Improving Route Optimization & Utilization

Students Boarding a School bus
Students board a Black River Local Schools bus in Sullivan, Ohio, where optimization has reduced routes.

School bus transportation directors face continual challenges that are presented by changes in student populations and demographics in their district. As students graduate at each level and move to other schools or colleges, and new families arrive while others move away, some or all of the school bus routes need to be adjusted.

In some cases, this means adding new students and bus stops to existing routes or combining routes to improve utilization. If the demand for seats exceeds capacity, managers need to consider the purchase of additional buses and/or vans.

This, of course, requires collaboration with senior district planners and financial officers. Transportation managers are taking a longer-term approach to resource use and route optimization, looking ahead five to 10 years to anticipate major changes in the student population.

Transportation managers around the country responded to several basic questions: What is the size of your fleet? How do you improve fleet utilization? What is the role of routers in this process? How do you measure improvements in utilization? How does route optimization affect your needs for school buses and other vehicles?

Michael Shields, director of transportation services at Salem Keizer Public Schools in Salem, Oregon, pointed to a nuts-and-bolts approach that focuses on the critical components of each bus route.

“The biggest key to routing success after identifying a routing philosophy and delivery model, is going to be your routers themselves,” commented Shields. “Critical thinking skills, clear expectations, and multi-dimensional thought processes are key to a router’s success.”

He said each route at Salem Keizer is examined, based on the metrics of on-time delivery, length of layover, passenger capacity, run directions, and planned street construction or changes. The district uses VersaTrans routing software, but Shields said the decision about software depends on the size of the transportation operation and the scope of expectation for delivery.

Salem, Oregon has experienced a 400-percent growth in the number of McKinney-Vento and foster care students. Shields said his district, which serves 25 cities, has over 400 homeless students transported in three vans, and two “suburban” vehicles, plus school buses, so six new vans have been ordered. Salem also shares the transportation of 100 students from neighboring districts.

Nicole Portee, executive director of transportation for Denver Public Schools and STN’s 2018 Transportation Director of the Year, has gained significant improvements in bus routing and cost savings with the guiding principle of, “Do more with less.” Rather than focusing on buying more buses and vans, Nicole advocates the concept of continual routes and “creative optimization.”

She seeks to increase driver utilization by expanding the traditional morning-and-afternoon model into “continual” and “nonhome to school” routes. This allows drivers to accept mid-day field trips, plus guaranteed eight-hour workdays, for those who are interested.

It also means higher hourly pay rates, paid holidays and vacations. Drivers can accept “the take” (bringing the bus to an event) and/or “the return” (bringing the bus back). They do enjoy that flexibility in their schedules.

Portee said the first step she takes toward optimization is “to formulate my overall transportation goals. What do I want to achieve? How can I realize it?”

Then she reviews current resource allocation to ask if it is effective? Can wasted time, money or hardware be eliminated? “Definitely,” she said, and her numbers prove it.

She provided the following questions that she said transportation departments should ask when it comes to optimization. “What are the district’s policies? Which students can ride which types of buses and when? What are our utilization percentages for this year and last year? Do parents and students have freedom in choosing routes? What are the cost drivers? Is our existing plan the best? If not, what changes can we make in district policies?”

By granting more choices and freedom to parents, students and bus drivers throughout Denver, Portee said she has found that the numbers look better every year. Focusing on the needs of her clients, or the students, parents and her school administrators, improve utilization.

Denver Public Schools has 399 school buses that serve almost all of its 200 schools. When Portee analyzed the transportation of special-education students, she asked: “What is the number of eligible students? How many of them are actively using our services? Do these numbers justify our current allocations? Do we need to increase our hardware, or modify our policies?”

She said she found that many vehicles were underused. Special-education students were arriving at school by other means or relocating. She began a public campaign to heighten public awareness of school bus capabilities in many parts of the city. In each area, her adjustments made significant gains in savings and optimization.

Attrition was another factor. Students graduate and leave school every year, and families leave Denver, which creates space for new students and families. “Are we accommodating the natural changes in demographics? I created a new document,” she said. “I call it transportation by numbers. We analyze the statistics from year to year, we look for hard facts and changing trends. Putting it all together, we arrive at a better plan and it seems to work.”

Tom Burr, director of transportation at St. Paul Public Schools in St. Paul, Minnesota, has 270 yellow school bus routes contracted with four vendors, which includes 40 routes that serve students with disabilities. Plus, over 50 van routes are dedicated to McKinney-Vento students. Routes for the 2018-2019 school year were mirrored, using the same buses in the mornings and afternoons for elementary and middle schools, but different buses roll out in the morning and afternoon for high schools.

This coming school year, school start and end times will be changed “to align with sleep science.” So, middle schools and high schools will start at 8:30 a.m., and approximately 30 elementary schools will start at 7:30 a.m.

This alters the “bus tiering system” for the first time in six years, rearranging grades and grade mixtures. Burr’s preferred software is VersaTrans, which analyzes time changes, new and removed students and other variables, then makes necessary adjustments. Over five years, the school district has reduced 40 bus routes, thanks to optimization, which freed up resources for future needs.

Bruce Berry is the director of transportation and the sole router for Black River Local Schools in Sullivan, Ohio, a rural district. Each summer, he compares and adjusts the existing routes in three components: (1) Length of the ride for students—some are almost an hour, which he said is too long. (2) Total route time and miles driven, with reductions as the goal. (3) Bus capacity—Berry routes at 75-percent passenger capacity, which allows for two students per seat.

Ohio state law does not require transportation for students in grades nine through 12. In rural Sullivan, Ohio, 60- to 70-percent of high school students use school buses as their primary means of transportation to school. Black River has 12 double-tiered route buses, running a combined middle school and high school route and returning for an elementary school route.

Berry said he was able to eliminate one route as a result of optimization three years ago, and he expects to drop one or two more this coming school year. This coincides with increased numbers of McKinney-Vento students riding vans vs. buses.

Black River Schools also offers one-day student field trips to museums, historical sites and performing arts events. To satisfy a union contract, regular route drivers can accept field trips on a seniority basis, without obligation. Substitutes are used when needed.

Berry, as a former school bus driver for 25 years, performs all of the transportation support jobs himself, including routing, but no longer drives routes. He uses Transfinder Tripfinder software for field trip routing.

Of course, school bus routes are vulnerable to last-minute changes. Unpredictable weather can wash out a high school sports game, while heavy traffic and crashes cause last-minute cancellations and rescheduling of field trips. Then a teacher might request a bus for the same afternoon. Transportation staff will try their best, but there’s a five-day cutoff for advance registrations.

One major takeaway from this review of school bus route optimization and utilization, is that transportation managers nationwide are accepting the value of proactive, forward-looking planning and reallocation of resources. That is compared to the traditional methodology, which reasons that, for example, 100 new students during the coming school year will require three new school buses and two new vans for special-education and homeless students.

In the new model of school bus transportation planning, the questions are: “What is the best long-term plan for our district? What is our vision? What are the cost drivers, how are they changing, and what is our goal for the next five years?”

Editor’s Note: Reprinted from the July Issue of School Transportation News.