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How TransitTech can help vulnerable student groups

  •   5 min read
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In 1939, a group of engineers and transportation officials met in New York to solve a pressing issue: how to get children to and from school safely and cost-effectively, all across the country. Frank Cyr, a rural education and transportation expert, convened the conference after realizing that there was no singular standard regulating school buses nationwide: colors, sizes, and types abounded. Even in the mid-twentieth century, some students were still traveling by horse-drawn cart. 

The solution Cyr and his compatriots devised was a technological one: a standardized school bus, painted in a color determined for maximum visibility in early mornings and late afternoons when students traveled, and able to be mass-manufactured across the country for considerably less money than one-off designs specific to individual school districts. Cyr’s innovation worked: thanks to the standardization and regulation of safety-oriented school bus design, students traveling by school bus are now seventy times safer than those traveling by private car.

The school transportation environment has grown more complex in the years since, with administrators seeking to prioritize the needs of students with disabilities, unstable housing, and others perhaps not considered in the prewar era. And yet, the dual pressures facing the industry are the same: safety and cost. With school bus transportation so much safer than car travel, access to this mode of transportation becomes an equity issue. In turn, ensuring that all students, particularly those with disabilities, remain safe especially when school resources are stretched thin is an even more pressing challenge. 

The recent driver shortage and the ripple effects it has caused – longer trip times, reduced routes, and other frustrations – calls attention to the areas where technology used to manage school transportation has fallen behind the TransitTech transforming the rest of the public and private sectors. This failure to keep up has disproportionately affected students with disabilities and other underserved groups. 

The yellow school bus was a revolutionary technology that transformed the lives of public school students. Read on to learn how new technologies can ensure that all students can continue to have equal access to school transportation. 

Serving students with disabilities.

Providing safe and reliable transportation for students with disabilities has become a more urgent priority as student volumes grow — due to better identification of students with special needs — while persistent driver shortages force longer, more circuitous routes. Though TransitTech cannot entirely relieve either of these pressures, it can help schools provide better, more consistent service with the resources available to them. Technology can bring three improvements: more accurate student tracking, more efficient routing, and better provision of student transportation needs to drivers.

Even before the national transit driver shortage, students with disabilities were especially vulnerable to routing issues caused by weather, road closures, and other adverse conditions: horror stories of students aboard buses for hours in snowstorms prompted major changes at the NYC Department of Education. Even worse: for the duration of the incidents, parents and caretakers had no idea where their children were. 

As prolonged travel times become a more regular occurrence due to the driver shortage, measures like bus tracking — and even more critically, caregiver visibility into students’ locations— become even more important for parents and caregivers looking for peace of mind. The solution a district in New York is currently implementing, in partnership with Via, not only tracks buses by GPS signal, but includes ridership tracking where students will be scanning on and off the bus with an easily replaceable bus pass so that parents and caregivers, following along in a mobile app, can tell exactly where their students are on their journeys home. Additionally, ridership tracking on the vehicle allows school users to see student attendance in real-time and supports school bus vendors in being able to locate students more easily when they receive phone calls from parents and caregivers.

More sophisticated routing software that is able to maximize the efficiency of consolidated routes and adjust routes in response to student absences or traffic disruptions can also reduce the overall time spent on board. Though a benefit to all students, those with disabilities can be especially sensitive to long bus trips, especially when unplanned. Ron Hager, an attorney at the National Disability Rights Network, said that unexpectedly long trips can negatively impact students’ education: “By the time they get to school, if they’ve had these experiences, they’re frazzled, and they’re at their wit’s end. And they need to be calmed down before you can even begin to try and teach the student.” For students with disabilities, inefficient bus travel not only impacts the time required to access education — but the ability to access it at all.

Technology can also help students receive better care while on the bus, minimizing the impact of travel time. Though many drivers who transport students with disabilities get to know their needs and behaviors, and how to help them have a smooth trip, new drivers — or those rotating into a route due to shortages — are often in the dark about how to best help their students have a positive experience on board. If students sign onto the bus electronically, drivers could access a student profile that indicates specific transportation needs as specified in the student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Even brand-new drivers would be better equipped to assist, ensuring students get to school safe and ready to learn.

Serving students with unstable housing.

Between 2005 and 2018, the number of students experiencing homelessness nationwide increased by 5% annually. Though this trend has started to reverse on the national scale, public schools still identified 1,280,886 students experiencing homelessness nationwide in SY 2019-2020 — or 2.5% of all students enrolled in public schools. And in many states, homelessness rates for students continue to rise. Every one of these students presents a unique challenge for traditional student transportation for a simple reason: their addresses — whether staying with family or friends, in a shelter, in a hotel, or unsheltered — is subject to change at short notice.

Providing reliable transportation for students experiencing homelessness is not only critical for advancing individual students’ educations, but advancing racial equity: homelessness, and the unstable school transportation that results, is disproportionately likely to affect students of color. In 2020, Hispanic and Latino students comprised 28% of the public school population, yet 38% of students experiencing homelessness; Black and African American students comprised 15% of public school students, yet 27% of those experiencing homelessness.

With a new technology solution, parents and caregivers — or students themselves, if needed — can set multiple pickup addresses and request that a student is picked up from one address on Mondays and Wednesdays, another on Thursdays, and update this schedule as needed. Students can be added to multiple routes at the start of the school year, and adjust as their situations change. This solution would also benefit students with multiple residences, such as those who split time between separated or divorced parents. 

The yellow bus, for a new century.

School buses are the most ubiquitous form of mass transportation in the United States: across all districts, the American school bus fleet is 2.5 times the size of all other mass transit fleets combined. It is most Americans’ first contact with mass transportation — and has the power to shape attitudes toward transit going forward, whether positively or negatively. School districts have an opportunity to be leaders in equity and inclusion by introducing new technologies that can help their most vulnerable students, and ensure that technological innovation in school transportation does not stop with the yellow bus.