Tight Schedules, Part 6: Schoolbus Service

Routing for general education schoolbus service has been increasingly performed by robots for 25 years now. Yet general education schoolbus schedules are not nearly as tight as those of fixed route transit. One obvious reason is that schoolbus passengers cannot continuously be late to their destinations. If their bus schedules are the cause of it, they are eventually adjusted. In the wildly-unplanned schoolbus sector, these adjustments are most often made during the “shake-out” period during the first few weeks of the school year. But they are adjusted. When they are tight, it usually reflects weather, traffic, detours, parades, maintenance problems and other aberrations – as well as the need to exercise passenger management.

Another reason for the lack of tight schoolbus schedules is the focus on mostly single AM and PM runs. There are, of course, exceptions:

  • kindergarten and pre-school hours often last only a half-day
  • many schools have breakfast programs
  • many schools offer after-school programs
  • most high schools have sports teams

As a consequence of these variables, some schoolbus routes are shaped into “tiers.” But without the management of time and space, most vehicles either cannot accommodate tiers, and/or the deadhead time between runs is so long that most vehicles can only pick up a handful of students on all or most runs.

Disinterest and Waste

Because no one in the schoolbus sector bothers to manage time and space, enormous resources are squandered in the routing and scheduling processes. And performed by robots, schedules are rarely connected to simple variables like vehicle size or the creation of full-time jobs. As a starting point,  no school districts manage any spatial change – like relocating schools,  enlarging school buildings, transferring students to different schools or even  relocating vehicle storage yards. The last of these is a crayon-level task. These failures are sometimes compounded by dangerous and far-reaching concepts like “school choice,” wasting enormous resources and creating chaos and mayhem at the operating level. Yet with all these failures, schoolbus schedules are not that tight. This reflects the fact that the pupil community cares about the passengers.

To make up for its planning and system design failures, school districts grossly underpay drivers. But replacing drivers with robots saves little money: Only a moderate percentage of transportation costs are consumed by drivers and fringe benefits. And robots cost a fortune to design, produce and program. As long as Earthlings factor values into the scheduling process, schedules will not become tight, even if robots do most of the work. Robots may soon be able to factor in values. But factoring in values will become more and more difficult, economically,  if either Earthlings or robots cannot even locate storage yards intelligibly or connect other simple dots.

Cost Savings and Efficiency

Lest readers know, cost savings and efficiency are not terms for the same thing. These concepts genuinely lie at opposite ends of the spectrum. Without efficiency, cost savings are a trough.

One can save money by simply paying drivers less. Or by eliminating jobs altogether. These approaches do not make routes efficient. Meaningful  efficiency involves finding ways for live Earthlings to do more valuable things (like guiding the robots) and to lead better lives in the process. But this form of efficiency requires one to manage time and space. Without managing these things, it will become increasingly difficult to afford values.

To be slightly fair, the quest for values can add challenges to route design. One example is the use of bus routes to offset or soften differences in school quality along racial and other socio-economic lines. But these challenges could be offset by more creative and imaginative route design. Most savvy transportation professionals recognize that every route change provides an opportunity for efficiency improvement. Tight schedules represent a failure to make use of these opportunities.

Managing Time and Space: Lessons for the Motorcoach Industry

One interesting fact about all fixed route services is that the routes often remain largely intact for decades. One would think that this glacial pace would allow for some thought about making routes efficient. One would be wrong. Schoolbus service continues to lose its way by its disinterest in managing space altogether, and its limited understanding about managing time. This is true even with tiny service areas and small fleets. Decades of driver shortages, and drivers on welfare,  are only obvious consequences.

Motorcoach service designers have fewer opportunities to manage space. One can easily relocate storage yards. And to some extent, one can shoehorn runs into tiers. But it is not so easy to relocate casinos, national parks, discount shopping malls and vacation resorts. These venues are spread relatively far apart. The deadhead time and mileage between them can be vast. And most passengers have daylight-oriented life-styles and/or conventional sleep-wakefulness cycles. With these time and space constraints, it is difficult to sort motorcoach trips into tiers. This is particularly true with annoyances like speed limits.

At the federal level, we have done a poor job of managing time and space. Countless other countries have created large cities from scratch. These countries include Brazil and Israel. In fact, their capitals are Brasilia and Tel Aviv. Currently, entirely new cities are being created in China, Malaysia, South Korea, Sri Lanka and Oman. No major U.S. city is created from scratch. Instead, we create traffic.

Decades ago, USDOT was considering a concept known as “The 500-mile Rule.” It would have outlawed commercial flights from Baltimore to Philadelphia and similar ridiculous extravagancies which squander resources. Take-offs waste exponentially more fuel than any other increments of air travel. The 500-mile rule was never enacted.

One could argue that a concept like the 500-mile rule makes sense only for large aircraft; small aircraft could provide feeder service. We could also address these issues with an intelligible hierarchy of services with distinct, overlapping roles. The free market does a less-than-perfect job of creating and nurturing this hierarchy. Where we place intelligible limits on the free market – in schoolbus and transit service – the absence of competition maintains each mode’s passenger density. When we fail to control this competition, this failure allows the wrong modes to gobble up one another. It is not a surprise that Uber is now siphoning off transit ridership. When the transportation  network companies begin gobbling up schoolbus passengers, we may see schoolbus schedules becoming tighter.

To ignore the lessons from the schoolbus sector would be foolish. It is not for no reason that so many providers of motorcoach service also provide contracted schoolbus services. Yet schoolbus service areas are small while motorcoach service areas can be vast. And one mode is completely subsidized while the other is completely unsubsidized. Yet these services have much in common. For now, both have drivers.

Robots and Hours of Service

One form of tight schedules results from drivers speeding because they know that they will become exhausted near the end of the trip. The sooner they get it over with, the sooner they can sleep, rest or relax. Beyond this reality, eight hours off-duty time between grueling shifts is flagrantly inconsistent with a normal individual’s need for sleep. This reality is compounded by driver assignment policies which ignore rudiments of science. Our sleep-wakefulness cycles cannot be shifted overnight. Otherwise, the eight-hour off-duty span must encompass commutes to and from work, pre- and post-trip inspections, paper work, fare counting, meals and showers – as only the major time-drains. Frankly, the requirement for only eight hours off duty is naive. It is also dangerous. The schedules which become tight as a result are off-duty periods.

One obvious benefit to at least owners of motorcoach services comes with robots: Robots do not experience fatigue. Not only will robots render hours-of-service requirements moot, but they will eliminate the uncommonly-performed chore of safety-sensitive driver assignment. Otherwise, tight schedules do not eliminate driver fatigue. They replace it with stress and other risks.

A long-dead uncle of mine once told me that everything in life has a cost. He may as well have been talking about the failures of public transportation.

Safety and Liability

Despite the waste and stupidity, schoolbus schedules are not relentlessly tight. As noted, one can attribute this contrast largely to the fact that school districts care about the passengers (even while their robots do not). As the comparison of tight schedules among different modes illustrates, caring about the passengers is a critical link between safety and liability.

The quadrangle of waste, stupidity, non-tight schedules and caring about the passengers can be fascinating. But the relationship among these factors is never understood, particularly by attorneys. With schoolbus schedules and  far-tighter transit schedules, schoolbus and other fixed route services escape accountability, and merrily roll along.

Publications: National Bus Trader.