Adaptive School Bus Routing

Part 2: The Future of the Yellow School Bus

Here at DSG we understand that change is inevitable, and that even change for the better is hard. When it comes to school bus routing the pandemic has demonstrated how the old approach to safety and efficiency: fill the bus with as many students as possible and trust to compartmentalization, fixed schedules, and safety-related apparatus, is no longer sufficient. Now, in addition to the spreading-out of demand resulting from the change to distributed and customized educational programs, providing for physical separation and appropriate protective equipment on the bus has also come to the fore. The need to change the way we think about school bus routing has been thrust upon us and the old normal is unlikely to return in its entirety. We must change the way we think in order to successfully adapt to the inevitable future.

We’ve already been playing catch-up for quite some time. The trends were apparent before the pandemic: expansion of pre and post-school co-curricular programs, more mobile student populations, programmatic specialization with non-conforming bell times, and expansive school choice including higher demand for services to charter and non-public schools have all been changing the nature of the fixed-route, static planning environment we have been normalized to and that the available technology has supported for a long time. With the pandemic as prompt, DSG believes the future includes an acceleration toward more permanent distributed, diversified, and customized educational services. How will we respond to the need for school bus routing to meet this demand?

There has been much chatter concerning “on-demand” or “demand-response” routing of school buses, which we think of as adaptive school bus routing. But what does this really mean in a practical sense? To us it is all about managing the flow of information and having staff with the skills to utilize the emerging technologies of the interconnected school bus to manage that flow and provide direction in real time. So, as with most things it still comes down to people, how people interact, and how people use technology to improve the quality and utility of that interaction.

Our traditional organizational structure still bifurcates bus routing and dispatch activities. Adaptive school bus routing needs to close the gaps in information flow and timing between these activities. We believe that tomorrow’s pupil transportation specialist will need to not only be technologically savvy, but also have the logistical and interpersonal skills to absorb real-time and demand-based information, and then plan, document, and communicate logistical solutions. This will be no small feat and requires that we start rethinking how we recruit and retain the necessary talent. But this new Operations Specialist will not be alone. Remember that the new technological reality includes two-way flows of information to and from the interconnected school bus. Even more than today, the school bus driver will become an operations specialist as well, and a critical ally of their counterparts back at the terminal. These two will work closely together, in real-time and supported by interactive technology, to respond, react, plan, and execute adaptive school bus routing in the moment.

The technology will be the enabler of real-time route management. The key to success will be capturing and using relevant data in real-time, sometimes pushing that data from the planning software to the bus and sometimes pulling it from the bus to the software. We have always relied on our bus drivers to be the front-line experts, to be able to react in the moment and do the right thing in the absence of clear direction. When it comes to adaptive routing we now have the technological capability to capture that expertise, be it to adjust a planned route by following a safer or more efficient street path, or even to create a complete route on the fly and on demand, capturing and storing the data as a planned route for future repetition. The interoperability of the people, the systems, and the data will be the key to success.

In this new world of adaptive school bus routing we also need to treat data as data for all purposes. No longer can it be static route data pushed to the driver as paper route sheets with the expectation to follow these instructions today and repeat them again tomorrow. Rather the data will flow and change continuously. The route to perform today will be different from yesterday, and tomorrow’s needs to be informed by today’s performance. If today’s route is going to be different from yesterday’s, we also need to use the data that is moving back and forth to manage how we compensate the operator. If tomorrow’s route is going to be different than today’s, we also need to layer on a set of safety-oriented analytics onto the data and monitor these with the same moment-to-moment attention we have traditionally given to ensuring the timely arrival of the school bus to its destination. The data being created by the technology is the enabler, but how we use it will determine our success.

Is our workforce ready for this? Stay tuned for more and join the conversation. Next time: Who will operate the interconnected school bus, and why?