By: Molly Pileggi, Marc L. Stein, Alyn Turner, and Nathaniel Dewey

August 2020


Many large districts now offer students choice in selecting high schools. In Philadelphia, if a student chooses not to attend their neighorhood school, other options include schools with specialized programming in the arts, sciences, or business fields, schools with career and technical education options, and competitive magnet schools.

But choosing an out-of-catchment school rather than a neighborhood school may require a longer or more complicated commute, particulary for students relying on public transit to get to school. Research has shown that commute time and complexity can influence attendance, academic achievement, engagement in school, and health factors associated with sleep.

This report uses School District of Philadelphia high school student enrollment and residence data to estimate student commutes to all 52 traditional district high schools via public transit. We use transit data from the 2017-18 school year to estimate how long it would take for high schoolers to get to school using public transit based on where they live and under optimal conditions (i.e., no delays and use of all available routes). We also analyze how estimated commutes vary by type of school admission (i.e., Neighborhood, Citywide, or Special Admission) and student residential neighborhood (defined as the City Council District in which they live).

We do not examine student commutes to accelerated schools in SDP’s Opportunity Network, since they are alternative high schools and don’t meet our definition of “traditional” schools. We also do not include charter school students in this study, who represent about a third of all high schoolers in Philadelphia.

The findings of this study, described below, can help guide families and students to consider commute time and complexity when selecting schools. We also anticipate that the analysis of variation in commutes may be useful for policy makers at the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) and its School Board, City Council, and SEPTA (Philadelphia’s transit authority) as they make ongoing decisions about system-wide school offerings, start times and scheduling options, and transit networks. School-specific maps with estimated transit times can be downloaded directly here. 

Key Findings

In the 2017-2018 school year:

  • On average, 60% of SDP high school students reported in surveys that they took public transit to school. Responses varied by school from a minimum of 14% at Lankenau to a maximum of 95% at Constitution. 

  • The average Philadelphia district high school student had an estimated public transit commute time of 28.9 minutes. While nearly 30 minutes to get from door-to-door may seem like a long time, Philadelphia’s average commute time is shorter than that of high schoolers in New York City (31.3 minutes) and Baltimore (36.2 minutes). These differences add up: Compared to the average Philadelphia high school student, the average Baltimore high school student using public transportation would spend 44 more hours commuting over the course of a school year.

  • There is considerable variation in average student commute time within and between schools. Bartram had the lowest average travel time of 16 minutes, but several other schools have similar patterns. Science Leadership Academy at Beeber had the second longest average travel time, along with four other schools that averaged estimated public transit commutes over 40 minutes.

  • Average transit times vary based on where students live and how close they are to major commute corridors. We found that students living in Northeast and Northwest Philadelphia (City Council Districts 8, 9, and 10) tended to have longer estimated public transit commutes. In contrast, students who lived along Philadelphia’s main commute corridors—Broad Street or Market-Frankford—tended to have shorter commute times (parts of City Council Districts 1, 2, 3, and 5). These trends are likely driven by variation in both the density of schools in specific geographical areas and their proximity to transit lines.

  • Students attending Neighborhood high schools averaged much shorter and less complex commutes than students attending Citywide and Special Admission schools. Students attending Neighborhood high schools had an average estimated commute time of 21.7 minutes, compared to 30.8 minutes for Citywide high school students and 38.0 minutes for students at Special Admission high schools. Neighborhood high school students also had the least complex routes to schools, with 70 percent living either within walking distance or close enough to be able to take a single public transit vehicle to school.

Policy and Implications

  • Students and families who plan to use public transit to get to school should carefully review, and perhaps even test out, their future commutes before selecting their high school. If a student learns only after enrolling in a school that they have a long, unsustainable commute, they may be absent or late more often and may also be more likely to change schools to reduce their commute. Changing schools mid-year can have unintended consequences; recent research has shown that students who switch schools during high school are more likely to drop out than their non-mobile peers with similar characteristics and prior achievement.

  • Ensure that the public is aware of the SEPTA 400-series routes, which are designed to support students. SEPTA offers a specific series of bus routes to help transport students around the city. Our analysis assumes students know of and use these routes. However, these routes are not currently published to common mapping tools like Google Maps. For students unaware of these transit routes, the commute may be considerably longer or more complex than necessary. Students and families could benefit from more transparency about these transportation options when they are choosing a school, as these routes could help make more schools accessible to more students.

  • School principals and personnel should consider commute times and public transit schedules when deciding on school start times. We analyzed school start times alongside estimated public transit commute times by school to estimate when students across the district need to leave home to get to school on time. We found a wide range, from about 6:00am to 8:45am. Understanding this variation may give school leaders and staff insight into their students’ experiences. Also, while determining the most appropriate start time for a school is a complex decision, aligning school start and end times to coincide with public transit schedules might reduce the need for excessively early routes for the over 60% of high school students that rely on public transportation to get to school.

  • City Council members can utilize the variation in estimated school commute times and actual school enrollments to advocate for increased transportation options in their communities. As our analyses show, SDP high school students in some City Council Districts face longer estimated commutes to school. Students in other Council Districts enrolled in relatively fewer SDP high schools, a possible sign of transportation options limiting accessibility. City Council members can use this information to explore how to provide more public transportation options to their constituents.​