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February 28, 2014  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

How to cut costs by mastering time and space, part 1

Manipulating time and space to optimize system design sets a foundation for efficiency in special-education transportation. Here is an introduction to the concept — and three examples in which its application could have saved countless dollars.

by Ned Eistein


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Photo by Katrina Falk

Photo by Katrina Falk

I was not born knowing about cost-cutting.

By luck, at a time when I was not even qualified for it, I was handed the task of directing the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT)’s first nationwide examination of special transportation services for elderly and disabled individuals — more than a decade before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was promulgated. In 1980, the DOT published the three-volume manual I authored about my findings.

In the course of this examination, I discovered the six principles that govern efficiency. A bold statement, yes. But merely review the essay on the home page of my website (www.transalt.com) titled “Principles of Paratransit System Design,” and you’ll see why.

One thing you’ll learn from a quick skim of that essay is that systems in low density areas whose designers actually knew what they were doing achieved efficiencies nearly 10 times those of system designers in high-density areas who had no clue. How can this possibly be?

Read on and begin learning how you can apply these principles to the design of your special-education transportation systems. You may be able to achieve substantial two-digit percentages in cost savings in the process.

Regularly reoccurring trips
Even today, these principles seem radical to most paratransit directors. But they should not seem radical to school transportation directors providing special-education transportation, whose curb-to-curb system efficiencies are several times greater than those of their paratransit counterparts.

This key principle is the provision of regularly reoccurring trips: service to the same passengers, to and from the same places, at the same times, day after day.

In the paratransit world, such trips are referred to as “subscription” trips or “standing orders,” and the ADA actually limits the trips of this type that may be provided to 50% of the total. In special-education service, they represent practically every trip.

Optimizing this single principle by building one’s schedules around a core of subscription trips is mere common sense. Yet so are the other five principles included in this essay, most of which have not been optimized by those providing either paratransit or special-education transportation.

The essence of doing so is nothing more than the management of time and space — the exact same principles that apply to the game of jacks and ball, a game that many children mastered. Yet somehow, when they became adults and were placed in charge of designing transportation systems, they forgot all about it.  

This memory lapse has led to the frittering away of countless dollars in unnecessary mileage, and millions of hours of longer-than-necessary ride times, over the decades since special-education pupil transportation service began.

The emergence of computerized scheduling software helped translate the chaos stemming from a total lack of design into at least the optimization of chaos. However, what was left behind was the notion that one can design and arrange the spatial and temporal components of a system into a form that scheduling software can usually optimize further.

Computer scheduling software was indeed an astonishing advance. Yet while it helped many a transportation director improve efficiency and lower costs, it brought with it two issues:

1. It camouflaged the notion that what really leads to optimum efficiency is the effort of actually designing the system as a starting point.
2. While scheduling software generally improves the efficiency of a somewhat coherent “system design,” it can worsen the efficiency of a poorly designed system.

The latter point is so because, while this software can certainly improve upon pure chaos, it otherwise serves to exaggerate the characteristics of a system’s design. Following this principle, when a system’s design is half-decent, applying scheduling software to refine it usually delivers improvements — sometimes substantial ones.

When a system’s design (i.e., the pattern for deploying vehicles in time and space) has been close to optimized, the application of scheduling software to it can produce results that are almost dazzling. But, again, a somewhat rational system must exist as a starting point.

To a reader who has never given any thought to such notions, they must seem radical. Yet one has to merely look at a handful of examples of chaotic systems to understand how deeply dysfunctional the failure to design a transportation system around these principles can be. So let’s begin by looking at three such examples where the magnitude of waste is so obvious and so obscene that many readers will feel outraged by the amount of taxpayer money that was frittered away.

More importantly, by noting the folly of these examples, these same readers will hopefully feel the stirrings of tremendous opportunities for cost savings. Methods of achieving them will form the content of the articles in this series to follow.

As a starting point, let’s first look at three examples of colossal waste.

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