The Rise of the Big Yellow Bus

By Kerry A. White — January 27, 1999 1 min read
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School buses are considered the safest way to get to school, beating walking, bicycles, and Mom and Dad’s car.

In 1937, Frank W. Cyr, a young professor of rural education at Teachers College, Columbia University, conducted a first-of-its-kind survey to find out how students across the nation were getting from their homes to school.

What he discovered was, any which way they could.

Most, of course, walked. But some of the students who needed a ride rode to school in horse-drawn carts borrowed from local farmers; others commuted in a hodgepodge of trucks and automobiles. And while most children who didn’t walk, Cyr learned, caught rides in motorized school buses of some sort, there were virtually no standards in place for such vehicles. The first school buses, purchased mainly in the 1920s, came in all shapes and forms and in every color of the rainbow.

A few Wyoming districts had merely added engines to covered wagons. In one New York district, students rode in small purple buses; in another, in the name of patriotism, buses wore red, white, and blue stripes.

While manufacturers at the time were complaining that a lack of standards prevented them from turning out school buses more cheaply on an assembly line, school administrators complained of the high cost of buses--at a time when consolidation of widely scattered schools had increased the need for transportation. And even though the earliest school buses barely surpassed speeds of 20 mph, safety was a mounting concern.

New Standards

The need for safety and manufacturing standards was obvious to Cyr, and in 1939, he gathered together state officials, school leaders, and bus engineers to hammer out the first national benchmarks for school transportation.

Participants in that seven-day conference in New York City adopted 44 new standards on bus size, engine specifications, and, most notably, color. A shade of yellow that soon came to be called National School Bus Chrome was selected for its visibility from dawn to dusk and through fog and rain.

While most of the standards have changed, and many more state and federal rules have been added, the familiar hue endures and is on file with the National Bureau of Standards.

In 1939, state officials, school leaders, and bus engineers met and adopted standards for the nation’s school buses, including the shade of yellow that was soon known as National School Bus Chrome.

A version of this article appeared in the January 27, 1999 edition of Education Week as The Rise of the Big Yellow Bus


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