The 30th anniversary of STN EXPO in Reno, Nevada last month was quite a whirlwind of
content, community and commerce. This year was a historic one, with the most attendees in the conference’s history and our largest trade show with 120 exhibiting companies participating. I received numerous comments that this was the best conference we had ever hosted. So, let me start from the beginning.
Every year, we host a leadership training experience called the Transportation Director Summit. I led the opening discussion at the Peppermill Resort. One of the main elements that drives the conversation is survey data we gather in advance from about 120 participants who are the leaders of their organizations. The attendees consist of transportation directors/supervisors, assistant transportation directors, fleet managers, operations directors, and executives. Everyone is connected from a leadership standpoint, either as a school district or private fleet contractor representative.
The survey points out the major challenges and procurement needs that each organization has. In terms of hierarchy of procurement needs, this year’s top results were, in order of importance, Type C or D buses, electric buses, student tracking/RFID/parent communication apps, onboard tablets/mobile data terminals, and alternative fueling infrastructure (Electric, Propane & CNG). I first asked the audience, who were seated at roundtables, on July 14, to discuss in 10 words or less the top two challenges they are facing. I brought to the stage Daniel Kang, the director of transportation at Los Angeles Unified School District in California. “Our top two biggest challenges at LAUSD are school bus driver shortages and the evolution/change in management at the district,” he shared.
The next question I asked was about top safety challenges. What came up consistently throughout the audience was driver safety. We have seen a rash of violence against school bus drivers from parents that has been alarming. No wonder our industry has severe staffing shortages and recruitment challenges. “Our top safety challenge at LAUSD is student management while on the bus. We need to install cameras on all our school buses,” added Kang.
The next question I asked was about the participants’ green school bus gameplans. What I found came up consistently was infrastructure and public utilities being a bottleneck. Most of the audience agreed that near-zero and zero emission school buses will need to be added into their fleets at a gradual pace, but some operators might have to move faster than others due to federal Greenhouse Gas 3 regulations and standards from the California Air Resources Board that are being adopted in at least a dozen other states.
We had a variety of green energy companies represented as sponsors, including school bus manufacturers, infrastructure providers, bi-directional charging software, propane advocacy, and CNG bridge fuel technology. All these companies shared their experiences as did the attendees about their preferences and reasoning on choosing the solutions they are utilizing today. “At LAUSD, we are focused on charging infrastructure. Just because there is power, chargers and school buses, doesn’t mean they all work together seamlessly. It is a new frontier, and we don’t know, what we don’t know,” said Kang.
Meanwhile, the survey asked, “Does your school district or company plan to apply for the EPA Clean School Bus Program (Round 2 Grant) funding?” About 49 percent said yes while 19 percent said no, and 32 percent said maybe. “LAUSD is applying for all available state and federal grants for our district,” added Kang.
The last question I posed was, “What is your optimization and fleet routing plan?” Kang shared that he wants to implement a muti-tiered routing system at LAUSD, but this has been a challenge because schools can pick their own bell times. Transportation has no say in the matter. The audience erupted with a gasp. LAUSD has a tall task of meeting all the individual needs of each campus in the nation’s second largest school district. The attendees I spoke with said they consider routing and optimization a top priority for their organizations. The use of multi-modalities was a consistent trend as the industry struggles with staffing shortages.
As a leader you are tasked with many responsibilities, but you are not alone. The STN EXPO creates a safe place to crowdsource actionable solutions. The goal is to achieve better outcomes for our students, communities and organizations. I invite you to come to a future conference we will host. Save the dates for next year for STN EXPO in Indianapolis on May 31- June 4, 2024, or STN EXPO in Reno on July 12-17, 2024. Let us keep driving our industry forward together!
Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the August 2023 issue of School Transportation News.
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