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Massive efficiency gains for managing school bus routes

Ministry of Education

About Ministry of Education

School Transport is part of Education Infrastructure Services, a division of the Ministry of Education. Responsibilities include providing transport services to assist students in getting to their closest appropriate school where distance is a barrier to accessing education. To determine a student’s eligibility for government funded transport, the transport policy sets criteria on the type of school, distance between home and school, and access to suitable public transport. 

The Ministry contracts the operational management of the school transport policy to regionally-based service agents, who, in turn, work with schools and transport service providers, whose role is the day-to-day running of school bus routes. 

The Ministry has an operational budget of around $185m to ensure the safe, effective delivery of school transport services, and together with its agents, administers more than 4,000 daily bus trips. The School Transport team also administers transport assistance for special needs students, Maori medium schools and transport to enable students to attend technology training at other schools.

The Problem

The routing and maintenance of over 4,000 school bus routes was completed manually using a variety of records in different formats. This process was inconsistent, costly, time-consuming and inefficient.

The Ministry could not confidently report on conformance with transport policy rules and struggled to keep up with ever-changing student demographics and transport data.

The Goal

To overcome these challenges, the Ministry needed a secure, digital, repeatable business process for the creation and maintenance of school bus routes. It was vital that this process adhered to school transport policy, delivered operational and cost efficiency improvements for school transport services, and ensured all services were targeted to the needs of school children and their families.

The Student Transport Route Optimiser (STRO), a spatially-enabled technology solution developed by Critchlow Geospatial, has provided exactly that.

The Challenge

The Ministry faced two major challenges: the increasing cost in delivering school transport services; and difficulty in accurately maintaining bus routes, which was further compounded by constantly changing transport network and student eligibility data.

Administering school bus services to around 100,000 eligible school children across the country is no small feat. Over 2,200 school bus routes are utilised twice every school day throughout New Zealand. Planning and maintenance by service agents needs to be completed for every single route, all while complying with policies which determine student eligibility for government-funded transport.

This is a huge undertaking for the Ministry and its service agents. One that was, prior to STRO, completed manually using static information in formats such as spreadsheets, PDFs, screenshots and paper maps.

This process was inconsistent, costly, time-consuming and inefficient. It meant that it wasn’t possible to review routes frequently enough to keep pace with changes in student demographics, nor changes in the transport network that affect bus routes (such as new roads and speed limit changes). The Ministry also identified that some children that should have a bus didn’t, and outdated route records were also incurring unnecessary costs.

“[In the delivery of this project], Critchlow demonstrated the huge potential of
geospatial data and technology 
in a way that means the Ministry is now
considering how the work can be extended to further its service provision to the public.
"
 ­
- Rob Deakin, NZ Spatial Excellence Awards judging panel.

The Solution

Critchlow Geospatial integrated the Ministry’s business rules with route optimisation technologies, map rendering, viewing, reporting capability and a number of datasets including NationalMap™ (Critchlow Geospatial’s comprehensive street-level spatial dataset) to automate three vital tasks:

  1. Determine the school transport eligibility for each student;
  2. Enable automated design and viewing of optimised bus routes; and
  3. Report on the impact of route reviews on key performance indicators such as time, distance travelled and cost.

Employing a variety of secure Ministry datasets such as student addresses, transport entitlement rules and school enrolment zones, STRO can assess student eligibility for transport. NationalMap™ also plays a vital part in the process, enabling the accurate calculation of travel time and distances.

STRO image v2View of an optimised route

As well as eligibility rules, STRO takes into account complex factors including distance, journey times, speed limits, load capacity of buses, consideration of safety issues (such as availability of safe loading and unloading locations), waiting time and cost.

At the heart of STRO is the spatial viewer that provides a clear display of each route scenario, along with relevant contextual information. The reporting function provides important impact analyses of route reviews that show metrics such as cost per kilometre, cost per student and number of students.

A key output of the STRO solution is a solid framework for testing scenarios to determine the appropriate route based on the transport policy using empirical data. This means the impact of proposed route changes can be assessed and evaluated prior to these changes taking place, cutting down on time and cost. Vehicle and fleet utilisation can also be evaluated and maximised to reduce costs.

The solution can be deployed locally, or provided via a cloud-based user interface, accessed via a secure URL.

"Critchlow Geospatial's 2016 New Zealand Spatial Excellence Award submission “Student Transport Route Optimiser sets a new benchmark for Ministry of Education” presented an exceptional piece of work that has revolutionised the way in which the Ministry assesses and manages school transport provision," says Rob Deakin, one of the judges of the Awards.

"By placing spatial data and intelligence at the heart of the process of route assessment, the project has created huge efficiencies in the processes of route design, optimisation and contract management, creating a $20 million in-year saving and achieving a double digit benefit cost ratio for the Ministry."

