As our economy has continued to shrink, my admiration for most pupil transportation Directors has grown immensely. In 1992, when I could no longer obtain the contract terms that allowed me to run a large paratransit operation at a level of efficiency and virtuosity frankly unthinkable of today, I walked away from a lucrative five-year contract renewal to do other things. But nearly 20 years later, few Transportation Directors in any mode, in either the public or private sector, have the choices to simply walk away that I did. Since then, working largely as a safety and efficiency expert, I have watched the coping mechanisms in response to shrinking school district budgets with both sadness and remorse.
At the same time, in an industry sector where almost all the fatalities and serious injuries occur off the bus, I have observed a few coping measures with trepidation and, frankly, with deep concern. This is because, more and more, trade-offs are being made between safety and cost-savings.
Pennywise and Casket Foolish
The primeval example that has troubled me the most, by far, has been the use of software to select bus stops. I earn much of my living by opining on the regrettable consequences of this paradigm shift. But at least that trade-off may, in certain cases, shave significant amounts of cost from operations â although not comparable to the savings that would almost necessarily accrue from intelligent improvements in system design (my term for the deployment of vehicles in time and space). So I still loathe and resent the intrusion of digital technology into system design and operations, its substitution of computer geeks for live, skilled Earthlings with a genuine feel for operations, and the countless lost jobs that trail along with the lost lives. Yet in their own way, many recent trade-offs trouble me more because the cost savings are almost trivial. One example that frightens me is the recent rash of bus stop consolidations.
What is unfortunate is that many members of the pupil transportation community actually resent the spread of such technology to other modes. This resentment presumably reflects a fear that such inclusion will weaken our "safety edge," and possibly justify a "mode–split" of many current school bus passengers to other types of service. I actually understand this sensibility. And to some degree, it is justified: School buses obviously contain many other safety features, and schoolchildren riding on other types of vehicles would be deprived of them. Among them are, importantly, a school bus’ conspicuity, and its crossing devices â which I argued in four previous STN articles in this series should be enhanced by actually expanding them to "12–way systems."
It is obvious that a significant number of schoolchildren are already traveling to and from school on other modes. Realistically, we cannot reverse this trend, and worse, the economics of our nation’s obvious decline are likely to increase this mode–split, with little we can do about it other than whine or lament. Given the extraordinary superiority of those safety features which remain unique to school buses, I myself do not think the introduction of two of these technologies to, or even their widespread acceptance by, other modes will significantly effect a mode split of school bus passengers to other types of services. Of course, other forces may do so, and like it or not, economic realities may hasten this trend. This is not terribly significant for high school students, since they are developed, in age, to a point where they can safely cross most streets and safely negotiate most intersections (whereas children below age 13, and particularly below age 10, clearly cannot). But when I and several other members of our community tried to draw a line in the sand on this issue for elementary and middle school students, 37 states’ delegates to the then–known–as National Conference on School Transportation refused to permit the 1995 Conference’s Transit Use Committee even present its agenda. The agenda for the Year 2000 Conference’s version of this committee, The Non–School bus Use Committee, was squashed into a half–page of drivel. These short–sighted responses prevented us from emphasizing how critical the need for school bus service really is for those schoolchildren below an age where they can safely cross streets, and effectively eliminated what might have become an important institutional tool to prevent their being deprived of it.
As most transportation community officials well know, the selection of safe stops is deceivingly complex. As a starting point for this discussion, drivers should count the students who they expect to cross (many school districts do not have their drivers do this) and disengage their crossing devices and pull out into traffic only when that number of students materializes either on the bus (during pickups) or across the street or highway (during drop-offs). Because few school districts actually redesign their systems over the Summer, the majority begin with the previous year’s routes and schedules, and modify them during a multi-week "shake-out" period in response to additional students, or the lack of them, at the previous year’s stops. Two common elements of this shake-out are the reassignment of some students to other stops, and the creation or deletion of certain stops. Triggering many of these changes is the fact that suddenly too many students are boarding or alighting at certain stops, and thus they must be spread out among other stops (or additional stops created) in order for their drivers to keep track of those who must cross.
In fairness, increasing the number of stops also has its risks: More stops means more pull-outs back into the traffic stream. However, collisions with fellow vehicles during this maneuver are extremely rare, and more stops means fewer challenging streets to cross for the students walking to and from them. In contrast,consolidating stops invites the dual, increased risks that (a) students must cross more streets to reach their stops, and that (b) fewer stops often translate into too many students to keep track of as they cross to the stop from the waiting area across from it (or to it in the PM drop-off period). Common errors, like the policy of having students in the AM period cross to their stops before their buses arrive with their accoutrements of crossing devices to help them do so safely, compound the risks of stop consolidation â although, of course, this practice creates significant risks all by itself. Yet while stop consolidation also creates crossing risks of its own, it similarly compounds the risks associated with other errors and poor choices.
Reality in the Painted Corner
What little data we possess have shown that riding on a school bus (or frankly, any bus) is exponentially more safe than traveling to or from school by any other means. So one can theoretically argue that the consolidation of stops frees up the funds to provide more bus service. Unfortunately the key problem with this illusion is the word "theoretically," because the trivial savings in fuel and maintenance from stop consolidation rarely yield enough money to purchase a single additional bus. However, this approach may help a Transportation Director maintain the fleet size he or she already has, or at least keep it from shrinking even more than it might otherwise do, or keep driver’s salaries from dipping below the poverty level.
Trapped in this enigma, already in an environment where salaries increasingly fail to keep pace with those in the past (in Today’s dollars), we may be forced to employ such tools as stop consolidation. This is because when nickels and dimes are all one has, every one counts. As noted, I wish the notion of system design would at least pierce the pupil transportation field, as it used to be employed in radically-more-efficient paratransit services (in the pre-ADA era) than those we now operate before scheduling software seduced school district policy-makers into abandoning system design altogether. Otherwise, if you must employ other tools that accomplish so little, I pray you do so with extreme caution, and remember the principles that have been developed over many decades to help keep school bus stops as safe as we can make them.