School busing: Budget cuts change services

Rising fuel prices during this year have added pressure to public school transportation operations that have already seen multiple years of tight budgets.  With each cost-cutting strategy comes some change in the level of service provided to students. Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Iredell-Statesville are two examples of districts that have already made significant changes to their operations.  Once in place, is there an objective way to measure the impact on student service?  Data just released for all public school transportation systems in N.C. allows comparison of service levels across the state based on several variables.

The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute provides support and training for the Transportation Information Management System (TIMS) for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.  Through that program, the institute has provided consulting services to districts throughtout Western North Carolina on strategies for improving the efficiency of school transportation while maintaining high standards of safety and service.

Common strategies for reducing school transportation costs include designing more efficient bus routes by minimizing the number of stops a bus makes and reducing the number of miles traveled while maximizing the number of students each bus transports.  Those efficiency improvements may result in longer or shorter ride times to and from school and farther walking distances from bus stops to home.  In some cases, with  several bus stops consolidated into a few or even a single “community stop,”  students won’t spend as much time on the bus each day.

Another cost-reduction strategy is to adjust school bell times so that the school bus fleet available to the district can make more trips during the school day.  This reduces the total number of buses needed to provide service to all students.  This strategy works best for schools that are relatively close to each other (that means typically for urban or suburban areas).  Depending on how it is implemented, the service impact on families can be that schedules are disrupted and new arrangements have to be made in their daily routine as earlier or later pick up and drop off times are accommodated. 

Both of those strategies have been used by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. CMS dramatically reduced the number of bus stops throughout their district three years ago with the establishment of “common stops” designed to streamline routes.  More recently, CMS shifted the bell times for some schools, enabling fewer buses to transport more students. Iredell-Statesville Schools has also implemented programs to reduce the number of bus stops in their district. 

What about the impacts on service?  TIMS, the Transportation Information Management System,  is a statewide program which offers school transportation departments tools that allow analysis of route changes on the level of service provided to students throughout their district.  Each November, all 115 N.C. school districts submit an array of information about pupil transportation using TIMS data  to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI). Their respective information is used not only to calculate funding estimates for the school year but also to evaluate the level of service provided to nearly 800,000 students transported across the state on a daily basis.

Compiled annually since the 2006-2007 school year, the N.C. Pupil Transportation Service Indicators Report highlights a number of key measures for each school district.  Common measures of comparison include: average student ride times, longest student ride times, distance to school, distance to bus stop, earliest pick up time and latest drop-off times for each district. Other measures include examining the range of school start and end times, as this may allow buses to perform multiple morning and afternoon trips, servicing a greater number of students with a single bus.

TIMS Project Leaders from the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and N.C. State’s Institute for Transportation Research and Education (ITRE) work with school transportation departments across the state to acquire the information contained within the annual Service Indicators Report. Student ridership information for the current school year is compared to data from the previous year as a means of measuring the impact of routing changes on the level of service provided to students.

The 2011-2012 Service Indicators Report is available in PDF by clicking here

Previous editions of the report are available through the TIMS page of the North Carolina School Bus Safety website.

Kevin Hart