Joining transportation directors in feeling firsthand the pressures COVID-19 has wrought upon school district operations are routing software companies that have had to act as technological contortionists, to keep up with the oftentimes convoluted scheduling needs of their clients.
These needs range from perennial driver shortages and absenteeism brought to a head during the current pandemic, on-board spatial limitations related to social distancing, road construction, changing bell times, and tiering bus runs.
In response to these challenges, especially the driver shortage that is resulting in student bus riders nationwide being an hour or more late to class, route optimization has emerged as the creative tonic that can ease the pain of school districts and help them run efficient student transportation operations in the face of mounting obstacles.
The key to considering major changes such as bell times and tiering bus runs is having some idea of the likely outcome if those changes are made or having the routing software with the capability to simulate outcomes that answer the “what-if” scenario.
“First and foremost, routing software helps you manage the day-to-day operation of your school bus routes,” said Derek Graham, a consultant to Edulog. “And because you have all that data, if you have optimization software in your routing program you can use that [data] to do those what-if simulations which is one of the more valuable pieces of a software system. When you do a simulation, it helps you see the what if.”
Graham, who contributed to the implementation of the Transportation Information Management System when he was the state director of transportation at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, said changing bell times must be based upon solid projections.
“The last thing you want to do is change bell times and disrupt the community and then find that you didn’t save anything on the transportation budget,” Graham advised. “You want to simulate that with software before putting a plan into action. You want to know the answer before you start. You use the database and the optimization module with the routing software to simulate different scenarios.”
Graham added that manipulating bell times could mean running some buses up to four times a day along the same routes to achieve the same results with fewer buses and drivers. He said that while that might entail comingling elementary students with middle schoolers or high school students with middle schoolers on the same bus, it could help solve the driver shortage.
“If you don’t have enough drivers or you don’t have enough buses, one of the ways to solve that problem is by changing bell times,” Graham explained. “Opening some schools earlier and some schools later so the same bus can do trips to different schools, you serve more schools and more kids with the same number of buses. Figuring out how to do that is a tricky thing and that’s where some of these optimization routines can really help you figure that out.”
Antonio Civitella, president and CEO of Transfinder, is a champion of multi-tiered operations. “The nice thing about that if you can pull it off, why not?” Civitella asked. “Tiering has a lot of benefits for the drivers because they are guaranteed more hours. You want a job that pays you six, maybe eight hours a day. If you could go to multi-tiering and the teachers were okay with that, do it. A number of our clients are wondering if they can do it now.”
Civitella added that some of his clients are analyzing tiering via “what-if” scenarios that the company’s products provide. “This is where tiering makes sense because when we talk about staggering the opening and dismissal of schools, that’s a big deal,” he said. “They have to be staggered enough to have time to pick up other kids, these are the what-if scenarios.”
Civitella said Transfinder’s artificial intelligence optimization, or AIO, analyzes all the institutional information the school district has to offer and determines the safest, most efficient routes, even when road construction is involved.
“If a street is closed, AIO will calculate that to make sure a bus that is detoured still approaches that bus stop with the door on the right side,” Civitella said. “We can’t let the system do everything from scratch. The minimal requirement is what are safe locations and how do you want to approach these locations. Once you designate a street as too dangerous for kids to cross, it will never happen.”
Meanwhile, Ned Einstein, president and founder of consultant Transportation Alternatives, said that while he thinks too much planning is left up to computer software, he does agree with using technology to run simulations or queries. “Here’s where computers are really great, here’s what they can do,” Einstein began. “Before, If I had 25 things I’d like to try, it would take years to do that manually. Now, if I wanted to try to move things around, you could have your computers run queries on them. “What-if scenarios … That’s the beauty of what computers can add to the situation.”
Einstein continued by noting that school districts could turn the driver shortage into a positive if they made decisions differently.
“If schools changed [bell] times, they could decrease the number of buses they need, and that would decrease the number of drivers you need,” Einstein said. “The big gains are not going to be made by tweaking stops or tweaking routes. I’m talking about making big gains. We’ve had a driver shortage for 40 years. I’m not anti-software. I just want it to be used differently. I want it to supplement major changes made by Earthlings. Improving routes is not where the gains are.”
Greg Marvel, the president and CEO of TransTraks, agreed to an extent adding that the software should work with routers, not replace them.
“The key thing with software is it must be nimble and able to change parameters quickly and make changes in real-time,” Marvel explained. “We do special needs and [general] education. Special needs routes are more difficult because they are always changing. [Transporters] must have software that can handle the variables that are thrown at you.”
Marvel said he uses mapping software with the flexibility to select different routes at different times of the day to avoid traffic jams. “It has to be nimble to take full advantage of the router’s knowledge,” he added. “The computer is a great tool, but it cannot take the place of a human brain. We marry the human element with the software to suit the needs of that particular district at a particular time of day.”
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Graham added that perhaps the most important element about running scenarios with changes in bus runs and bell times is to gauge the impact on families and on schools. In other words, what are the savings compared with the expenses?
“You need to know what will happen ahead of time, you need to know if you’re going to save money or you’re not going to save money and are you going to get the kids to school on time or not?” Graham said. “My best advice to school districts is to get software that allows you to run the what-if scenarios. Having the data is one thing, but also having the ability to use that data to become more efficient is better.”
He continued, “Even in the wake of a pandemic, that’s the best way to go. You need to have the tools that will allow you to make informed decisions as you’re weighing the trade-off of the cost of transportation versus the impact on the community.”