Private companies operate approximately 475,000 school buses, according to industry trade journal School Bus Fleet. There are several very large and dominant companies operating in public school districts nationwide, yet there are more than 3,000 individual school transportation firms in all — and even this large number excludes many very small operators.
School Bus Fleet also estimates that as many as 30 percent of all school buses are either owned or operated (or both) by private firms. This figure is derived from data collected each year by the journal from pupil transportation directors in each state government. Steve Hirano, associate publisher of School Bus Fleet, calls this figure a “best guess,” however, and adds that “no one really knows” the complete extent to which public schools contract out for student transportation nationwide.
Robin Leeds, a school transportation expert and consultant with more than 25 years of industry experience, sums up the problem:
“How large a fleet constitutes a ‘company’ or a ‘contractor?’ There are thousands of one-bus owners who contract with school districts to drive one route; are they included in the count? In Louisiana, for example, 35% of the fleet is privately-owned, but it is primarily these independent owner-operators. One school district, Lafayette Parish, has 150 contractors. So you see the problem. Even if you limit the universe to corporations, for example, or to owners of ten or more buses, there is no central repository of data beyond the 50 or 100 largest companies. It’s a guessing game.”
According to School Bus Fleet, the 50 largest bus contractors in North America operate more than 107,000 school buses. Forty-five of the 50 largest companies are based in the United States, and the majority of contractors are located on the East Coast, where school transportation contracting appears to be more intense. School Bus Fleet also concludes that Laidlaw Inc. of Naperville, Ill., which transports approximately 2 million students each school day, is the largest school transportation company in North America.[xxii] Laidlaw states that it has 1,000 separate contracts with school districts and parochial schools in the United States and Canada. In contrast, setting aside the one-bus operations described by Robin Leeds above, the small bus companies delivering students to public schools include such operations as Superior Coaches in the city of Hancock, which is located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Superior Coaches operates two school buses, with which it transports 25 students daily.
These figures suggest that a Michigan school district that wishes to solicit bus service bids from private firms will probably find willing bidders even if no local firm seems likely to make an offer.
[xxii] Laidlaw is currently being acquired by FirstGroup, meaning that First Student, a FirstGroup subsidiary, will soon be North America’s largest private school bus company.