Gov. Mark Dayton proclaims Feb. 22 the state's first-ever School Bus Driver Appreciation Day.
Organizing efficient routes can be a time-consuming process for school bus operations. With the help of routing software, however, plotting bus rounds can be accomplished easily — and with cost savings. Routing software features can help users to determine how many buses are needed to transport students, taking into account any parameters designated by the district.
SBF spoke with representatives of five routing software companies to determine what makes an adequate routing program. Officials from Transfinder, Esri, US Computing Inc., EDULOG and Tyler Technologies shared the ways their routing products can reduce stress and costs when it comes to transporting students.
Routing can be paired with other programs
Routing software, according to the suppliers, is most effective when it is compatible with other types of software — especially GPS. Most companies provide a full range of products that can be paired with their routing software, or they partner with a provider of such programs. These combinations can make fleet operation easier, more efficient and safer for students.
"The emphasis in the last several years has been on a combination of GPS with routing and scheduling," says Carter Young, sales support manager for EDULOG. "And we believe that is the future of the industry."
EDULOG's routing software is integrated with GPS AVL so that users do not have to manually enter the address of each bus stop. Instead, the GPS will record where the bus has gone and incorporate the appropriate data.
Esri works with several business partners who provide tracking solutions that are compatible with its ArcLogistics software.
"What's very popular — not only with school buses but across the fleet management business these days — are tracking solutions," explains Richard Pearlman, Esri's logistics product manager. "Where tracking has a lot of value is if you have a plan for where your vehicle should be. It's good to know where [your buses] are, but it's still not enabling you ... to comply with intelligent routing [unless you pair it with routing software]."
US Computing Inc.'s Web Compass routing software is based on Esri's geographic information system (GIS) software, which is used by a majority of cities in the U.S., according to Neil Sengupta, president of US Computing Inc.
"This makes it really easy for school districts to work with their local government information," Sengupta explains. "Municipalities, cities and counties have GIS information of their own ... [and] that information would be compatible with our system and they could share information with the school district."
Similarly, Tyler Technologies offers a number of supporting products that increase the versatility of its Versatrans routing software.
"The versatility in Versatrans products really comes from our unique student-centric approach to routing. As we see it, we take students to school, not bus stops; our software knows which school the student should attend and only lets the student get on the bus that is going to that school," explains Jim Guzewich, president of Versatrans Solutions. "All of our products operate from this premise."
Transfinder's Routefinder Pro is based on the GIS databases of Microsoft, and as a result, it is "open architecture so it is easily integrated with hardware and other software solutions," says Barbara Pilliod, the company's vice president of marketing and communications.
Software can be used to limit hazards to students
Using routing software, districts can increase the safety of students who ride the bus by taking advantage of the software's various features, including curbside pickup and smart map technology.
Using ArcLogistics, "we can select the side of the vehicle for pickup or drop-off. When you're going to drop someone off, you definitely want the door on the vehicle facing the curb," Pearlman says. "You certainly don't want to be dropping students off into traffic."
In the fall, Transfinder will be releasing Routefinder Pro 10.0, which will include a curbside pickup feature. Currently, the software can be used to develop a route in which a driver only picks up students in a manner where they don't have to cross the street. But with the new version, "a routing algorithm will generate a driving pass that enables the bus to actually do curbside pickup. So if you have a route, it can be changed so that the bus actually picks up the student at the curb," Pilliod says.
EDULOG's routing software solutions combine a district's student databases — "the information updated daily from the district's student information system," Young says — and the information from the GIS map to create a route that is safe for students.
The software will show, among other things, "the locations of known sexual predators or any other hazardous condition that you don't want a school bus stop to be near," he explains.
EDULOG takes student safety a step further with its Parent Portal, which the company recently introduced.
"Parent Portal allows parents or guardians, through the Internet, and with password security, to find out in real time where the student is on the bus," Young says. "[The district] also then could send automated messages to — for example — a smart phone, saying the bus is five minutes from arriving at the stop, or the bus has been delayed."
Tyler Technologies' Smart Map technology, part of its Versatrans software, allows users to "teach" their maps where hazards are.
"You teach the map the characteristics of your district. You can set the average traveled road speed by direction and time of day, identify which streets are safe to cross for different age students, identify safe turn locations, etc.," Guzewich says. "As soon as the information is entered in the map, it's always there for every student and every route."
Software eases special-needs transportation
Routing software can also help to effectively manage the transportation of special-needs students by incorporating information about specific bus requirements — for example, wheelchair lifts — and multiple stops.
"ArcLogistics has the function to do what we call 'paired orders' — it's essentially a paratransit application," Pearlman explains. "So if you have special-needs students that may require a specially equipped bus — wheelchair lift, oxygen-enabled, aid on the bus, that type of thing — you can set those specialties to be sure that the properly equipped bus is assigned to that student."
In addition, Esri's software can also help districts to account for the more complicated routes needed to transport special-needs students.
"Frequently in paratransit application, unlike the normal school bus route ... you're picking up multiple students at multiple places and they need to be dropped off at multiple locations," Pearlman adds. "[ArcLogistics] allows you to set those trips and generate the route so you can pick up students at different places and drop them off at different places, as opposed to a standard bus routing algorithm."
Tyler Technologies' Versatrans product suite of school transportation software also eases the transportation of special-needs students by incorporating their information with that of regular-ed students.
"[Versatrans] manages all your students, including special-needs students, within one database. In one software application, they can be routed on separate buses or together on the same buses, requiring no other applications to manage accommodations for special-needs student transportation," Guzewich says.
Optimization will cut costs
Truly optimized routing software will save a district time and money. By using the software, transportation officials can determine the shortest, fastest and safest routes — as well as the number of vehicles actually needed.
"One of the major ways to reduce costs is to create efficiencies using our routing software that can eliminate a route, which can save a considerable amount of money over time. This can, in turn, reduce the number of buses that are on the road — and therefore reduce fuel usage and all the costs associated with that," Pilliod says.
Guzewich agrees that creating efficiencies is the best way to cut costs.
"Consolidating bus stops and reducing mileage are great ways to become more efficient," he says. "But understanding the operating cost of each vehicle is essential. The most inefficient vehicle in your fleet might not be the oldest. Versatrans allows you to identify an inefficient vehicle so you can remove it from your active fleet or put it on a less demanding run."
Young says that EDULOG's routing software's optimization capabilities helped Memphis (Tenn.) City Schools save $8.2 million in one year. Its software, he says, allows districts to test out innumerable "what if" scenarios and then examine the cost.
"Generally, our users see reduction in operating costs for their fleet between 15 and 30 percent when they implement ArcLogistics," Pearlman says. "And you'll see that if you're doing efficient route planning, the first thing you're going to do is reduce the amount of miles you drive."
"Many of our clients achieve significant cost savings year after year through the use of the extensive planning and analytical tools in Versatrans," Guzewich explains. "This is where the ability to quickly develop multiple scenarios and compare operating costs pays off."
"Using routing software," he adds, "is the only way to understand what the impact will be before changes are implemented. When transportation officials go to the school board or the community with proposed transportation changes, they will have all of the analytical data to effectively communicate the reasons for and impact of a change."
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