Cutting Costs by Mastering Time and Space – Part I

I was not born knowing about cost-cutting. To the contrary. By luck, at a time I was not even qualified for it, I was handed the task of directing the U.S. Department of Transportation’s first nationwide examination of special transportation services for elderly and disabled individuals – more than a decade before the ADA was promulgated. In 1980, USDOT published the three-volume manual I authored about my findings.

In the course of this examination, I discovered the six principles that govern efficiency. A bold statement, yes. But merely review the essay on the Home Page of my website www.transalt.com titled “Principles of Paratransit System Design,” and you’ll see why. One thing you’ll learn from a quick skim of that essay is that systems in low density areas whose designers knew what they were actually doing achieved efficiencies nearly ten times those of system designers in high-density areas who had no clue. How can this possibly be? Read on and begin learning how you can apply them to the design of your special education systems, and achieve substantial two-digit percentages in cost savings in the process.

Principles, Ignorance and Digital Madness

Even today, these principles seem radical to most paratransit directors. But they should not seem radical to school transportation directors providing special education transportation, whose curb-to-curb system efficiencies are several times greater than those of their paratransit counterparts. This key principle is the provision of regularly-reoccurring trips: Service to the same passengers, to and from the same places, at the same times, day after day. In the paratransit world, such trips are referred to as “subscription” trips or “standing orders.” In special education service, they represent practically every trip. In the paratransit world, thanks largely to the profound stupidity of Federal Transit Administration (FTA) officials, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) actually limits the percentage of trips of this type that may be provided to 50 percent of the total..

Optimizing this single principle by actually building one’s schedules around a core of subscription trips is mere common sense. Yet so are the other five principles included in this essay – most of which have not been optimized by those providing either paratransit or special education transportation. The essence of doing so is nothing more than the management of time and space – the exact same principles that apply to the game of Jacks-and-Ball, a game than many pre-school students have mastered. Yet somehow, when they became adults and placed in charge of designing transportation systems, they forgot all about it.

Compounding this memory lapse – a lapse that has let us fritter away tens or hundreds of billions of dollars in needless mileage, and millions of hours of longer-than-necessary ride times, over the decades since special education pupil transportation service began – was its coincidence with the emergence of computerized scheduling software. For someone with little or no ability to arrange a cluster of “dots” into organized and efficient routes, scheduling software seemed like a Godsend. It translated the chaos stemming from a total lack of design into at least the optimization of chaos – usually more efficient than chaos on its own. However, what was left behind was the notion that one can design and arrange the spatial and temporal components of a system into a form that scheduling software can usually optimize further – although at least one study I was involved in proved conclusively that this software can only out perform an “average” scheduler. While chess software can beat Boris Spasky, scheduling software is no match for a terrific human scheduler. This is particularly true if and when someone bothers to actually design the system before scheduling its trips.

Computer scheduling software was indeed an astonishing advance. Yet while it helped many a Transportation Director at least improve efficiency, lower costs, and escape accountability for his or her otherwise ignorance, it brought with it two problems:

  1. It camouflaged the notion that what really and genuinely leads to optimum efficiency is the effort to actually design the system as a starting point.
  2. While scheduling software generally improves the efficiency of a somewhat coherent “system design,” even if only by accident, it actually worsens the efficiency of a poorly-designed system.

The latter point is so because, while this software can certainly improve upon pure chaos, it otherwise serves to exaggerate the characteristics of a system’s design. Following this principle, when a system’s design is half-decent, applying scheduling software to refine it usually delivers improvements, sometimes substantial ones. At the same time, when the system’s design is dreadfully inept and/or counterintuitive, the application of software to it can easily make it even worse. This is why I served as a consultant on three projects, in 2002, where the application of scheduling software practically unraveled three large systems – and in all three cases it’s use was abandoned altogether. Otherwise, when a system’s design (i.e., the pattern for deploying vehicles in time and space) has been close to optimized, the application of scheduling software to it can produce results almost dazzling. But, again, a somewhat rational system must exist as a starting point. As most of us know, there is no point putting lipstick on a pig.

To a reader who has never given any thought to such notions, they must seem radical.  Yet one has to merely look at a handful of really bad examples of chaotic systems to understand how deeply dysfunctional the failure to design a transportation system around these principles can be. So let’s begin by looking at three such examples where the magnitude of waste is so obvious and so obscene that many readers aware of these systems will feel outraged by the amount of wasted taxpayers’ money they frittered away.

More importantly, of course, by noting the folly of these examples, these same readers will hopefully feel the stirrings of tremendous opportunities for cost savings – methods of achieving them which shall form the content of the articles in this series to follow. As a starting point, let’s first look at three examples of colossal waste.

