Faced with Buckhead’s ever-increasing traffic, the Lovett School is experimenting with an old-school alternative: buses.

The private K-12 institution kicked off the 2019-2020 year with a pilot program offering paid school bus rides to and from its Paces Ferry Road campus for students on two select routes. Meredyth Cole, Lovett’s head of school, says the response has been good and, if it remains strong, will result in two more routes next year.

Lovett students arrive on the new bus service on the first day of school and are greeted by Lower School Principal Ashley Marshall. (Special)

“They’re just so relieved not to be sitting in that traffic,” Cole said of the response from parents.

Lovett opened its current campus in the 1930s, when Buckhead was largely rural. Like many of the neighborhood’s private schools, it long assumed parents and students could get to the campus on their own. But with today’s population levels and commutes, traffic is the “recurring theme,” said Cole, who took the head of school position last year.

“We are always looking at traffic flow on our campus, and it occurred to me the best way to reduce traffic is to reduce the number of cars,” she said.

As it happened, Lovett already owned two 40-seat school buses. The school just didn’t use them for its own students. The buses were originally for Breakthrough Atlanta, a Lovett-based summer program for high-performing middle-school students from Atlanta Public Schools.

Cole said Lovett was willing to “take a little bit of a financial hit” on operating the buses with its own staff members for its own students as well, if it meant reducing traffic. Plus, she said, the buses could serve as a “marketing tool,” since they were already painted with a Lovett logo.

Meredyth Cole, Lovett’s head of school.

A survey of parents found support for paying an extra fee for school bus service. Lovett then looked at some other private schools in the region that offer buses, including Woodward Academy, which has campuses in College Park and Johns Creek, and schools in Charlotte, N.C., and Charleston, S.C.
Lovett officials plotted out two bus routes, each with two off-campus stops. One serves the North Buckhead and Brookhaven area, with stops at Peachtree Presbyterian Church and St. James United Methodist Church. Another serves the Garden Hills and Morningside areas, with stops at Morningside Presbyterian Church and Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church. Besides regular morning and afternoon buses, there is a late activity bus based on demand.

Annual fees are $1,200 for round trips and $685 for one-way trips. Cole says that amounts to roughly $3.50 per ride. No subsidies for those fees are currently available, but Cole said the school likely will offer needs-based aid, as it does for other programs, if the pilot program works and expands.

So far, she said, it’s looking good. About 37 seats are occupied on each bus on each trip, she said. The school estimates that has removed about 53 private vehicles from the campus.

It’s not Lovett’s only way of tackling traffic. Cole said this year, the school also began working with Georgia Commute Options, an Atlanta Regional Commission alternative commuting incentive program. The school has arranged carpooling for about 40 faculty and staff members, Cole said.

Like many other local institutions and residents, Cole said that Waze, a navigation app that provides real-time traffic information to drivers, has been a major force in increased congestion. “I keep joking that we should get a student to hack Waze,” she said.

Cole responded positively when told about another, controversial idea recently proposed by the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods: imposing tolls on some residential streets. “That would incentivize my bus-riding! That’s interesting,” she said.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.