System design matters
In these three examples — which are three of the worst I’ve personally encountered — ignorance about time-and-space relationships was easily costing two of them a significant two-digit percentage of their entire budgets. I could not begin to know how much money was wasted in the third fiasco.
Not surprisingly, none of the officials in charge of these systems, nor the vast majority of pupil transportation directors I have met, have ever even heard of the concept of “system design.” Yet while such vast cost savings are possible simply by intelligently manipulating the variables that affect system efficiency, desperate school districts have been eking out virtually negligible cost savings through approaches like consolidating bus stops (which compromises passenger safety) or investing in marginally more effective fuel sources (like corn-based biofuels).
The best and brightest of the pre-ADA paratransit systems knew how to create enormous efficiencies in service areas with practically no density, simply by manipulating the handful of variables noted in the essay on my website. But the majority of special-education and paratransit service providers are not even aware that such opportunities exist.
Clearly, the pupil transportation community as a whole is far more advanced than its paratransit cousins in some important ways. For example, one of the six keys for providing efficient service is the almost universal provision of “subscription service” (or regularly reoccurring trips), which has been the basic approach to providing school bus service practically since its origins.
Further, the lion’s share of school districts have actually created “system designs,” or at least have grasped a major key to it, by evolving their provision of service into two or three tiers — often three morning and afternoon tiers. In the process, they have reduced deadhead time and created longer shifts that have helped to attract more qualified drivers and bus monitors.
This approach is a significant achievement, and its application has spread rapidly. So, important inroads have already been made by those members of our community willing to break away from lethargic traditions and make much-needed changes.
At the same time, while these inroads have brought about reductions in travel costs, they have only scratched the surface.
Using the example of tiers, the separation of students into these tiers partly reflects the fact that high schools operate the longest number of hours, while elementary schools operate the shortest. But it also reflects the notion that mixing students of these three age groups is problematic as a safety matter. At the same time, the addition of one or two bus monitors and the application of even basic safety technology (e.g., video cameras and the regular examination of their evidence) would enable vehicles to increase their efficiencies significantly — particularly in low-density areas — by combining students of all ages into the same vehicles and routes.
Looking to the future
In future installments of this series, I will provide additional examples of what can be done to achieve dramatic cost savings through simply putting the right things in the right places at the right times, and coordinating the places that vehicles go with the places they start from.
I will also explore some perfectly safe yet non-traditional methods of transporting students of all ages — many of which already exist in “pockets of wisdom” strewn around the country in both big cities with thick fleet and user densities and in rural areas with neither.
I will expose a plethora of wasteful practices, like assigning attendants to buses whose students do not need them. And I will help readers unleash their imaginations to explore how to mold the characteristics of their service areas into far more efficient ones simply by manipulating the countless temporal and spatial variables at their disposal.
Finally, I accept feedback. So I am expecting those readers with a knowledge of the practices I suggest — and perhaps some that are even better — to share them with me so that I can pass them along to SBF readers in general. I cannot promise to return every e-mail. But I will promise to read and consider them.
The proper management of time and space may not be the last frontier for cost savings without sacrificing passenger safety and employment. But, to date, it is the frontier that offers exponentially more opportunity to reduce costs than any other (other than perhaps bigger and bigger buses and longer and longer ride times).
Most exciting of all, the greatest constraints to finding these solutions are merely the limits of our knowledge and open-mindedness. The more creative and knowledgeable we become, and the more ideas we are willing to share with fellow members of our community, the more opportunities we will begin to see.
No better proof of this may be found than on the essay I noted above where an enlightened system — intelligently and creatively designed in a low-density rural area — achieved nearly 10 times the productivity of a high-density urban system.
Make no mistake about it: Manipulating time and space, and correctly aligning the many variables that may have to be modified to squeeze the maximum cost savings out of these changes, is the aspect of special-education transportation where the greatest costs savings, by far, are achievable.
And if that is not enough, along the way, we may even find ways to apply some of these same principles to reducing the costs of general-education school bus service.
Ned Einstein is a consultant and forensics expert in various transportation fields, including school bus, transit, paratransit and motorcoach. He welcomes comments, criticism and feedback. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To read Ned Einstein’s “Principles of Paratransit System Design” essay, which has applications for special-education transportation, go to www.transalt.com.