Dumber, Dumbest and Most Dumbest

The U.S. Military has a rather profane term for systems with these characteristics. Its first seven letters spell ‘cluster:’

  • Shortly after the turn-of-the-century, I helped the District of Columbia examine some issues haunting its special education system from a class action lawsuit (Petties v. District of Columbia). While it would take an entire book to even gloss over the imbecilic challenges which that lawsuit created, I was struck by a single aspect of the system and the astonishing explanations for it I received. The huge service area encompassed the entire District, its surrounding suburbs, and extended as deep into northern Virginia as Fairfax and as southeast into Maryland as Annapolis – literally hundreds of square miles. Yet it stored hundreds of vehicles in five storage yards scattered randomly throughout the service area. When I asked where the “boundaries” were for each storage location’s “service area,” management did not even understand the question. Simplifying it, I then asked, “What’s the furthest distance from a typical storage yard you would transport a student – assuming, naively, that the students would be transported by those vehicles stored pretty much closest to their origins or destinations. Instead, I was told not only that the sole determinant of a storage yard’s location was the availability to find one that was affordable, but that, otherwise, there was no rationale whatsoever linking any trip for any student to any storage yard. In other words, this already profoundly-dysfunctional system carrying an average of four students per vehicle when they all traveled (partly because of the woeful on-time performance contributed to a “no-show” rate greater than 25%), and deploying mostly full-size school buses, had no rationale whatsoever for pairing vehicles with the origins or destinations of its passengers spread throughout much of a three-State area. We could only wonder about the extraordinary amount of deadhead time and resources wasted, much less the obscenely-unnecessarily long ride times many of these special education student-victims experienced – even though the law suit’s Consent Decree placed limits on this parameter that effectively undermined its efficiency. I felt intuitively that roughly 20 to 30 percent of the system’s entire budget flowed down the sewer from this single failure alone. To even briefly describe many of this system’s other, equally-wasteful measures would overwhelm an entire issue of this magazine.
  • During my 10 years directing a 70-vehicle paratransit system in a suburban and rural service area, respectively, in northern Los Angeles County, roughly one sixth of our 950 physically and developmentally-disabled adults and infants in the lower, San Fernando Valley service area attended a single program located in the far eastern corner of it; more than 60% of them lived west of the 405 Freeway that effectively split “The Valley” into an “East-” and “West Valley.” Many of this program’s attendees were forced to ride for more than 90 minutes one-way. Intimately familiar with every color-coded client and program on my 11- by 7-foot map of the service area, I spent one weekend re-routing all 950 “dots” — with the single, out-of-the-way program “relocated” to the center of the service area. When I mentioned to my lead agency that if it moved this single program to the center of the Valley, I could save it $38,000 a month (in a $6M/year program), they responded by pointing out that they were using the existing facility “rent-free.” When I asked them what the rent would likely be (my guess, in 1985, was $3000) for a similarly-sized building located in the center of the service area, they changed the subject. In other words, this anointed guardian of the State’s treasury simply had no remote interest in reducing its transportation costs by a full fourth if doing so required them to pull their collective hands from beneath their collective …well you know.
  • Several years ago, the educational intelligentsia of Pinellas County, FL decided that competition between schools would improve the quality of their education, and as a consequence, abandoned their scores of small, concise school districts and instead, allowed any student to attend any school within the entire 308 square miles of the school district. The chaos this decision wrought on the transportation system was not only a cost fiasco, but a safety fiasco. As an expert witness, I effectively walked away from defending the school district in its third and fourth crossing fatalities. Cost-wise, the negligibly-expanded budget to perform this insanity was so grossly underfunded that no live Earthlings had time to personally examine any of the stops selected by a software program that ignored amenities like crossover bridges. When, under intense political pressure, the district’s transportation staff was  actually ordered to physically examine each stop, they found THREE HUNDRED as dangerous as the 10-lane, un-signalized intersection of a 70 mph highway with two staggered, intersecting cross-streets that led to one of the cases I effectively “walked away from” (where elementary school-age students were forced to dash across five freeway lanes in between gaps of high-speed traffic to reach a median strip full of broken sewerage pipes, barbed wire and piles of jagged garbage). The costs in lives was obscene. But the cost of service, had it even been provided intelligently – which the Board’s policy pretty much made impossible – was impossible to even estimate. Many trips to and from school that had previously involved a handful of miles – when they were not indeed within walking distance – now escalated into 10- to 20-mile trips “as the crow flies” – and were obviously much longer, time-wise, since the full size school buses on which these students rode now meandered through a maze of origins and destinations in all directions within the huge service area to bring their students to their selected schools. Needless to say, the transportation realities were so overwhelming for the students that they operated as a constraint to force them back to attending schools much closer to where they lived – defeating the educational purpose of the idiotic folly that triggered this temporary exodus to begin with. Otherwise, apart from a handful of wasted lives, the monetary costs of this experiment – the transportation department obviously overran its budget by a huge margin – were obscene.

