School bus routing efficiencies need not sacrifice student safety

08/09/2011
School Transportation
Antonio Civitella

The yellow school bus remains the safest vehicle for transporting students to and from school every day. Data from all parts of the country validate this, and states routinely reimburse school districts for school bus service to ensure student safety. However, can districts continue yellow bus service as budget shortfalls at the state level begin to impact reimbursement? The answer is yes, because transportation efficiencies that lead to cost savings are possible without sacrificing student safety or services. image

To gain efficiencies, more and more districts rely on or are turning to computerized routing systems. According to Dan Roberts, executive director of long range planning and business systems at Round Rock ISD in Austin, “Efficiency in routing, scheduling, and possibly redistricting can be the biggest factor in reducing transportation expenditures.” He asserts that “when trained staff, using a computerized routing package, evaluates all service using a combination of service and efficiency criteria, many changes in routes can be handled with existing buses.” This, in turn, can trim costs.

Local knowledge – key to efficiency planning

A computerized routing system enables staff to create “what if?” scenarios whereby they can actually view on a map the impact of each scenario before implementing any of them. For example, they can view the current route a bus normally travels and then have the system generate the shortest and fastest alternative. With their knowledge of the local landscape combined with what the system generates, they can then determine which scenario makes the most sense, or whether a combination of both would be best. Their knowledge of the district’s landscape is key to making the best decision.

Bus stops can be safe and efficient

Bus stops are the basic building blocks of a district’s pupil transportation system, and stop staging areas are critical to student safety. Best practices call for bus stops to be located in areas with good visibility, where drivers can see every student prior to entering the loading zone. The bus also should approach the stop to enable curb-side pick up and drop off of students so they do not have to cross a street. With a routing system, transportation planners can generate approach paths that do just that.

In an effort to create more efficient stops, planners can assess each stop’s coverage area and determine if two stops might be combined into one - or three into two - without sacrificing safety. Incremental changes like these can reduce time and fuel usage, and may even increase bus loading, eventually reducing the number of buses on the road.

GPS – An efficiency tool for comparing actual versus planned routes

Another efficiency measure is the use of GPS (Global Positioning Systems). Routes can be created to enhance efficiency and effectiveness, but the actual operation of the vehicle really determines the outcome. By integrating GPS with routing software, transportation departments can analyze how routes are driven each day versus what was planned, and in some instances, the active route may prove better in the long run. For example, stops originally planned may no longer have students to pick up or drop off, so a driver may have eliminated the need to travel down a certain road or street. Once verified, the planned routes can be adjusted to reflect real-world situations, which can then save money.

Review of district transportation policies – critical to efficiency planning

Establishing policies for transportation, publicizing them throughout the district, and adhering to them can result in considerable savings for school districts. For example, every district should have a written walk-to-stop policy for every grade level. Walk distances provide parents with information on how far their children should be expected to walk to a bus stop. Walk distances also provide transportation planners a basis to enhance route efficiency.

By establishing and publicizing walk zones around each school in the district — areas where students are expected to walk safely to schoo — planners can more easily determine eligibility for transportation. But it is essential that districts adhere to eligibility criteria if they are to conserve assets (buses) and maintain or reduce the cost of their day-to-day operations.

The opposite can occur when districts opt to transport most of their students regardless of eligibility. Even in the most efficient operation, 50 more students will require an additional bus to be purchased and maintained. In large school districts, this can add several buses to an existing fleet for a service that is not state mandated. Computerized routing systems enable transportation planners to view and evaluate student locations and easily determine who is and who is not eligible for transportation. This determination can then be shared with district personnel and the community.

In today’s economic climate, we see many districts around the country making the decision to close or consolidate schools. It is imperative for district administrators and board members to take into consideration not only the savings that may result, but also the impact on the district’s transportation budget. In some instances, closing or consolidating schools may result in increased transportation costs as students, who were once within a school’s walk zone, may now require transportation to another school. Through a careful redistricting analysis, various scenarios can be analyzed within a routing system, enabling districts to make a final decision on which school closing makes the most sense.

Optimum bus capacity – a primary consideration

The cost of purchasing new school buses is a substantial expense for school districts. Therefore, it is incumbent on transportation planners to use each school bus in their fleet to its greatest capacity. The number of routes, trips, and drivers is directly related to loading efficiency based on bus capacity. Collecting data about actual riders is the key to increasing efficiency.

To accomplish this, districts should take attendance on its existing bus routes and track attendance at least once a week to uncover trends in the number of actual versus eligible riders. After determining actual ridership, planners can then increase each bus load and maximize its capacity within the routing system.

For elementary students, bus capacity is generally 66 students and for middle and high school students it is about 44. If several bus trips indicate that only 40-50 elementary students are actually riding to school, then planners can add more students on these trips. In the case of high school students, it often happens that they are driving their cars to school. Once again, planners can adjust bus load capacity accordingly. This eventually saves on the number of buses and trips each day, leading to a more efficient operation and cost savings. If attendance tracking is performed periodically, planners can see patterns and fluctuations, and adjust accordingly.

By creating transportation efficiencies that are incremental and have little or no impact on the community, districts can achieve cost savings while maintaining service and safety. In so doing, school districts committed to efficiency planning in transportation will reap the additional benefit of preserving programs and teachers currently threatened by today’s economic challenges.

Antonio Civitella is president & CEO of Transfinder Corporation, a national leader in school transportation software solutions and services, serving more than 1,300 school districts in the United States and Canada. For a free white paper, entitled “Transportation Efficiency and Effectiveness,” visit www.transfinder.com and request a copy.
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