The judging panel went on to recognise and congratulate Critchlow Geospatial "for the delivery of this project, for 'delighting their client', and for demonstrating the huge potential of geospatial data and technology in a way that means the Ministry is now considering how the work can be extended to further improve its service provision to the public."

The Result

The Student Transport Route Optimiser (STRO) breaks new ground for the maintenance and development of school bus routes. It has reduced the time taken to review a route from up to four weeks to only four hours and has provided the Ministry with a level of visibility, cost and operational efficiency that wasn’t possible before.

A new benchmark has been set

STRO has allowed the Ministry to apply school transport policy – which determines student eligibility for government-funded transport – in a consistent way across the whole school population, enabling them to produce trusted, accurate and empirical data and giving certainty to decision-making. It has also allowed the Ministry to offer the most effective school transport routes for school children across New Zealand.

“STRO puts the transport policy on a map. It enables the Ministry to report to its stakeholders with confidence. The solution provided is a repeatable and auditable process for the Ministry to collect, collate and disseminate accurate information to key stakeholders. It has given certainty to the Ministry’s decision-making in a way that hasn’t before been possible,” says Scott Kennedy, Critchlow Geospatial Sales and Marketing Leader.

The project was initially delivered as a pilot in July 2015 throughout the Otago/Southland region and, with the Ministry expressing high levels of satisfaction with the pilot’s outcomes and deliverables, was then rolled out throughout New Zealand. As of August 2016, STRO is being used on a daily basis by the Ministry’s national office School Transport team and regional service agents across the country.

Graeme Bond, Transport Manager at School Support Ltd, which administers school transport services to South Island schools on behalf of the Ministry, was involved in the pilot. Graeme described the pilot project as “a ‘breath of fresh air’ in how it has delivered on service agents’ business needs.”

The School Transport team now views STRO as one of its core business solutions and anticipates utilising the system and the information it provides for a minimum of five years. As Delaney Myers, Director of School Transport for the Ministry of Education notes, “The project outputs have exceeded our expectations.”

Proactive cost monitoring

Using STRO, service agents can proactively optimise routes; and the faster review cycle pays off by right sizing transport services to student needs while ensuring cost-effective delivery of transport services. The Ministry has also said that, despite the system only having been in use since June 2016 nationwide, savings generated by STRO means all costs associated with its development will be recouped this financial year.

“STRO will, quite simply, deliver better value for money, giving confidence to the Ministry and its stakeholders that funds are being spent judiciously,” says Scott.

Enables national collaboration

This transformative solution provides a level of transparency that did not exist before. For the first time, the Ministry’s national office team and regional service agents can access a single core system that leverages key, authoritative data.

“Whether it’s a Ministry representative or a service agent, each user sees the same results. This creates an environment that is transparent and one that is capable of accommodating the constant changes in student rolls, roading data, and schools.  People involved in decisions regarding bus routes are now working with nationally consistent, empirical evidence on which to base their decisions,” says Scott.

Working in partnership

“Critchlow’s comprehensive project management methodology was one of the keys to the success of this project,” explains Scott.

“Genuine collaboration characterised the development of STRO. Outstanding communication, agile development and our ‘one team’ approach have produced outcomes that deliver real value for the Ministry.”

Delaney from the Ministry was “very pleased” with the collaborative project management approach for STRO.

The outcome

Bringing together the two critical components of STRO – geospatial data and technology – the Ministry has been able to achieve three key outcomes:

  1. The Ministry is able to readily assess which students are eligible for assistance and tailor services to them. They now have empirical data generated through a robust, repeatable process that takes into account the constantly changing population spread and identifies which students are eligible for school transport. This ensures services are tailored to students, which in practice means some routes have been extended to deliver more services where they are needed and shortened where they are not. STRO’s route optimisation technology includes reporting capability, map rendering and viewing.
  2. The complex process of route design has been made more efficient. Automated design and viewing of optimised bus routes has demonstrated that a single route review, which formerly took up to four weeks to complete, can now be done by a single person in four hours. This increases the number of reviews that can be done at any one time and, together with the currency of information, gives greater confidence that policy is being applied consistently.
  3. STRO offers massive efficiency gains to the Ministry. The optimised combinations of routes designed by STRO have proven more efficient than manually designed routes, meaning the students are transported at less cost to the taxpayer. The additional benefits not initially contemplated include reduced emissions and road infrastructure wear resulting from better designed routes.

“The project was a ‘breath of fresh air’ in how it
has delivered on service agents’ needs.”
 ­
- Graeme Bond, Transport Manager, School Support Ltd.

Benefits of STRO
  • Tailor services for the current student population
  • Maximise vehicle and fleet utilisation for reduced costs
  • Model “what if” scenarios to evaluate the impact of proposed route changes
  • Significantly reduce planning time compared to manual route optimisation
  • Plan realistic routes based on latest road network data
  • Deliver a consistent, robust, repeatable process for route management.
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"The project outputs have exceeded our expectations."

Delaney Myers
Director of School Transport