Make no mistake about it — providing school transportation is a business that demands not only service, but also efficiency. And the lion's share of the expense — driver salaries and fuel — is directly related to routing.
It is hard to imagine, at least in medium-to-large operations, that planning and analysis can take place without computerizing bus routes in some form or fashion. How can we demonstrate efficiency if we can't quantify it?
Street names, intersections, geographical locations, student names, addresses, school and grade along with bus stop locations and driving instructions: Once we accept that some electronic form of these transportation data is essential, then it's time to think out of the box and realize the multitude of uses for those data.
In a related article in the August 2011 issue, we discussed the importance of documenting route hazards, including information in the computer routing database that helps drivers be aware of potential dangers each time the bus is routed across a given road segment. Such documentation could have prevented the multiple-fatality Fox River Grove bus-train crash in 1995. It is essential that drivers be provided with the critical safety information needed to protect their student passengers.
Here, we will look at some other uses of the basic data needed to plan and manage school buses, ranging from data analysis to relatively new applications.
Key performance, service indicators
The Council of the Great City Schools published a self-initiated report titled "Managing for Results in America's Great City Schools 2009" (available at www.cgcs.org/publications/Managing_for_Results_1009.pdf). In this report, the council identified key performance indicators (KPIs) relevant to school transportation, recognizing that there is value in measuring performance over time and comparing performance with other school districts. Implicit in this recognition is the need for the school district to have the ability to generate the KPIs.
When Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.) Schools, for instance, embarked on a project of consolidating bus stops to improve efficiency for 2009-10, a natural question was, "How much farther were students being asked to walk?" The answer, extracted from their computer routing system, was that the average home-to-stop distance increased by only .06 miles, while reducing buses operated by 87 and cutting stops by 10,000 — all without losing riders as a result of the change.
Because the district has tracked these data for years, doing a comparison following the implementation of a new policy was very straightforward. In fact, being able to project the impact of new policy decisions was a key factor in securing school board approval.
The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction has been publishing transportation service indicators for five years now. The publication — available at www.ncbussafety.org — allows school districts to gauge their own service from one year to the next and to compare with other districts in a given year. Average and longest school bus riding times, bus utilization and student distance from home to stop are among the data that are tracked.
The picture painted by these comparative data helps school superintendents, board members and transportation directors — not to mention the general public — truly understand the result of transportation plans and the policy decisions that drive those plans.
Lee Lindsay, transportation director for Lee County (Ala.) Schools, gave a related presentation to delegates at the 2011 Southeastern States Pupil Transportation Conference in Oklahoma City in June.