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 transportation:
- Routing 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.
- GPS 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.
- Daily 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.
- Route 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 parents.
- Student 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.