April 22, 2024

The “Uber-ification” of K-12 Transportation

Author: Ryan Smithson
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It’s 7:56 a.m. My kids have gotten dressed, eaten their
breakfast, fed their fish, and packed their bookbags. They’re watching YouTube,
flipping back and forth on the Roku between my son’s preferred videos and my daughter’s.
They still need to brush their teeth—two minutes—and get their shoes on—one
minute—and the bus stop is a little less than a quarter mile away—about four
minutes walking time (more if you’re my daughter and you stop to pick some
wildflowers). This puts them at the bus stop at 8:03, precisely 120 seconds
before their bus comes at 8:05.

“Let’s go, guys,” I say, toothbrush hanging out of my own
mouth. “TV off; brush your teeth.”

“Dad,” my son complains, pausing a YouTube video showing Titanic
wreckage. “There’s a minute-forty seconds left.”

He’s got it down to a science.

As everyone talks of the “Uber-ification” of K-12 transportation—that
today’s parents expect their school bus to “have an app for that” and, ideally,
that app should respond to their individual child’s needs, whenever they change—what’s
often left out of the conversation is one very important part of taking the bus
to school: consistency. Especially
for Special Needs or younger students, consistency equals safety—students with time-sensitive
medications, or who need the same AM/PM driver, or for simply providing predictability
to busy working parents.

While incredibly convenient, ridesharing apps like Via, Lyft
and Uber are, by nature, reactive. They are a one-way request from Point
A to Point B. They contain tens of thousands of current GPS locations, so when
you enter your destination, the app’s algorithms find the closest, most
probable driver. If that driver denies, it goes to the next until a driver
accepts. Then driver and rider info is swapped, including the ability to communicate,
and you’re usually on your way in a few minutes.

This isn’t exactly how school bus routing works. In fact,
it’s wildly different for a few fundamental reasons:

  1. Rideshare
    apps do NOT have the safety rules your child needs
    – Uber doesn’t care about
    right-side pickup or how far a kindergartner can walk versus a 10th
    grader. Your bus routing software should, and the parent app should reflect these
    nuances.
  2. Rideshare
    apps are NOT based on route efficiencies
    – If you laid out Uber’s daily
    “routes” on a map, it would look like spaghetti. Outside of finding the nearest
    driver, Uber doesn’t consider optimization. And that’s fine. It doesn’t have to
    be efficient in that way; it’s not fiscally accountable to the public. However,
    you don’t have the luxury of dispatching any bus to any address at any time.
  3. Rideshare
    apps are simply A to B
    – School bus routing is A to B to C and then down to
    V to grab the student who takes medication in the morning, and then E, F, and G
    for the AM Kindergarten kids. D’s not riding today. Oh, but Johnny’s riding to
    grandma’s house this week, and Tim the driver called out, so add W, X, Y, and Z!
  4. Rideshare
    apps do NOT consider what time you need to arrive
    – Uber isn’t working back
    from your flight time, for example, to calculate when you need to be out on the
    curb for a ride to the airport. Instead, it’s reacting to what you tell it, and
    then working forward. You get there when you get there. That’s not
    exactly how it works for school bell times.
  5. Rideshare
    apps are NOT dedicated to your child
    – If there don’t happen to be any Uber
    drivers nearby when you request a ride, oh well. Throw on some YouTube and wait.
    But school transportation doesn’t have such luxuries. If you’ve ever tried to
    set up a pre-scheduled Uber ride, and the driver got there 15 minutes early,
    you understand clearly why the rideshare algorithms aren’t apples-to-apples
    with routing for school bell times. How many parents would be okay with the school
    bus having a 30-minute window for their morning pickup time?

All that said, the fact remains that parents have an
Uber-level expectation, so we need to ask why. What components of those apps do
parents want to see mimicked for the school bus? Probably, they’ll tell you
they want to know when the bus is late, what time it will arrive, and when a
different bus is coming.
They want transparency.

The good news is there are K-12 apps that do this—plus a lot
more. Without sacrificing the safety, consistency, or efficiency standards your
community depends on, they provide proactive communication. How they do that is
important, so here are some key features that your next K-12 parent app should
contain:

  1. Estimated
    Time of Arrival
    – The best parent apps base the ETA not simply off a radius
    around the parent’s house, but a real-time update based on the planned path
    and stop order
    .
  2. Current
    Bus Location
    – Not every district wants to share this info with parents, so
    it should be a configurable setting. If you do use it, your parent app should limit
    parents to only their child’s bus, and only as it relates to a buffer time
    before and after their stop.
  3. Notifications
    – In addition to automatic ETAs, you should be able to send parents custom push
    notifications, relevant to them. You should be able to filter by school, bus
    number, run name, or even an individual student, to make sure that notifications
    only go to the people who need them.
  4. Substitutions
    – This is perhaps the single biggest challenge when it comes to sharing
    information with parents. With a two-tier system, even if one bus or one driver
    is substituted, that’s four runs and roughly 200 students who may need to be
    notified. It’s more phone calls than you have time to make, so your routing
    solution should give you the ability to quickly account for substitutions with
    a web-based dispatching
    tool
    that automatically carries down to the parent app. That way, parents
    are looking at the ETA for the bus that’s actually on its way, not simply the
    scheduled bus that may be in the shop today for maintenance.

If you’re interested in parent apps for your operation, hear
about all the amazing benefits from existing users in this webinar.
Also, in a couple months, the NAPT conference includes NextPloratory Sessions about
adapting to new technology that everyone should try to attend. You can register
for NAPT here.

Without sacrificing safety, consistency, or transparency, K-12
parent
apps
like Traversa Ride 360 and Versatrans My Stop can provide accurate
information without you losing the important controls around what you share.
The key word in all of that being “accurate.” The last thing you want is a
parent app that creates more phone calls.