school bus bridge traffic.jpg (copy)

The closed westbound span of the Interstate 526 bridge has clogged Highway 17 South with the diverted extra traffic heading toward the Ravenel Bridge on Tuesday afternoon May 15, 2018. Wade Spees/Staff

School is back in session, and gone are the quiet summer days where morning commuters can get to work without encountering inevitable school-related traffic jams and delays.  

In Mount Pleasant, traffic volumes increase between 20 and 30 percent from 7 to 8 a.m. once school starts, according to Transportation Operations Division Chief James Aton. 

“Anybody who drives any of our main corridors, be it Coleman or Long Point or 17, dreads the start of school, just because of the increased delay it places upon them to get from Point A to Point B,” Aton said. 

Aton said dependence on personal vehicles, particularly in Mount Pleasant, has increased over time. 

“As traffic increases, I can only assume parents feel less comfortable allowing their children to use non-motorized methods of transportation to school, such as walking and biking, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said. 

In addition to more cars on the road once school starts, back-to-school season causes very specific changes to traffic patterns around schools during dropoffs and pickups. 

For example, left turns from Hamlin Road onto southbound U.S. Highway 17 increase significantly from around 7 to 8 a.m. This increase is almost solely associated with vehicles traveling to Jennie Moore Elementary and Laing Middle School, Aton said. 

In order to address increased traffic problems, the Mount Pleasant transportation operations department has modified the timing of several traffic lights throughout the area, like allocating more green light time for left turns onto U.S. 17 coming from Hamlin Road. 

Modifications have also been made to traffic signals at U.S. 17 and Carolina Park Boulevard, Long Point Road at Egypt Road and Coleman Boulevard at Simmons to accommodate the influx of cars while school is in session. 

Charleston County unveiled an unusual figure-eight shaped construction plan to address traffic issues on Highways 17 and 41 last week. Aton said he hopes the plan will address some of the back-to-school traffic problems, but his office will continue to make traffic light adjustments regardless of any construction updates. 

“I don’t think that even with these improvements, that it is going to have an effect on the travel patterns once school starts and stops,” he said. “Even though those improvements will expand our ability, capacity-wise, we will still make those tweaks.”

While back-to-school increases traffic in general, it also creates jams and clumps around individual schools for brief periods in the morning and afternoon.

In downtown Charleston, First Baptist School updated its afternoon pickup schedule after the first day of school to alleviate school traffic. Now, dismissal times are staggered to ensure a quicker carpool line and less traffic for the school's residential neighbors, said Susan Brooks, First Baptist's lower and middle school principal. 

"We had to make some changes. But we are changing it to be as safe and low impact of possible," Brooks said. "It can be frustrating and challenging at times, but I feel like we're in a good groove now."

Part of increased school traffic comes from development in Mount Pleasant, West Ashley and North Charleston, said Jeff Scott, the Charleston County School District executive director of transportation. More development means more people on the roads, Scott said, especially around the suburbs.

"Just for Wando High School, there's at least 6,000 people that run through there in the morning from 7:20 to 8:30 a.m.," Scott said. "The only other location where they move that many people in that short of a time period into one spot is the North Charleston Coliseum. But we do it every day." 

School traffic can also affect the students themselves. 

Last year, traffic was the second-highest cause of lost instructional time for the estimated 22,000 district students who rode the bus each day. Combined, students lost 11,390 hours of instructional time due to late buses last school year. 

“Traffic is the reality of living down here, or anywhere that has a high population. We have to open school at a certain time, and it’s going to coincide with rush hour,” said Andy Pruitt, a district spokesperson.

The district monitors bus routes closely once school starts and can made adjustments mid-year to bus schedules if traffic patterns on any routes consistently cause issues, Scott said. 

It’s a similar story for Berkeley, one of the fastest-growing counties in the state. 

“Traffic has increased, and Berkeley County School District has had to respond. In everything from the way we route our buses to the regulations we have to follow,” said Brian Troutman, a district spokesperson. 

Troutman said a majority of Berkeley County’s high schools are selling slightly more student driver passes year to year, and that the number of students who ride the bus each year has also increased. 

All 1,231 available student parking passes at Wando have been sold for the school year. Around 300 have been issued so far at West Ashley High School. 

Berkeley County students started school on Aug. 19, and Charleston County students started on Wednesday. To accommodate for increased school traffic, officials recommend leaving earlier, carpooling and taking public transportation. 

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Jenna Schiferl is a Columbia native and a reporter at The Post and Courier. She has previously worked as an editor at Garnet & Black Magazine.