By Eugene Leventhal

Living in a place like Pittsburgh, one doesn’t have to look far to see the impact of Autonomous Vehicles, mainly thanks to Uber. Yet, despite all of the changes that other areas of transport have seen recently, one area still seems stuck in the relative stone age – educational transportation. As part of a report that two colleagues and I at Carnegie Mellon University put together for a course on Smart Cities (which can be found here), we reviewed the current state of educational transportation and made some suggestions on fleet upgrades. Our report touched on other topics such as the impact of ride-sharing and the impact of both electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles. However, for the purpose of this article we highlight our findings and recommendations related to connectivity (GPS, sensors, and student tracking technology) and ride optimization.

An autonomous Uber vehicle

Current State

Let’s take a look at the educational transportation landscape at a high-level. There are a total of 480,000 school buses transporting 26 million students daily. Despite the large volume of passengers, most school buses have not gone through any major technological alterations beyond having added video cameras, and that’s only in roughly 50% of existing buses. This is indicative of an all-around shortage of routing software, GPS, and student tracking technology with only 54%, 33%, and 5%, respectively, of survey respondents stating that they have such technology in their fleets. It is important to note that school buses are doing a decent job at getting kids to school safely – “of the 327 school-age children killed in school-transportation-related crashes since 2004, 54 were children riding in buses.”

Given that the average age of a school bus in the U.S. is 9.3 years and some school districts deal with buses that can be 30 years old, the lack of the aforementioned technologies starts making a bit more sense. The students riding the buses aren’t the only ones feeling the results of the aging buses and the lack of funds to upgrade them – school bus drivers have generally seen falling wages relative to similar roles in non-educational transportation, and this has led to a shortage of drivers. The shortage has gotten so bad in the last few years that the average salaries are seeing an uptick, but not enough to compete with other transport jobs.

This mix of financial constraints and a steady decline in ridership has caused a 75%+ increase in the cost per student transported. As a result, there are approximately 250,000 school buses in the US which were manufactured before 2007, when more stringent emissions regulation went into effect. Still, total expenditures for education-related transportation, according to the Department of Education’s data, was $24,164,005,000 in 2012-2013, leading to a per-student budget of roughly $930 per student.

Our Recommendations

Our recommendation starts with a technological investment that would make more meaningful optimization possible.  The present lack of technology results in a lack of data as well, making such efforts very challenging now. By focusing on investing in GPS systems, student tracking systems, sensors, and then using all of this tech for route optimization across districts, then it will be possible to outfit all school buses with modern technology while saving money in the long-run.

Currently, there are a lot of companies providing GPS systems and student ridership systems for school transportation. For example, for 2017-2018 academic year, the Denver Public School system requires all school-bus-riding students to enroll in the +Pass RFID card ridership system. The cost for school buses to be outfitted with GPS systems should run in the vicinity of $80 million dollars without considering the system programming and maintenance cost  (for more information, see page 14 of our report). It’s important to note that this is a very conservative estimate with a baseline GPS estimate of $250, which should be possible to greatly decrease if this was a nationally coordinated purchase. Tracking all of the buses themselves is an important step in lowering the long-term cost of educational transportation.

Another major issue is student safety in the vicinity of the school buses themselves. Each year, there are 17,000 student injuries related to school buses and around 24% of them occur when students are getting on or off the school bus, known as being in the danger zone around the bus:

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Image from US Department of Transportation

The total approximate cost to outfit the school buses that don’t have such sensor systems would be in the vicinity of $350 million (for more information, see page 15 of our report). The actual rate could be smaller given the fact that more schools may already be in the process of fitting buses sensors given previous legislation. This leads to a conservative cost estimate ranging from $400 to $450 million dollars to outfit buses with both sensors and GPS systems.

When adding student tracking systems into the picture, the associated total cost of getting existing school buses fully connected goes up significantly. Based on a price quote from Treker, Inc., adding student tracking systems would have a fixed cost of $500 million and an annual cost of running the systems of approximately $250 million  (for more information, see page 15 of our report). Thus, the total one-time upgrade cost would be in the vicinity of $1 billion with annual operations costs of $250 million. Again, this is a conservative estimate that is assuming no national purchasing coordination. The large price tags associated with such changes definitely calls for better solutions around route optimization, reducing costs via private partnerships including ride-sharing, and rethinking school-bus ownership models.

It’s also very important to note the potential savings that route optimization can offer. A group of researchers at MIT worked on creating models to help Boston schools route their buses more effectively. Approximately 50 superfluous routes could be eliminated using the new method, saving the school district between $3 to 5 million annually. According to a release, BPS transportation staff were building school bus routes manually, using pupil transportation software, a process that easily took weeks. MIT’s solution devised routes in approximately 30 minutes. Extrapolating the resulting from the MIT study, using such methods could save up to $3 billion (for more information, see page 16 of our report), potentially paying for all of the investments.

Admittedly, this was a cursory look relative to the required research. However, our findings were encouraging in that a solution is not just possible, it seems to be affordable. Very importantly, there needs to be involvement from the Department of Education and ideally the Department of Transportation to make sure that any attempts to resolve the current issues are done nationally and not in a few, more well-capitalized or more well-coordinated, districts. There also needs to be some mechanism for innovation in the school transportation arena as some pilots may be necessary to justify the large coordinated spending, but a lot of the data already exists between all of the districts. We cannot allow the main form of transportation that our nation’s kids use to get to school to become more outdated and, in turn, less safe. Now is the time to invest in the future and to make sure our kids will always be safer tomorrow than they were today.

View the full report here.

For more, see:

Eugene Leventhal is Founder and CEO of edudao.org, a low-cost, fully accountable funding platform for underfunded education-related organizations. Connect with him on Twitter at @bbeats1.


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