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Business of bus routing

GPS and automated route systems improve safety and effectiveness
At Columbus City Schools, Steve Simmons, director of pupil transportation, can see every move a school bus makes on its trip to picking up students at stops, and dropping them off.
At Columbus City Schools, Steve Simmons, director of pupil transportation, can see every move a school bus makes on its trip to picking up students at stops, and dropping them off.

Parents sometimes call Columbus City Schools in Ohio to complain the bus didn’t pick up their child that morning. That’s when Steve Simmons, the district’s director of pupil transportation, turns to his computer.

He pulls up records that tell him where the bus drove that morning, if it exceeded the speed limit, where it stopped, when its door opened, when the lights flashed and how long it idled. Most times, the data will show the bus stopped, set the parking brake, opened the door, sat for 37 seconds, closed the door and drove away. The system, among other functions, holds students who skip class accountable to their parents or guardians.

“The details go down to that level of accuracy,” says Simmons, also president-elect of the National Association of Pupil Transportation. “The system (Versa Trans) provides instantaneous answers that people demand now.”

GPS and automated route systems, among other advancements, make bus service more efficient and effective. Despite heightened demands on school transportation in recent years—such as safety and expanded bell times—district administrators and transportation managers can cut costs while creating safe and convenient routes.

Charter school demand

When districts face funding challenges, transportation is often one of the first places cut, Simmons says. Transportation leaders don’t want to cut buses, which is the safest way to transport students, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data says.

Compounding the financial pressures, buses also carry students to charter schools, extracurricular activities and athletic events. To meet all demands, administrators end up creating complex and often inefficient routes, Simmons says.

In Columbus, for example, public school buses serve charter schools such as the Arts and College Preparatory Academy and the Columbus Arts & Tech Academy. This means Simmons must coordinate ride times with privately owned schools that run on different schedules.

To do this, the district uses a two-tier bus system and staggered bell times to run high school and elementary school routes at the same time. However, in districts with single-tier systems—or routes with fewer children, longer drives or more distance between stops—students may wait longer, both at the stop and on the bus.

Transportation options

Routing software and GPS platforms, such as those created by VersaTrans, Edulog and Transfinder, have enabled detailed reports about routes and vehicle maintenance, says Ronna Weber, executive director of the National School Transportation Association.

Shorter routes and preventative maintenance decrease costs. “For contractors, safety is our absolute first concern,” she says. “The next most important element is efficiency.”

The National School Transportation Association offers districts a downloadable tool to compare costs of operating their own bus service versus outsourcing transportation to a contractor. The School Transportation Cost Analysis tool compares salaries, benefits, training, facilities, vehicles and administrative cost.

Bus contractors manage transportation for districts that may be pressed for time and money, Weber says.

Contractors operate one-third of the 480,000 buses that transport 26 million students each year. Contractors provide full service—with buses and drivers—but they also can run specific routes or handle administrative services, such as driver contracts and drug tests.

“That 10 or 15 minutes is an eternity for us in transportation,” Simmons says. “Staggered bell times are not as big of a change for teachers or administrations, yet a two-tier system makes parents happier and reduces the time that students on board must wait.”

In addition, differences in the number of instructional days can create friction due to additional financial pressures. Columbus schools ended the academic year in May, but many of the 70 charters in Columbus held class through mid-June, which meant having to spend more money on drivers and gas.

Columbus is also a school choice city, so students can travel farther to attend a school outside of their designated neighborhood zone. “It’s a great big puzzle with a lot of pieces,” Simmons says. “A routing system helps us to keep everything timed correctly.”

Technology solutions

A solution to the routing conundrum lies in GPS technology. Administrators and transportation managers can create a route to measure actual performance on the road, including logistical issues, such as real-time tracking of locations, and safety concerns, like whether the driver is following the speed limit.

In Lee’s Summit School District in Missouri, GPS data from the spring showed the most heavily used routes. This fall, the district started an active/inactive rider system that frequently checks a roster to determine which students actively ride the bus.

If a student doesn’t ride for 10 days, they are marked as “inactive” and removed from the roster so routes, stops and ride times can be consolidated. If students want to ride occasionally, they can give the school 24-hour notice to make changes or pick up a one-day ride pass from the front office.

The new system from Transfinder will prevent barely used buses from going out and also make routes more efficient, says Keith Henry, the district’s director of transportation and outgoing president of the National Association of Pupil Transportation.

In addition, the routing tools link with the student information management systems and update contact information and enrollment numbers each night. This helps administrators to quickly add or remove students from bus routes.

The main tools, created by VersaTrans, Edulog and Transfinder, also create maintenance reports, so drivers check the engine, battery, oil, tires and brakes each day before morning routes. Lee’s district, for example, requires drivers to inspect their buses before being cleared to go on the road. Drivers can type problems into the system, which alerts the maintenance staff instantly.

In Missouri, automated daily reports help on cold winter mornings when a battery or alternator malfunction could cause safety issues and delays, Henry says.

Effective policy

When districts create bus routes, efficiency and efficacy are only two aspects. District, state and national policies also determine how many students can ride on a route, how long a route can be and how far apart stops are placed. Lawmakers may also dictate whether extracurricular activities must be served by transportation, how bell times are spaced and where buses can drive.

In Louisiana, state law forbids students from crossing the street to board a bus, which forced Ouachita Parish Schools’ buses to do a “double-run” on each side of the street to pick up students. It created longer rides and cost the district nearly $1 million in additional fuel, says Skeeter Boyd, Ouachita’s director of transportation.

When laws complicate logistics, districts sometimes call consultants to find alternatives. Tim Ammon, who assesses route efficiency for Maryland-based School Bus Consultants, urges district to determine if policies can be changed at the local level to coordinate bell times or to reduce the number of bus stops.

Districts must also consider some of the new realities of transportation, Ammon says. With increasing rates of childhood obesity, for instance, fewer students can fit into the same number of bus seats, reducing capacity by one-third in some districts, Ammon says. Students with large band instruments, clunky athletic gear and oversized backpacks also take up more space, which creates a need for additional buses.

When lawmakers, including school board members at the local level, suggest new regulations, they sometimes don’t consider the impact on students, he adds. If buses must stop every 500 feet, rather than every 2,000 feet, will students tolerate the long rides? “The dissonance between policy and reality sometimes creates tension with leaders, parents and students,” Ammon says.

Purpose of transportation

Overall, administrators and transportation managers must decide how to balance requirements with demand. Current trends in education—such as charter schools, expanded extracurricular activities and customized curriculum, such as countywide arts programs and career academies—may all need transportation.

In one district Ammon advises, five students rode the bus for an hour to attend a new music program on the other side of the county. “We’ve forgotten that bus systems are mass transportation, which requires mass,” Ammon says. “When we create custom programs that require students to go across the county, we put pressure on the transportation system.”

Ammon recently analyzed a medium-size district’s plan to create later bell times for high school students without having to add more buses. The district had to create two different bell times for elementary schools. However, teachers were concerned about the timing of extracurricular activities on PD days. This goes to show that, many times, issues outside of transportation dictate how bus schedules are developed, Ammon says.

“At the end of the day, there are a huge number of other influencers when designing a routing scheme,” Ammon says. “Keep that complexity in mind when you have concerns about efficiency.”

Carolyn Crist is a freelance writer based in Athens, Georgia.

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