Running the Numbers, in Air Quality and School Buses

Thomas McMahon
Posted on January 12, 2018
More than ever, numbers are readily available to track all aspects of pupil transportation performance.
More than ever, numbers are readily available to track all aspects of pupil transportation performance.

Smoke in the air recently led me to a place I hadn’t been in many years: a gym.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m a big proponent of physical fitness. I just prefer to get my exercise in the great outdoors. Most days, I go for a run on the rugged trails of the Santa Monica Mountains here in Southern California.

I live in Ventura County, which you probably hadn’t heard of until last month, when the savage Thomas fire made national headlines as it destroyed hundreds of houses.

Fortunately, this devastating blaze didn’t come close to my home, although at night I could see its glowing menace on a distant hillside. But the powerful winds that fanned the flames did carry the smoke our way at times.

Air quality concerns spurred my kids’ school district to cancel classes one day shortly after the Thomas fire broke out. (Other parts of the country have snow days this time of year; here in Southern California, we have fire days.)

The wildfire’s impact on air quality also forced me, grudgingly, to reconsider my outdoor running. Last year, I was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma, so I knew I should be particularly careful about exposing my lungs to smoke.

Initially, I relied on my senses to determine whether I should go out for a run. I would look around at the air and take a whiff to see if I could detect smoke. Some days, there was no mistaking its husky presence. At other times, it was harder to tell, and I was admittedly biased toward approving the air for running.

Then I found a more reliable way to make the call: numbers. Specifically, I discovered the website, which provides access to the government’s Air Quality Index (AQI). Some 3,000 monitors across the country supply data for more than 450 cities.

As the AirNow website puts it, “The AQI translates air quality data into numbers and colors that help people understand when to take action to protect their health.”

So, when the AQI for my area was below 50, in the “Good” range, I could confidently lace up my running shoes, hit the trails, and breathe in the fresh air. Even in the “Moderate” category (51 to 100), I felt comfortable venturing out for exercise.

But when the AQI was over 100, in the unsettling category called “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups,” the message was clear to me: Stay inside. Or at least avoid heavy exertion outside. And so I quickly ducked into my car, drove to a nearby gym, and signed up for a free trial. Then I stepped onto a treadmill and started running. And, to my surprise, it wasn’t half bad.

This fancy fitness machine even gave me some useful numbers: miles run, calories burned, level of incline, and speed (I got up to 10 mph!).

Naturally, this data-driven experience led me to think about school buses. More than ever, with advances in technology, numbers are readily available to track all aspects of pupil transportation performance.

The question is: Which numbers are most important for you and your stakeholders? In other words, what are the key data that objectively show the safety and efficiency of your operation?

John Franklin, our 2017 Administrator of the Year, identified multiple performance indicators that were deficient when he arrived at Atlanta Public Schools, and he implemented multiple strategies to improve them. One critical statistic was bus on-time percentage, which Franklin led his department to increase from about 70% to 94%.

As thoughts turn to New Year’s resolutions, consider picking one or two key numbers for your transportation team to focus on boosting in 2018.

As another goal for the year, you might commit to getting outside for a daily walk, run, or bike ride. That is, if the air quality is OK.

Related Topics: driver wellness, efficiency, key performance indicators (KPIs), telematics

Thomas McMahon Executive Editor
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