Anyone who has been to a US school, or has a child that has been to one, knows that the school bus is a classic part of the educational experience. But sadly, cutbacks to school finances are putting transportation departments at risk. With school enrollment only increasing, school districts simply don’t have the money or resources to spend time planning and maintaining their bus routes for every new student.
For those school districts that are still offering in-house school transportation, the challenges are only mounting up. Planning routes in ever-evolving cities is more than a full-time job, leaving many districts reliant on outdated maps and poorly planned routes. How can districts keep up with demand, manage costs, and still offer the best transport solutions to their students?
The challenges of school district transportation
Student transportation is an essential part of any school district. Even the smallest districts will hire a dedicated transportation department, just to manage the bus routes for their students. This means hours of labor that could be put to better use by improving transport efficiency or making the school commute more enjoyable for each student.
1. Map making is time-consuming
A school bus route map may seem simple, but it can be a real pain to create. Think about it: planning the optimum route from point A to point B is easy enough. But what happens if you add in point C, then points D, E, F, and so on? Creating a route for multiple pick-ups and drop-offs becomes exponentially more complicated with each additional student. The options are essentially limitless. That’s why making a bus route map is a full-time summer job for many school districts, and most districts just stick to one outdated route, regardless of whether it makes sense for their current requirements.
2. New enrollments can get complicated
Each time a new student enrolls at a school, there’s a chance the bus routes need to update to reach them. This might work fine for the first couple of enrollments, but the newer pick-ups added, the more complicated the bus’s original route gets. Pretty soon even the most ideal original bus route is more like a Frankenstein experiment of bolted-on parts, making for longer, less efficient, and more expensive journeys.
3. Students are left waiting
With manual school bus route planning, students are often left waiting, and not just at the bus stop. With the complications that come from updating routes, each new student poses a question to the transportation department regarding how they’ll factor into the existing route plan. This, combined with the slow map-making process, can mean that new students will often face delays in being accepted to join bus pick-up programs. This makes their entry into the school district slower, both physically in that their commute is more complicated, and socially in that they are denied that crucial time to meet and get to know their peers during the school run.
4. Students are confused, or lost
Most children are creatures of habit. They learn by doing the same thing repeatedly and are usually most comfortable when their routines stay the same. If their bus pick-up or drop-off process changes from one year to the next, they may not be prepared to adapt so quickly. Sporadically updating routes at the last minute increases the chances that students get off at the wrong stop or forget to get off at all, leading to safety risks that could cost the student, parents, and school district dearly.
5. Drivers are overburdened
Outdated routes and sporadic, ad hoc updates might work for the transport department, but they can be a tall order for bus drivers. Many districts that plan routes manually will give an updated route plan to drivers at short notice, sometimes only a day or two in advance. This means they must relearn and adapt to new routes quickly. This also means any unforeseen problems with the updated routes, like road closures, traffic, or planning errors, fall on the shoulders of the drivers. They are the ones that must answer to angry parents who have been waiting too long at the bus stop.
6. Missed route opportunities
Sticking with outdated routes and only updating them sporadically leads to missed opportunities when it comes to making routes more efficient. Has a new highway opened along a portion of your bus route? That could speed up the journey between two student pick-ups. An old route that doesn’t account for this new opportunity is losing the students' time and costing the district money.
7. Unexpected costs
Pretty much all these issues really come down to one thing: money. Each of these challenges spells a potential risk, an unexpected cost, and a surprise bill. Right now, even the largest school districts are in difficult financial situations and every penny counts. Leaving transport planning to manual processes that only finish tasks at the last minute leaves a lot of room for error, opening the door to lost money that could have been saved with better foresight.
What solutions are available?
If these are the problems facing school district transport planners right now, what can be done to help them? Well, the
DIY digital route planning
Poring over a physical map is practically a thing of the past. There are now plenty of tech solutions for mapping routes, from Google Maps to dedicated GPS systems. The technology speeds up the process, but the work is still mainly down to transport professionals.
- Faster than manual planning with analog maps
- Cheap or free to use
- Doesn’t fully solve the problem: route planning is still a manual process that takes time to plan and maintain
- Routes require manual updating for new student enrollments and city planning changes (e.g., road opening, closure, etc.)
- Requires experience and knowledge of transportation planning, which some districts might not have
Don’t have the resources to consistently update routes for your district? You could hire an external department to take care of the process for you. There are plenty of companies that take care of everything student transport, from planning to pick-up, to drop-off.
- No more time spent planning transport
- Issues with transportation are not your problem
- Can be expensive
- Hard to transition back to managing your own transport once you sell your bus fleet
- Little control over improving your existing service
A smaller subsection of outsourcing involved hiring an external contractor to manage your own in-house transportation service. While this may seem attractive on the surface, and certainly reallocates some school staff hours previously dedicated to transport, it can create more bureaucracy and delays than it’s worth.
- Saves some time in planning and updating routes
- Less control over your own transport
- Delays in liaising between internal staff and external contractors
- Can be expensive
In-House Transport Optimization Software
An increasingly popular option that is saving school districts both time and money is using dedicated transport optimization software to help plan and maintain school bus routes. Services like Routefinder PLUS from Transfinder are fully functional systems that plan, update and share school bus routes using the latest technology to deliver the best possible routes for your district.
- Faster and easier than manually planning routes, even compared to digital solutions like Google Maps
- Doesn’t require years of transportation experience to operate
- Available on desktop PCs and even mobile, depending on the service
- Some responsibility for transport still falls to the school district (unlike in outsourced transportation)
- Some training is potentially required (but often provided)
Benefits of using a transportation optimization service
If you do go with one of the solutions above, your students will thank you. Whether you outsource your transportation or implement a dedicated in-house solution, taking some of the challenges out of student bus route planning will save your school district time and money and create a better service for your students and their parents.
- Less time wasted on map making, more time freed up to improve the experience of school transport. Staff responsible for updating route plans can even be diverted to different departments to ease workload elsewhere.
- New enrollees are added to the bus routes seamlessly, reducing journey delays and keeping routes optimized.
- Students don’t have to wait to be factored into the route. Just a few clicks and they're on their way.
- Earlier planning means that students get more warning about changes to their route, reducing the likelihood of incorrect drop-offs. Some in-house transport solutions like Wayfinder even offer attendance-taking solutions to ensure students get on and get off at the right time and place.
- Drivers are updated automatically and with plenty of warning when a route changes. New routes can sync seamlessly with their existing GPS systems.
- New roads and shortcuts are automatically factored into the planning process, ensuring that each route is the most efficient it can be.
- Don’t get surprised by unexpected delays and surprise costs.