Author: Ryan Smithson
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If I want unlimited, on-demand music, I can download an app.
If I want up-to-date weather alerts, I can have my phone ping me. I don’t even
need to pay for a cable subscription anymore: my kids stream YouTube right on
the TV in our living room. This is the new normal, not just for me but for most
people. With this new set of expectations, it’s natural that today’s parents expect
that their child’s school transportation can also be managed flexibly, and on-demand
on multiple devices.
It’s possible, of course, but it’s not as simple as one
might assume. It’s not a one-way trip for Uber. It’s not a city bus route that runs
the same looping route every day. K-12 transportation is a bit more like the
chaos of airline travel, with hundreds of moving parts and safety
considerations that can’t be ignored. And, unlike the airlines, K-12
transportation departments cannot cancel flights; we do not have that luxury.
Airlines do not go back to the airport when someone forgets their lunch or bag
on the plane. K-12 transportation must be flexible since it’s like no other
segment of the transportation industry.
We often associate today’s “on demand” world with mobile apps.
Apps provide what we want, when we want it. Parents might think that creating
flexibility in their student’s transportation is a simple as making an app for
it. The truth is that parent apps for school transportation have been around
for years, but there are a lot of factors that must be in place to make this
kind of technology truly work for school
transportation departments. So, let’s take a few minutes to explain six pieces
of underlying technology which are required to provide accurate information to the “simple” parent app for student
software — Sharing planned information (stop, time, location) with parents
seems like the first step, but before you can get there, you need to make the
plan! You need routing software that can accurately locate students and then
account for the many nuanced situations you face—unsafe travel roads, hazardous
walking areas, day variance, transfers, shuttles, multiple schools on one run,
etc. In other words, you need software that routes based on student needs at
the map level, not simply seeing a string of individual bus stops.
hardware — Beyond planned information is actual information, and that
requires GPS hardware. There are a lot of options out there, so we recommend
listing your priorities. If parent communication is the end goal, then live
tracking should work, as long as the hardware interfaces with the routing
software. But consider other value-adds when it comes to GPS: Tracking driver
behavior, off path reporting, on-time arrival status for school secretaries,
accident recreation, alerts for engine fault codes, etc.
- “Stop proximity”
versus “estimated time of arrival” — Regarding GPS, there are two methods
for providing real-time notification to parents about their bus’s location.
With a stop proximity, the parent receives an alert when the bus comes within a
pre-defined radius around their stop. Depending on the run path and the
neighborhood, however, that can trigger a lot of false positives. The other
method is estimated time of arrival, which tends to be much more accurate
because it’s considering the actual stop order and run path.
substitutions — In the ideal world, the same driver and same bus service
the same students at the same time every day. Where the rubber meets the road
in the real world, however, is when your underlying routing software has a way
to easily account for substitutions. You don’t want parents getting an ETA from
a bus that’s still sitting in the yard because the driver found a flat tire
during the pre-trip.
changes — Special education routes especially can have a different path
every day, depending on who’s riding. Physically changing the path in the
routing software every time is not usually manageable at a large scale. This is
where onboard tablets can be especially helpful — they’re the next generation
of K-12 routing technology! A tablet should be able to route drivers based on
what students/stops they’re servicing that day, and then push accurate ETAs to
ridership — This is often the very last step in a large implementation,
even though it may be the first thing parents say they want. All of the other
underlying pieces of technology serve this ultimate solution of marrying
planned-versus-actual so parents can receive alerts that their child did, in
fact, board the bus. Perhaps even more important, transportation professionals
in the office can see who loaded the bus, when, and where.
Providing flexibility in student transportation is an important goal to work towards, but there are many pieces of technology which need to come together to make that goal a reality. So be patient. A parent app might be your number one priority, but managing the daily rollout of your fleet is a key step toward making the parent app a success. If your current routing software doesn’t keep up, or if you have no software at all, understand that each stage of implementation takes time, effort, and a teamwork.