chief Todd Smith agreed.
“You put three of our major schools within a stone’s throw of one another, literally, and you’re going to have competing interests on the road,” he said.
To make matters worse, Smith pointed out that the area surrounding the schools has developed.
“We continue to develop in that part of town, there’s construction going on as we speak,” Smith said. “More cars will equal more congestion.”
“Personal choice is the cheapest thing in the world,” Pardee said. He’s a firm believer in the idea of “death by a thousand cuts,” of individual actions adding up to collective success or failure.
“We, as Americans, like to come and go as we choose and have control of our own destiny,” Pardee said. “But we all have a choice.”
Katherine Dowson, the executive director of Friends of Pathways, thinks developing the habit over time is crucial.
“My perspective as a parent is that it’s easy to be running a little bit late,” Dowson said. “Taking the bus takes extra time and getting into a routine and a habit — like everything we do.”
She agrees that convenience is a huge factor.
“If it becomes easier to just drive, then people sometimes will default to that,” Dowson said. “When it becomes inconvenient is when changes are made. Maybe we are getting to one of those tipping points.”
When it comes to changing behavior, Dowson believes it’s about providing both carrots and sticks.
“We don’t have a lot of sticks around here,” Dowson said. “The stick is really the inconvenience. If you take the bus, there has to be a carrot at the end — besides the altruistic motive of knowing that you’re doing your part not to burn fossil fuels.”
Dowson floated the idea of a raffle for students who ride the bus with prizes to incentivize ridership. Pardee pointed to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort for inspiration. To encourage carpooling at the village during ski season the resort charges $10 a day for parking for cars with fewer than three passengers.
The big yellow bus
Many community members said greater use of the bus system is crucial.
“The bus is one of our best forms of transportation in the county,” Dowson said. “They’re efficient, they’re on time and they know how to get your kids to school safely.”
That’s true. But school bus ridership numbers in Teton County are already pretty high.
“We would love to see more students taking advantage of this service, but over the past few years our ridership has been equal to, and even above, the national averages,” said Ed Ahlum, director of transportation for the district.
Chief Operating Officer Brad Barker agreed, saying, “We can always do better,” but pointing out that local ridership rates are about 20 percent above the national average. Although daily ridership varies, the district recorded that 2,127 students rode their buses at one time or another during January 2016.
Data show that 80 percent of Jackson Elementary School students ride the bus compared to 79 percent at Colter Elementary, 78 percent at Wilson Elementary and 57 percent for Jackson Hole Middle School and Jackson Hole High School students, who ride the same route.
Ahlum said the pattern of higher ridership with elementary-age students is typical across the country, primarily because there are other options available to high school students, like driving their personal or family car when they’re old enough.
“Encouraging ridership begins with strategically planning routes that provide students with the shortest possible ride time while being fiscally responsible about scheduling each bus as close to capacity as possible,” Ahlum said.
Forming positive relationships between students and their bus driver is also a way to increase ridership.
“Each one of our drivers, in their own way, demonstrates a gentle attitude of care and concern for the students on their buses,” said Ahlum, who has heard about drivers giving out goodies on Fridays and dressing up for Halloween.
When it comes down to it, Ahlum said, riding the bus won’t help with just the congestion — it’s also the safest choice. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has reported that traveling by school bus is seven times safer than traveling by car or truck.
“The national statistics speak for themselves,” he said.
Change start times?
Another solution might be more staggering of school start times. Currently, Jackson Hole High School starts at 8:54 a.m., Summit High School at 8:50 a.m., Jackson Hole Middle School at 9 a.m. and Colter Elementary School at 8:15 a.m. Across town, Jackson Elementary School begins at 8:30 a.m.
“When they all started at the same time, it was pretty much gridlock,” Chief Smith said. “It’s better now that the times are slightly staggered, that has helped tremendously.”
Smith said increasingly staggered times could also be safer.
“High school aged kids are going to drive differently than more experienced drivers,” he said. “We need to think big picture about who is on the roadway as well.”
Explore the pathways
Biking to school is one alternative, and it’s made easier by the 49 miles of pathways in the valley south of Grand Teton National Park.
On Friends of Pathways’ annual iWalk, iBike, iBus to School Day to encourage alternative methods of transportation, Dowson said she counted only 10 cars dropping children off at Wilson Elementary — “a big deal.”
“How do you make that stick?” she asked.
Pathways, like the other ideas floated, aren’t the perfect solution.
“One positive I think our community has done, in regards to the congestion, is that we have a pretty robust pathways system,” Smith said. “However, any time a pathway has to cross a highway, that increases the risk of someone being hurt.”
Would widening the existing roads or creating new ones be a solution?
Not so fast. There are few options for creating additional roads given private land ownership and the cost of land around the valley, and road work actually might be counterproductive.
“Building wider roads or more access points is only going to encourage more cars,” Pardee said. “The government would have to spend a lot more money to change the roadways, but we can change our behavior and our culture.”
Pardee said that adding lanes, or building roundabouts — something the town has conducted preliminary studies on — would cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars.
“There’s nothing cheap about roadway construction,” Pardee said.
If construction was deemed feasible in the future, Smith thinks adding a road that came behind the high school from the south off of Highway 89 would be a “game changer,” estimating it could cut traffic by a third. He proposed a loop to drop off kids on the south or east sides of the high school that returns to the highway on a one-way High School Road.
The much-discussed Tribal Trails Connector Road, as well as the construction of Munger Mountain Elementary School, are both ways that congestion might be alleviated.
“All of those over 430 students will no longer be riding into and through town to go to school in the morning,” Barker said — and they’ll spend, on average, one hour less per day on the bus.
While discussion and study of congestion is necessary as the valley continues to bulge at the seams, Chief Smith had an interesting perspective on all the traffic.
“If the worst thing we have is some congestion, then we must be doing something right,” Smith said. “If we’re not talking about gangs, homicides and serious crime, we should remind ourselves of how fortunate we are. Are we really inconvenienced all that much for all the benefits we get for living in the greatest place on earth?”