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School Buses: Choosing a GPS Tracking Solution

3 May, 2019 |

So it’s the end of the year, and you are starting to think about ways that GPS tracking could help your school or district in the coming school year. Perhaps you heard from a colleague about how GPS tracking helped them control their fleet better, communicate more effectively with parents, etc. Maybe you saw information at a recent conference. Regardless, it is clear that GPS tracking provides unprecedented information to both transportation staff and parents and is transforming how school transportation operates nationwide.

But how do you begin? What are the components of a successful GPS system, and what options should you consider? The world of GPS tracking can be broken down into several key components, which we hope will help you think about how to get started.

Ease of Use

You will be adding a software system that will be used by your staff for hours a day, and which will be shared with hundreds or thousands of parents in your district. It is critical that this system be easy to install, quick to setup, require minimum maintenance, and be a pleasure to work with. Anything short of that will cause pushback from your staff and has the potential to cause more confusion and frustration than it is worth.

GPS-Based Fleet Tracking

This is the core of any system. A provider will send a physical tracking device, usually about the size of a small brick or large cellphone. This remarkable device has the ability to receive GPS signals, use an internal cellular SIM card to communicate with a cellular network, and send data with some frequency to a service. You log into the service from a web browser or mobile device and view the position of the device on a map.

Within this broad definition, there are some details that are worth asking about:

  • Quality of the tracker: Is the hardware from a reputable and trustworthy manufacturer, or built cheaply by an unknown company? Because this is the heart of the system, it needs to be rock solid, able to work in sub-zero winter temperatures or after being baked in a parked bus in the summer sun.
  • Ease of installation: Does the tracker require hard wiring or hiring an electrician to install in the bus? Does it work “plug & play” into the bus’s maintenance port? Do your buses have this port, and if not: Does the tracker have the option to get power from the cigarette lighter (and do your buses have one)?
  • Connectivity: Does it use radio or cellular? Radio could be less expensive but might not be able to work while the audio channel is in use or have other constraints. If cellular, does it support a carrier that has reasonable cell strength in your area?
  • Frequency of updates: How often does the tracker update? Since the tracker is sending data over the cellular network which is often charged per byte, more frequent updates may be more expensive. Thirty-second updates are adequate for knowing where your buses are, but provides a very unsatisfying and inaccurate picture for watching buses in real-time, providing ETAs, and recording arrived/skipped stops.
  • Vehicle telematics: Since the tracker typically plugs into a maintenance port (J-1939 or OBD2), it may be able to get and transmit information beyond position and speed. Typically this can include odometer, fuel levels, etc. but may also provide intelligence on safety-related driving habits.

Routing / Route Planning

Routing is a key part of your planning for the coming year. How many routes will you be running? How do you best split up X students over Y routes, across multiple geographic areas?

This is a difficult challenge, especially for larger districts. As the number of students increases and the geographic area is greater, creating an optimal route becomes a mathematical problem interesting enough that MIT spent time trying to solve it.

There are software packages that specialize in large-scale route planning, without any connection to or requirement of a GPS real-time tracking solution. On some level, these are separate challenges and can be handled by different companies, frequently with an ability to integrate using shared files or APIs. You may choose to use one company for route planning and another for real-time GPS. Some GPS providers (including BusWhere) have a powerful route planning module that lets you drag-and-drop stops around on a route for “what-if” planning: You set the sequence of the stops and the system will automatically generate the route between them.

The important thing to consider for route planning is how much automation you need. If you can (or if you prefer) to make decisions about which stops should be on which route, a straight-forward, easy-to-use system will give you the best experience. If you want to be able to throw 500 addresses at an algorithm and have it generate 30 routes with recommended stop sequences, you may want to consider a dedicated route planning solution in addition to your GPS tracking software.

Route-Aware Tracking

Once you have a GPS tracker installed, and have defined routes in your system, the next step is to combine these in real-time as the bus moves around. While fleet tracking will show you the movement of buses on a map, route-aware tracking will tell you which bus is running which route, which stops have been arrived at, departed from, or skipped on this particular run of the route, and what the ETA is at upcoming stops along the route.

