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Focus on Rider Experience: The Way Forward

It’s no secret that the school bus industry has been transforming over the past few decades. With developments in automated routing, advance-notification, rider tracking, video solutions, student Wi-Fi, COVID-related health measures, and new electrification of fleets, school buses are asserting themselves as the valuable extension of the school and classroom we all know them to be.

As the school transportation industry charges ahead into a new future, one indelibly marked by the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be vital that school buses adapt to meet the changing dynamics of school bus ridership and the growing needs of students and families. One industry metric with which we should be obsessed with is elective ridership.

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, only 25 percent of students who live a short distance from school and only 50 percent of students who live a long distance from school choose to ride the school bus. Higher-income households more often use passenger vehicles, largely because of the increased availability. Increasing the share of students who choose to ride the bus—because the experience is better than other options—will drive the next wave of industry growth and community support.

Reimagining the Ridership Experience

In our increasingly connected world, opportunities to enhance the student ridership experience are bounded only by one’s imagination. From parent GPS bus tracker applications and video monitoring solutions to school bus Wi-Fi and climate control, a variety of technologies exist that can be harnessed to improve school transportation for students, families and transportation staff alike.

What are these rider-centric technologies, and what tangible benefits might they be able to provide your transportation department? Let’s explore a few.

School Bus Wi-Fi

Historically, each K-12 student spends an average of 40 minutes per day on the school bus—amounting to 20 instructional days per academic year. School bus Wi-Fi solutions enable students to reclaim that time for learning. Through empowering riders to connect with their peers, complete online assignments, and check in with their teachers—all while on the bus—transportation departments can positively impact the academic success of their riders, a trend that will have ripple effects throughout the entire school community. Likewise, keeping students focused and on-task leads to fewer disciplinary incidents, calmer commutes, and more satisfied drivers.

Related: (STN Podcast E81) Strategic Student Transportation: Responding to the Pandemic & Driver Shortages
Related: FCC Announces Round Two of Funding for School Bus Wi-Fi
Related: School Bus Wi-Fi Supports Students at New Mexico District

Our district partners often share the positive impacts that this technology has for their students and staff. For example, Beekmantown Central School District in New York reported it saw positive changes in student attendance, student discipline, and student achievement within a year of onboarding with a Wi-Fi solution.

Parent Applications

In an age when we can easily track the status of our pizza delivery, it is only natural that students and parents/guardians desire an enhanced level of visibility into the status of their assigned school bus.

There are a host of robust applications on the market today that enable these insights, and the number is ever-growing. Some simply provide updates on when school buses depart from the school, some offer GPS-enabled, real-time updates on bus location, and some even track individual students’ whereabouts while on the bus using wearable ID tags.

Transportation departments looking to onboard with a student ridership application will certainly need to address issues like student data privacy, stop changes, and parent-to-school communication protocols. The ease, reliability and peace of mind that this technology enables ensure that it will play a valuable role within school transportation systems for decades to come.

Comfort and Amenities

While it may not be at the top of transportation leaders’ priority lists, it is beneficial to look at the comfort and amenities offered to student riders with a creative eye.

Is there an opportunity to enhance seat comfort? Could climate control be made available to students? Would installing power ports in seats make an impact on students’ ability to get schoolwork done or keep their mobile device going so that they can communicate with their parents?

Rethinking from the student perspective and implementing changes to enhance the ridership experience will be hallmarks of future-oriented school bus fleets.

Audio/Visual Feature Enhancements

While security cameras have existed on fleets of school buses for decades, modern updates have made this tech more effective and easier to use. For example, automatic camera offload makes monitoring student behavior fast and simple, which in turn increases administrator visibility and makes the school bus a safer, more positive place.

In a similar vein, school buses have an opportunity to be a part of the education-wide shift toward personalized learning. Through outfitting the bus with interactive AV features, such as TV screens or touchscreen seat displays, students may engage with educational content during their ride. Districts may choose to give K-12 students access to a library of standardized content across the entire fleet of buses or incorporate student devices through interactive educational games and/or school, district or statewide competitions.

Related: STN’s 2021 School Bus Technology Super Users
Related: (STN Podcast E75) All Hands on Deck: Leverage Technology & Partnerships to Prep for New School Year
Related: Technology is Bringing Profound Changes to Student Transportation

A Bright Future

This list is by no means exhaustive, but I hope the industry considers that the possibilities for enhancing student school bus ridership are endless. Focusing on some or all these components can help school buses adapt to a changing world and grow to be the preferred means of transportation for all students.

Michael Flood is the senior vice president and general manager of education for wireless solutions provider Kajeet. 

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the September 2021 issue of School Transportation News. 

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