Who Will Operate the Bus, and Why

Part 3: The Future of the Yellow School Bus

At DSG we believe the best way to think about the changes happening in the way we educate our children is analogous to the post-industrial economy that has been emerging for some time. Just like Henry Ford back in the day, “you can have any car color you want, as long as it is black”, our one-size fits all public education system also had a one-size fits all transportation component: the large capacity, fixed-route yellow school bus. We believe the future is clear. More remote learning will require fewer pupils to be transported on any given day. Meanwhile, more distributed learning will require these pupils to be delivered to more diverse and non-standardized destinations and on customized, sometimes non-repetitive schedules. Finally, the time spent on the interconnected school bus itself will become part of the pupils’ network of educational opportunities.

What all of this implies for the future of the yellow school bus and those who operate them may not yet be entirely clear, but we believe the fog is beginning to lift. Fewer buses to serve a lower aggregate demand, and smaller buses to serve more boutique, customized requirements are only the beginning. The interconnected school bus of the future, when coupled with the identified changes to the patterns of educational services will require a much more technologically literate, flexible, and adaptive school bus operator. This operator will become a much more integral part of a system that is constantly communicating and adapting to the routing and operational demands of the day. This operator will be a key link in the chain, just like today, but with the new complexities this link will need to be less of an independent executor of a planned route, and more an integral part of an interconnected team, using the new technologies as a tool while safely operating the vehicle and managing the embarked pupils just like today. A tall order indeed.

DSG believes this will be a particularly challenging transition considering the economic realities of the age, and the traditional cost structure of a transportation system. Operating a school bus is a hard and challenging job now and will only be more so in the future. It retains a very unique type of employee and leads to high turnover amongst the rest. We maintain that the counter-cyclical nature of driver availability is a result of structural economic incentives and disincentives to the available workforce given the challenging nature of the work. We also believe that if we fail to recognize this, there will be an inevitable market-based response when the demands of the interconnected school bus and adaptive bus routing are layered on to an already challenging job. As pupil transportation professionals we would be wise at this critical juncture for our profession to recognize that we don’t have a monopoly on getting kids to school. The pandemic is challenging old habits. Our digital-native and work-at-home customers will seek alternatives if we fail to meet their requirements.

Here at DSG we believe the path forward is clear. The future bus operator is going to need to be much more than a cog in the machine. We must elevate their standing and recognize their true worth as operations specialists just like their colleagues at the terminal. We will be in a better position, given the changing patterns of demand, to begin accepting quality over quantity, as long as we provide the services demanded. “You get what you pay for” is the old adage, and we continue to believe that customers will pay reasonable and affordable rates for the high quality, elevated and sophisticated services they are beginning to demand. We must reciprocate by paying our specialists commensurately with this demand. Customers will pay for quality, and not only in education.

What other changes will our communities demand? Stay tuned for more and join the conversation. Next time: What will the school bus itself look like?