System Design Matters

Looking merely at these three examples – which may not be the nation’s worst, but instead, only three of the worst I’ve personally encountered — ignorance about time-and-space relationship, was easily costing two of them a third to a fourth of their entire budgets. I could not begin to know how much money was wasted in the third fiasco. Not surprisingly, none of the officials in  charge of these systems, nor the vast majority of pupil transportation directors I have met, have ever even heard of the concept of “system design.” Yet while such vast cost savings are possible simply by eliminating such colossal ignorance and intelligently manipulating the variables that effect system efficiency, desperate school districts have been eking out virtually negligible cost-savings through approaches like consolidating bus stops (which compromise passenger safety) or investing in marginally-more-effective fuel sources (like corn-based bio-fuels). Have we lost our minds? Is there no sharing of information? Are we really as stupid as our paratransit-providing cousins? The answer to this last question is, “No, we are not,” as we shall soon see.

To be fair, the best and brightest of the pre-ADA paratransit systems knew how to create enormous efficiencies in service areas with practically no density, simply by manipulating the handful of variables noted in the essay on my website (see “Principles of Paratransit System Design” on www.transalt.com).  But the most tragic aspect of this problem is the fact that the vast lion’s share of special education and complementary paratransit service providers are not even aware that such opportunities exist! It has never even dawned on a huge majority of transportation systems that cost savings can be achieved simply by designing them.

In stating all this, clearly the pupil transportation community as a whole is far more advanced than its paratransit cousins in some important ways. For one, one of the six keys for providing efficient service is the almost universal provision of “subscription service” – which has been the basic approach to providing school bus service practically since its origins.  Further, the lion’s share of school districts have actually created “system designs” – or at least have grasped a major key to it – by evolving their provision of service into two or three “tiers” of service – often three morning and afternoon tiers – and in the process, reducing deadhead time, and creating longer shifts that helped to attract more-qualified drivers and bus monitors. This approach is a significant achievement, and its application has spread rapidly. So important inroads have already been made by those members of our community willing to break away from lethargic traditions and make much-needed changes.

At the same time, while these inroads have effected reductions in travel costs, they have only scratched the surface. Even using the example of tiers, the separation of students into tiers partly reflects the fact that high schools operate the longest number of hours while elementary schools operate the shortest. But it also reflects the notion that mixing students of these three age groups is problematic as a safety matter (molestation, violence and bullying are only starting points). At the same time, the addition of one or two bus monitors and the application of even basic safety technology (e.g., video cameras and the regular examination of their evidence) would enable vehicles to increase their efficiencies significantly – particularly in low-density areas – by combining students of all ages into the same vehicles and routes. So even this clever attempt at cost savings (i.e., separating students into tiers) may be leaning in the wrong direction – almost certainly so in many cases, particular in low-density rural areas.

In future installments, when School Bus Fleet has the space (and I have the time to compose pieces to fill it), I will provide additional examples of what can be done to achieve dramatic cost-savings through simply putting the right things in the right places at the right times, and coordinating the places that vehicles go with the places they start from. I will also explore some perfectly safe yet non-traditional methods of transporting students of all ages – many of which already exist in “pockets of wisdom” strewn around the country in both big cities with thick fleet and user densities and in rural areas with neither. I will expose a plethora of wasteful practices – like purchasing and deploying vehicles with grossly-excessive capacity, or assigning attendants to buses whose students do not need them. And I will set SBF readers free to use the fabulous mental capabilities they possess – and which have simply been suppressed by tradition, inertia, politics and laziness – to unleash their imaginations to explore how to mold the characteristics of their service areas into far more efficient ones simply by manipulating the countless temporal and spatial variables at their disposal.

Finally, I accept feedback. So I am expecting those readers with a knowledge of the practices I suggest – and some perhaps even better – to share them with me, so that I can in turn pass them along to SFB readers in general. I cannot promise to return every e-mail. But I will promise to read and consider them.

The proper management of time and space may not be the last frontier for cost savings that seems to be available without sacrificing passenger safety and employment. But, to date, it is the frontier that offers exponentially more opportunity to reduce costs than any other (other than perhaps bigger and bigger buses and longer and longer ride times). Most exciting of all, the greatest constraints to finding these solutions are merely the limits of our knowledge and open-mindedness. The more creative and knowledgeable we become, and the more ideas we are willing to share with fellow members of our community, the more opportunities we will begin to see. No better proof of this may be found than on the essay I noted above where an enlightened system — intelligently and creatively designed in a low-density rural area — achieved nearly 10 times of the productivity of a high density urban system.

In the meantime, give some thought to the enormity of waste in the three examples cited in this installment. You may be surprised to find yourself making similar mistakes, even if not quite as obvious or as wasteful. But make no mistake about it: Manipulating time and space, and correctly aligning the scores or hundreds of variables that may have to be modified in order to squeeze the maximum cost savings out of these changes, is the aspect of special education transportation where the greatest costs savings, by far, are achievable. And if that is not enough, along the way, we may even find ways to apply some of these same principles to reducing the costs of general education school bus service. 

Ned Einstein may be reached at Einstein@transalt.com, and welcomes comments, criticisms and feedback. 

Publications: School Bus Driver.