Due to route changes, bus swaps, and road conditions, this is in fact rather difficult to do well. For example, we heard a story from a director of transportation who installed a GPS system with parent app across a large district, and the day school started, 20% of the fleet was parked / running different buses for various legitimate reasons (maintenance, last-minute changes, etc.). The staff was left frantically reconfiguring buses every day, parents were confused and frustrated, and the initiative failed.

BusWhere has patented auto-detect algorithms that watch the buses in real-time and determine which route they are running automatically, without any manual configuration needed. So if Bus 42 usually runs the “Red Route AM” route, but Bus 42 is out for maintenance and Bus 63 is running instead, BusWhere will figure this out automatically, the fleet map will show Bus 63 as running Red Route today, and parents will receive notifications as usual, with no manual configuration needed.

Other systems use techniques like geofencing to determine when a bus is in a specific area to alert parents that it is getting close, but without knowing where on the route it is, the information might not be reliable. Alternately you can manually move buses between routes, but this introduces additional work for the transportation staff every morning before the buses start to run.

The nice thing about route-aware tracking is that it provides information that can feed back into the route planning process. BusWhere’s patent includes what we call learned routes, in which the system will recommend a route setup based on how the driver has historically driven the route. So if the default routing between stops is incorrect, the driver simply drives the route once in order to configure the route. BusWhere also provides “suggested stops,” which show the administrator where the bus has historically stopped “nearby” a configured stop, which might inform a route setup change. This helps keep the routes as defined in sync with how the driver is actually driving, for improved ETA accuracy.

Parent App

With route-aware tracking comes the ability to provide an app for parents, something that more and more parents are starting to demand. Some districts are starting to require schools to meet this demand (like New York City did in early 2019). And having an app is a win for everyone.

Parents love the app. It lets them plan their day, and most of all removes the uncertainty of getting to the bus stop and not knowing if they just missed the bus or if it’s almost there.

Kids love the app. We’ve heard of kids watching the bus move on the app, telling their parents when it’s around the corner, and then marveling at the novelty of watching as it pulls up in front of the house and on the map at the same time.

Drivers love the app. They know that parents are watching them, and that, whether they are running a few minutes early or late, the kids will likely be outside exactly when they arrive.

Transportation staff members love the app. Parents with the app don’t call the office to ask where the bus is: they check the app. And if a parent calls to find out why the bus skipped their stop, they can check the logs and see what actually happened and what time the bus got to that stop.

A parent app must have the following capabilities:

  • Provide secure access to parents so a parent can only see the route(s) they have permission to see, and an administrator can add/remove access at a moment’s notice as needed
  • Show the bus moving on the map in real-time (i.e. fluid movement)
  • Show an ETA at the parent’s stop(s) of interest
  • Send a automated notification to the parent as the bus is getting close to their stop

Other features such as traffic overlays so parents can see WHY a bus is delayed are also useful.

Because each school has different needs, an app should be able to handle the following two common (and opposite) requirements that schools might have:

Either:

  • Parents should be able to see the whole route and ETAs at any stop, so that if they miss the bus they can know where it is and drive their child to a later stop before the bus gets there,

or

  • Parents should NOT be able to see the whole route, just the bus on the map and an ETA at their stop, so as not to cause confusion/unnecessary complaints about the route and the other stops.

Messaging

With a parent app that provides automated notifications, you don’t have to worry about manually sending messages to parents since the system will send them out by itself when the bus gets close. But parents love context and background as to why things are the way they are. Is there a breakdown that will delay the whole route by at least a half-hour? Is I-90 a parking lot because of construction? A messaging platform will let you email parents on a particular bus, or on several/all buses, with timely and relevant information that will let them understand why the ETA provided by the app is 30 minutes later than usual, or why the bus doesn’t seem to be moving.

We have even heard reports of staff using the messaging feature to ask about lost-and-found items on the bus, or to give parents advanced reassurance about a security incident that their children might tell them about when they get home. Communication gives parents the sense that their children are in good hands, and that when something unexpected happens, they will have the information they need.

