The safety of students and drivers underscores every step a school bus transportation department makes. What happens outside the bus is just as important as what happens inside—often more so, as the majority of fatalities and injuries happen outside the bus.
How does Route Operations Planning factor into the equation? And could better, more efficient route operations lead to increased student and driver safety?
How would a transportation department go about determining such decisions?
Further still, if a school bus transportation department was using more traditional planning tools and methods, could they really make the safest, most informed decisions?
And for those who are using more sophisticated methods, such as Route Planning and Management software, does the usability of these solutions, level of expertise, manpower, and training required to get up-to-speed, really make the goal of better information, safer drivers and students realistically achievable?
In our role helping school bus transportation departments increase student and driver safety, better manage their fleets, minimize liability concerns and get more done with less, we’ve had the opportunity to talk to departments of varying sizes to hear their challenges firsthand.
Here’s what we found:
First, we’ll state the obvious. Transportation departments are not all alike. Tier 1 or enterprise-sized clients will always have complex needs that will require complex solutions that will inherently come with complex implementation and onboarding requirements.
The industry challenges we address within this document are those that are identified by small to mid-sized transportation departments that may not necessarily have such complex challenges. Instead, they find themselves working through the growing pains of using complex solutions to solve their very common obstacles.
These transportation departments spoke of previous frustrations in which implementation teams had been tied-up for months planning and staging routing programs, with the goal of minimizing impacts to internal and external stakeholders.
These implementations would typically go hand-in-hand with the need for in-depth technical expertise and training, and would often end with lack-luster results. Many departments also expressed frustration with staff attrition. Extensive training would need to be repeated every time routing personnel moved on from their positions.
Outcomes weren’t always disappointing, but in cases where the results were actionable, they were almost always prefaced with hours of administration time, making regular use of such tools unsustainable.
And then there were those who ultimately found themselves using a small fraction of their solutions’ features—not ever realizing any real return-on-investment. The net result was a pretty expensive investment, considering how little these tools were being used.
Feedback from these transportation teams identified a clear gap between what these teams needed to achieve, and the functionality of the tools that were at their disposal.
A New Approach to Route Operations
There’s good reason why the majority of routing solutions in the market today take time to roll out, have a steeper learning curve, and require multiple steps to get actionable data.
All these solutions require significant data input. Where do buses stop? Where do people get on and off each bus? Where should each bus stop be? What is the exact physical address of each stop? What about turnarounds? How should they be managed? What are the speed limits of each roadway? All this data needs to be coded into the system before a user can even begin to train on the system, let alone use it.
Further, these systems make use of complex algorithms that also rely on the input of precise data to estimate bus arrival and departure times.
Additionally, factor in that transportation department needs are changing. Student safety and security threats like the tragedies that have occurred in Newtown, Connecticut (Sandy Hook), Parkland, Florida (Marjory Stoneman Douglas) and most recently Santa Fe, Texas (Santa Fe) highlight gaps in student safety programs in general. School bus accidents like the one that occurred in New Jersey recently highlight that more can still be done. Incidents like these drive new safety initiatives for transportation departments, initiatives that can really only be achieved through the use of technology.
But if the solutions currently available pose so many challenges to school bus transportation teams, how are they to increase safety and security without significantly impacting their operations?
A revolutionary thought. Would mapping a transportation department’s current routes and using them as baselines to build on, produce a route operations solution to increase student safety and make routing jobs easier? Could this solution be easy to implement, easy to use and easy to get accurate results from? It turns out that yes, it does.
This simple change in perspective resulted in the development of a solution that delivered on what transportation teams required without the need for large project teams, in-depth technical knowledge and extensive training. Keeping small- to mid-sized transportation teams in mind, such a solution would complement the tools a mid-sized transportation department might already be using to address their route planning needs. In this case, a mid-sized department would make use of their route planning tools to conduct route optimization on an as needs basis, while using their route operations tool to conduct day-to-day route activities.
Alternatively, smaller-sized departments would use the route operations tool to enable their migration away from manual, labor-intensive plotting, printing and reporting.
Both mid-sized and small teams would now be able to capture and publish accurate school bus route maps, stop-times and student stop assignments from data collected by GPS and student tracking hardware, and they could do so achieving almost immediate results within days of implementation.
Take one customer example, where a week after implementation the transportation team noted a route segment that contained no stops, and in fact took the driver around a small, circuitous way that served no purpose at all. Further digging uncovered the segment used to include a stop for a student who had long since graduated. Nobody had ever thought to amend the route. This transportation department realized both a time and money savings after removing the segment from their daily routes, equaling roughly $15,000 a year.
Innovation is never the product of one challenge or obstacle, but instead a process of discovery, development and transformation. And this is just one example of the value that innovation and technology brings to the table to help solve today’s routing challenges. Each transportation department will, in turn take the tools that such innovation creates and use them in their own innovative ways to solve each of their distinct and unique challenges. Technology plays an important role here. And as integral a role that technology and innovative thinking plays today, it will play a foundational role in our future success.
The Role Technology Will Play in Our Future
Human nature and our quest to continually drive productivity improvements, regardless of budget and resource constraints, also propel us forward to try and test new ideas, solutions and technology to achieve more with less.
Game-changing technology and process advances like the Internet of Things (IoT—the network of physical devices, vehicles, home appliances and other items embedded with electronics, software, sensors, actuators, and connectivity which enables these objects to connect and exchange data) will drive (and are already starting to drive) significant changes in how we do things, whether they are simple or complex. The things we use in our day-to-day business worlds and home lives are becoming integrated with the ultimate goal being open communication—all these “things” will talk to one another. This change that we are seeing occur before our eyes will also force adjustments on our industry.
Technology will be the only way we will keep current with the growing needs of students, schools, and parents. Technology will be the only way those within the school system who have the responsibility of providing safety and process improvement, will meet their objectives.
Keep this in mind, because overall, the industry will need to select technology solutions to help them achieve their transportation goals, and safety initiatives that will help guide them through the process of change, adaptation and success.