APS: A transportation update

Published 5:45 pm Tuesday, February 8, 2022

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By Dr. Joey Page

Austin Public Schools Superintendent

Last fall, our return to full in-person learning highlighted some serious transportation challenges in routing, arrival, and departures from all sites. To that end, we have been making a deliberate effort to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of this vital service. To make the best choices possible regarding transportation, we have launched a Bell Time Study to help optimize the entire system and determine our schools’ start and end times.

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Do your students rely on buses, or is bus transportation an option for your student?

Then please take a few minutes to learn more about the Bell Study process and what impacts it may have on your student.

How does the Bell

Time Study work?

Generally, there are five steps to any Bell Time Study:

• Interviews with district and busing company;

• Audit current configuration;

• Identify and prioritize desired changes;

• Review preliminary routing to determine timing conflicts; and

• Review options for optimizing.

These steps are roughly in chronological order, but many of them repeatedly happen throughout the process as we get more information and explore different options.

What is the current

status of our buses?

Currently, our buses are at full capacity, and we can’t expand service due to the national labor shortage in the school bus industry. Our district’s current school bus contractor is doing excellent work in maintaining the staffing levels, for which we are extremely grateful!

What’s the current

picture of our district’s busing system?

Our district covers a 133 square mile area serving nine regular education schools. Five of those nine buildings (over half) have the district boundary as the school’s attendance boundary. This current configuration means several things:

•Each building’s transportation system potentially needs to cover the entire 133 square mile area of attendance.

• It takes 15 to 25 minutes for a bus with no passengers to travel from the center of the district (Austin High School) to the boundary. This means that any individual bus trip could potentially need at least 30 minutes between trips without detouring to pick up a single student.

• It will take additional time as the bus detours to pick up or drop off students along the route.

Families with three or more students may have children enrolled in multiple buildings. Even a family with two children (born two years apart) will have their students in different buildings for seven of the 11 years they would be attending school at the same time.

What did we learn from

the Bell Time Study?

Many students must transfer between buses at the third location in their journey to and from school. Because of how the current system is configured, buses need to drop off and picked up at several buildings during the same trip. Presently, students arrive up to 35 minutes before class begins at some buildings and then wait after school for the bus to go home.

During the Bell Time Study audit portion, we discovered a lack of publicly available information. The district does not have published maps of the attendance areas of the elementary schools, and there are no resource maps of the non-transported one-mile areas around the district buildings. We will be creating and sharing this information once the study is complete.

Once we have worked out accurate district boundaries, school attendance boundaries, and non-eligible zones around each building, we will be able to see each school’s total transportation eligible population. These numbers were based on the student file on Dec. 1, 2020.

How does this impact

eligible riders?

Not all students eligible for school bus transportation will ride a bus. A segment of younger students will attend school-age care programs at the elementary schools, some high school students have cars and drive themselves, and some families elect to self-transport rather than have their students ride the bus. However, those numbers alone do not explain why 30% of eligible riders do not currently ride the school bus to or from school.

There are some quality-of-life issues with the system as it is currently configured, including long ride times for a significant portion of the population and the need for students at all grade levels to transfer buses between school and home. For example, of the 2,518 scheduled morning students, 138 have a ride of over 50 minutes each morning. The longest scheduled ride is 1 hour 53 minutes!

How will we be improving our bus system?

Many school transportation consultants look at systems in terms of effectiveness and efficiency (i.e., capacity for all eligible riders, riding times, duplication of routes, etc.) It helps to have working definitions of those terms because it’s essential to know what is being examined in each category.

Currently, the transportation system as it is presently configured makes great use of the fleet it has, reducing driver time, total mileage, and fuel consumption. There are some effectiveness issues. Because of the limited number of drivers available and how close together the current bell times of the schools are, the current system cannot accommodate all of the students who are eligible for transportation.

However, as mentioned earlier, we also wanted to improve ease of use. With extended ride times for some students, the need for many to transfer buses to or from school (or both), and with the large clustering of students at arrival and departure at the buildings, the system is not very user-friendly for students.

When will we see the results

of the Bell Time Study?

We will be completing the Bell Time Study with Board approval before March. At this point, we can share that busing routes will have three different start times. Beginning in the fall, Elementary start times will be earlier, Ellis and IJ will have a later start time, and the high school will not see much time difference. We intend to have changes to bus route times available before the end of the school year.

Thank you for taking the time to learn more about this vital aspect of education in Austin.