Safety & Security

Putting a small child on a school bus and watching it drive away can be a traumatic experience for a parent. The trust involved is massive, especially for younger children. A GPS tracking system should provide parents with a greater sense of confidence that they know where their child is, and that their child is safe and protected. Some considerations:

  • Access to information on the bus location must be secured. An administrator must be able to invite someone, with the invitation tied to a specific email address, so that it can’t be forwarded or accepted by an unknown third party.
  • The GPS tracker should, if possible, be able to provide intelligence on driver behavior. The BusWhere tracker, for example, can track fast braking, sudden acceleration, and sudden turns, and provide that to administrators in a log for feedback to the driver.
  • Some solutions (including BusWhere) may include a physical button that a driver can press to alert predefined contacts at the school that an emergency situation is in progress on the bus. This alert will include the GPS location and address of the bus so that immediate action can be taken.

Logging & Data

With so much emphasis on real-time tracking, logging and data analysis can seem like an afterthought. While some schools watch the logs daily, many schools ignore them completely — until something happens. A bus goes missing (yes this has happened!), or takes two hours to drive what should be a 30-minute route. A bus is always 20 minutes late in the morning. A parent complains about speeding.

When this happens, it is critical to be able to go back and see what happened in an easy and interactive way. BusWhere provides two modes of reviewing historical data:

  • Interactive: An administrator can view a particular run of a route in “DVR” mode, dragging back and forth to rewind/fast-forward a route. At each point you can see the bus’s position on a map as well as its speed, and any safety-related information such as sudden stops/acceleration.
  • Downloadable: If you have data-savvy staff on hand, every single data point is downloadable including speed, position, and address for easy analysis in Excel or import into other data processing systems.

Support / Reachability

Does the provider you are considering answer the phone? If you email the support desk, do you get a quick response? Typically you will get the most attention during the sales cycle–if you can’t get a quick response from a company that is trying to win your business, what will happen once you are already under contract? Consider that you will need assistance throughout the year if parents have questions, if routes change, if unexpected questions arise, etc., and that you are choosing someone to be your partner throughout the year.

Student Tracking

Some districts and schools are requiring systems to track students as well. This is typically done via a key or card that students are given that they swipe when they get on or off the bus.

This has many advantages, in that parents can know not just where the bus is, but that their student got on or off the bus. Transportation staff, especially in the first few weeks of school, can know if a student (especially in the younger grades) got on the wrong bus on the way home.

Student tracking has challenges as well: If a student loses a card, or neglects to swipe in/out, it could cause undue concern by a parent who thinks their child is lost. So such systems should be deployed along with setting reasonable expectations for parents, to prevent an increase in calls/concern in situations where there’s really nothing to worry about.

Price

Schools are frequently under financial pressure. Sometimes budgets are seen as a zero-sum game, in which money spent on what might be perceived as “extras” such as fleet tracking or a parent app could be at the expense of an educational priority.

We have seen several ways in which adding a GPS system with a parent app can be cost-neutral, or even provide savings:

  • Re-allocated staff: By dramatically reducing the number of inbound phone calls, staff members who were answering phones four hours a day can help with other tasks, reducing the need for new hires (and additional staff costs).
  • Removing bus monitors: Some schools pay a part-time staff member to ride the bus and alert parents when the bus is getting close. An app automates this process and could eliminate the need for such a role.
  • Insurance: There is growing evidence that drivers who know they are being tracked will drive more safely. This fact is not lost on insurance companies, who may be able to provide discounts, sometimes significant, for buses that have GPS tracking systems.

Even without these possible cost savings, the incremental cost of GPS tracking systems, while not negligible, is small compared to other parts of the transportation budget such as fuel, staff, fleet purchases, and maintenance.

Satisfaction/Happiness

Lastly, and importantly: One of the best pieces of feedback we receive is about increased positive feelings about the transportation system. The transportation staff is no longer spending hours fielding phone calls from frustrated parents. Schools are able to send messages and communicate better. Parents know their children are being taken care of and can plan their day. The entire system–previously invisible and difficult to understand–now runs smoothly with unprecedented transparency.

BusWhere is proud to be a part of this exciting development in the transportation industry, and we are pleased to participate in nationwide adoption of these systems. Whatever you decide, and whenever you choose to add GPS tracking and parent apps to your system, we are here to discuss how we can help. Contact us anytime at info@buswhere.com.

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