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July 27, 2010  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

Why Miles Matter

A veteran transportation director discusses the importance of reducing fuel use — and how to make it happen.

by John P. Fahey


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Remember these headlines?

• "Fuel prices drive school bus worries" (Seattle Times)

• "Fuel costs dent area school-bus budgeting" (Washington Post)

• "High fuel costs straining school budgets" (Herald Times, Bloomington, Ind.).

We should remember them, as it was not that long ago — July of 2008 — when we saw gasoline prices rise to over $4 per gallon.

It is human nature for us to yearn for the good old days and slip back into past behaviors as the crisis of two years ago seems to have passed. Unfortunately, the conditions that created that crisis are still in place, just waiting to reemerge. And it is not just the economic impact that is of concern here.

Our economy, our foreign policy and the environment are all affected in some small way by something as simple as our sending a bus back to pick up a missed child. But we are not powerless in this situation. We have the ability, and perhaps even the obligation, to do everything we can right now to lessen our dependence on this fossil fuel.

The American School Bus Council estimates that U.S. school buses use over 800 million gallons of diesel fuel each year, equating to 1,700 gallons per year for each bus. No matter how you look at it, our industry is a major player in the use of oil and therefore the future of our country’s well-being.

Our oil supply
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, we imported 37 percent of our oil in 1980. Today we import 57 percent, with predictions that this will rise to 66 percent by 2020.

Our growing dependence on imported oil will occur simultaneously with greatly increased competition from developing countries around the world. China’s need for oil is predicted to almost triple between 2000 and 2020. And oil supplies are primarily located in regions of the world that are not always the most amenable to U.S. interests.

There is a finite supply of oil that exists in the world — it is not a renewable resource. As worldwide demand grows, prices will inevitably increase as a simple function of supply and demand.

It does not matter what your politics are, or if you are an optimist or a pessimist about the future. There is a finite supply of oil in the world, it is generally not accessible in our country, there is an increasing number of countries that will need access to the same supplies we need, and we eventually will need to deal with this reality.

Perhaps the answer is just to continue the push towards energy conservation. Are you sufficiently confused yet on the new bus engine choices? How often do your thoughts voluntarily turn to alternative-fuel vehicles? Energy conservation will certainly play an important role in the years ahead, but it cannot by itself resolve the basic structural issue of our oil supply. We need to also recognize the reality that it is much easier to conserve energy than it is to produce or acquire it. Each gallon of fuel saved is one fewer gallon of fuel that needs to come to us from halfway around the world.

Things that cause miles
Each of our 480,000 U.S. school buses travels approximately 12,000 miles per year. These miles matter. Miles mean the use of fuel (approximately 7 miles per gallon for school buses). Miles mean driver payroll hours. Miles mean emissions. Miles mean wear and tear on the buses and on the roads. Miles mean time kids spend on the bus.

We decide through our actions whether these miles occur on an economical, planned basis or whether they occur on a random, uncontrolled basis.

Where do the 12,000 miles per year for each bus come from?

• The geography of a district plays a major role. Districts larger in size are probably going to travel more miles per bus than smaller districts. Bridges and highways can add miles to the travel plan. Of all the factors that create miles on the bus, basic geography is the one factor that is difficult for us to control.

• The student assignment plan determines where kids go to school and which kids are eligible for a bus ride. The more kids walk to neighborhood schools, the fewer miles the buses run. More school choice generally means more busing and therefore more miles.

• Bell schedules are a major determinant of bus schedules and, if not in transportation’s direct control, certainly within the overall district’s control. Arranging school times so that every bus can service at least two schools each morning and two schools each afternoon limits the miles the buses need to travel. They can perform more live work each day without adding the unproductive deadhead back and forth from the terminal.

• Early or partial dismissals also create miles. The teachers may think it is a great idea to send some of the kids home after a half day and have the buses returned for the regular dismissal, without giving the slightest thought to the extra miles created.

• Formal and informal policies can contribute to miles adding up. Do we send a bus back for a missed child? Is the driver allowed to take the bus home mid-day? Does the bus go out of its way to drop off the monitor after the run?

• Our routing plan is a huge determinant of the miles we use. How do we decide what work to assign to which bus? Do we direct the drivers on the most efficient route or do we expect or allow them to determine their own route?

• There are many hidden costs that also contribute fuel consumption: things like driving behaviors (hard starts and stops), air pressure in tires, clean air and fuel filters.

We can control most of the factors that add miles to our buses if we choose to do so.

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