The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round

The big yellow school bus that pulls up at the corner may complete the consummate picture of motherhood, apple pie and sending the kids off to a fine education. But the part of the picture that many don’t see is how much it costs to keep that big, yellow, gas-guzzling vehicle operating safely, on time and operating well. Paying to operate a fleet of school buses just may be the silent problem that keeps many a school board member awake at night.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, school buses are the safest mode of transportation to and from school in the United States. Each year, approximately 450,000 public school buses travel approximately 4.3 billion miles.

Keeping them rolling, however, requires fuel — and that’s been expensive in recent years. School boards and school systems’ management are constantly seeking ways to economize their school bus fleet through better management and optimizing routes and controlling their flow.

Inefficient routing and rising fuel costs have become a cost burden on operating budgets, and have lead district transportation managers to turn to technology to build efficiency where and when possible.

Global Positioning Systems (GPS) are one such technology. GPS systems offer not only positioning information in real or delayed time, but it also gives vehicle position history, travel route, with speed and time, student identification, emergency alert and automated accident notification.

The Kansas Public Schools became one of the first school districts in the country to implement GPS solutions in its school buses several years ago. The district has some 43 schools — 30 elementary schools, eight middle schools and five high schools, and approximately 19,750 students.

Kansas Public Schools outfitted GPS-enabled handsets onto the district’s 157 buses, allowing instant voice communication between drivers and the district’s transportation office. The solution provided the dispatcher with the ability to give school bus drivers their mapped route with driving directions and time expectations, and allowed drivers the capability to contact 911 in an emergency.

The school district was focused on safety as a top priority, like most school districts. Integrating GPS was a way to deploy technology to allow administrators and dispatchers to know and locate the status of every school bus transporting children, in real time.

School transportation planners who use technology-assisted route development and route-planning software must be careful to not trade off efficiency for safety. Route-planning technology can be limited in its role in selection of school bus stops. Care must be taken not to place a higher priority on efficiency than safety. For example, locating a school bus stop on a secondary street may remove the bus from an arterial that offers a more direct route.

GPS handsets helped planners maintain and operate an efficient bus transportation department, allowing them to monitor and make the most efficient use of bus scheduling demands. The GPS system wirelessly transmits real-time location information to the dispatch center to a server where data is monitored by the district’s transportation department allowing transportation officials to monitor the location of the buses. The information is monitored along the route as they pick up and drop off students. This is an added feature that allows school authorities to provide vigilance and ultimately more safety for the pupils’ whereabouts.

The location of each bus can be displayed on a map so administrators can see and know where buses are at any given time; in addition, the same may be displayed on a smartphone. Knowing this and other information about where and when a bus travels allows analysis to be performed to determine and efficient route and time to travel that prevents idling and distance.

When the Budget Drives the Bus

What happens when your board of education says cut your budget and there’s no easy place to cut without it affecting the underlying program? Well it happened in Lansing, N.Y.

Recently, the board of education in Lansing posed an unexpected challenge to their Transportation department — cut the budget by $90,000. Lansing school buses move some 1,222 students over 300,000 miles every year and transport students to private schools, vocational programs, athletic events and support many school events.

The board of transportation had a new challenge. They sought the assistance of technology that could possibly help them by rescheduling bus routes and travel times. They purchased software from Transfinder — a provider of transportation management software to many school districts. It allowed Lansing to reroute their school buses and ultimately travel carefully computed distances that were most efficient and consumed the least fuel. Applied against an entire fleet of school buses, the savings in fuel consumption adds up. They did in fact accommodate their $90,000 challenge, by knowing where their buses were, where they had to be and pinpointing the shortest distance to make it happen. Consequently, the shorter distances translated to shorter travel times and ultimately lower incremental fuel consumption.

Making decisions about where school bus stops will be placed requires balancing conditions that would be ideal with the realities of a community’s road system, weather and topography. In this discussion, ideal characteristics are described, but these characteristics will rarely all be met for every school bus stop. Transportation directors must seek to do everything possible for student safety with less than perfect conditions.

The Lansing transportation board use their new software to plan and optimize routes, and utilized GPS technology to account for real-time positions of the school buses. The software allowed them to see granular information such as who was on the bus and what roadwork could impact schedules.

By eliminating inefficient bus runs, reducing mileage and the subsequent effects of all of these factors on other operating expenses, they easily made their $90,000 reduction target — in fact it was more 
like $100,000.

Reducing Operating Costs in More Ways Than One

Lansing isn’t the only community employing location technology for bus route optimization. Many other communities are doing it as well.

Several years ago, the Nash Rocky Mount Public Schools in Rocky Mount, N.C., used routing software for their buses but didn’t have as firm a grip on the whereabouts of their buses as they would have liked. They turned to a product from Everyday Solutions, Inc., a provider of GPS-driven transportation information for K-12 marketplace.

They were able to use the data from the AVL software to save money in fuel and maintenance costs by ensuring that the bus is making the correct number of stops and driving the planned routes — the shortest ones and not some other route of their own making.

The same company also took on the Charlotte County Public Schools (CCPS), in Port Charlotte, Fla., after the transportation director of the district felt they didn’t have a real good sense of their day-to-day transportation operations once the buses left the compound. In the first year of using the software, CCPS was able to employ optimized routes, pickups and best practices in their operations to realize recognizable savings.

There was a 15- to 20-minute difference between actual driving times versus reported driving time — which CCPS says saved them $50,000 in one year. Add to this another $4,000 in fuel costs by reducing unnecessary idling of the engines and, ultimately, they really reduced their overall costs.

GPS technology and route-planning software may not work for every school system, district or education board; however, in today’s lean and mean budgetary times, technology of this type might easily pay for itself in a short period given the rising cost of fuel and school buses. Talk to a school board representative, and it will sound like a broken record — demand is the same for education, but the budget is strangled. In times like these, a dollar put down today in the name of efficiency can mean more than a dollar returned in fuel savings in a few years or less.  

Jim Romeo is a freelance writer based in Chesapeake, Va.