4 Easy Ways To Save $175,000 On School Transportation

  • Posted on: 30 January 2019
  • By: chris_admin

Talk with school transportation directors about finances and they will tell you there's no extra money in their budget. In 2015, the budget of an average school district was $47M with $1.75M allocated to transportation. (1) The average school district has a 35-bus fleet and is spending $50,000 per bus per year. (2) 

An average sized school district will be able to lower cost at least 10% by following a strategy of eliminating waste. Technology can provide easy access to useful metrics that identify waste and help with management. If you do not have technology that makes getting answers easy there are simple ways to get the information without needing to make any investment in technology. At the end of this article I provide a summary of the metrics you may use to get at savings.

  1. Fuel Efficiency - Our company installed GPS with Engine Control Unit monitors in a large school bus fleet in Missouri. The system reported average miles per gallon of 2.4 across the fleet. Expected MPG in new school bus vehicles is between 4 and 6 MPG. At these rates a vehicle expected to travel 15,000 miles in a year would consume $11,538 in gas versus $7,500 in a new vehicle. That is a loss of $4,038 for that vehicle for that year. (3) It is extremely valuable to recognize which vehicles are wasting fuel so you can upgrade accordingly as soon as you recognize the economics have shifted against you. Share facts about actual cost by vehicle due to fuel efficiency with district leadership. Most leaders will appreciate the professionalism and you may find advocates for new more efficiently functioning and easier to maintain vehicles.

Here is how to calculate MPG if you do not have a system. Plan a short dry run to test and calculate the MPG for each vehicle. The purpose of the test is to create a situation where you can take an MPG reading under circumstances where you know idle time is zero. It is critical to isolate your MPG calculation from idle time because the test will serve as the basis for your idle time calculation under number 2 below.

On a nice clear day, maybe a Saturday, fill the tanks of your vehicles and send each on a short test run having recorded the before mileage. When each vehicle returns record the after mileage and fuel consumed allowing you to calculate MPG. 

  1. Idle Time - Idle time is a cost that hides neatly in the shadows of day-to-day operation. From the metrics we get aboard school buses it is common to see half the fuel consumed by a vehicle attributed to idle time. If you do not currently monitor or manage idle time you definitely have a major opportunity to save because idle time that goes unmonitored is a massive run away cost in terms of fuel and maintenance.

If you use the method for calculating MPG suggested above the calculation excludes idle time. Now if you calculate MPG from regular school bus routes it will include the waste associated with idle time. By subtracting the fuel efficiency MPG calculated in #1 from the regular school bus route MPG the result is an idle time measurement for each vehicle.

Here are some tips to help educate drivers and begin to eradicate idle time.

  1. Idle no longer than is necessary to bring the bus to proper operating temperature or to defrost the windows if necessary.
  2. Drivers should not bring an activity like reading the paper or knitting along to keep busy while the bus warms up. Not a joke, I have seen it myself!
  3. Do not idle at bus stops where loading and unloading students is unnecessary
  4. Do not allow your bus to idle while waiting for students
  5. Provide feedback to drivers on their cost of idle time waste
  6. Have a contest among drivers or other original ways to make idle time a focus
  1. Policy Adjustments - The districts policy related to transportation is a major determinant of cost. 
    1. Examples of policy that may be adjusted:
      1. Distance students are made to walk to a common bus stop?
      2. Elementary students picked up at their door or may they be assigned to common bus stops?
      3. Distance of perimeter determining eligibility for transportation
      4. Rules governing maximum ride times for students
      5. Enforcement of policy where strict enforcement disallows most exceptions to policy and lax enforcement creates many exceptions that increase cost.
      6. Policy that encourages personalized service

Your knowledge about policy and its cost will impact your ability to influence policy. Most of my day is spent talking with Transportation Directors and Superintendents. They are often distressed by lavish transportation policy that encourages personalized service for a system designed to serve the masses. One example is accommodating students with assignments on several buses. Perhaps the students parents are divorced and their grandmother looks after them some days. This example may lead to having that student assigned to three buses where 2 out of 3 of those seats will be empty 100% of the time.

  1. Here are examples of walk-to-stop rules that show the impact of adjusting rules related to how far a student may walk to a common bus stop: 1.5 miles, 1 mile and .5 miles. This example is a little extreme to illustrate how efficient you could make a each stop if you suspend consideration to other factors like safety and practicality.
Distance to Common Bus Stop Bus Stops
1/2 Mile 265
1 Mile 145
1 1/2 Mile 66

.5 mile maximum to a common bus stop, 265 stops

1 mile maximum to a common bus stop, 145 stops

1.5 mile maximum to a common bus stop, 66 stops

  1. Load Factor - Using the right sized vehicle for the right number of passengers is an important determinant of cost. This is made more difficult when managing utilization around activities, sporting events, multi household families and after school care. Calculate load factor by dividing the number of passengers by the number of seats. From our student tracking data most school buses operate between 40% and 70% load factor. This is a tremendous waste of resources and why we are developing our Dynamic Routing solution. This solution uses a Southwest Airlines like "check-in" system where parents let the district know if their child needs a ride or not. That way routes can be drawn to serve only the students that need rides.

The way to create savings related to load factor is to match the vehicle to passenger load and find ways to run buses closer to capacity. This could mean planning routes more like when airlines "oversell" a flight knowing that a certain percentage of passengers will drop out. Since you need to accommodate everyone there needs to be ways to quickly handle situsations when everyone shows up. Maybe an on demand UBER pool like contractor to occasionally ferry students who live in remote corners of the district? Today most districts assume every eligible rider will take the bus so they needlessly send the same vehicle everyday and they visit every stop. Better information about which students need a ride and which do not is a key to dramatically lower transportation cost. 

Measuring utilization of each vehicle is very straightforward. Periodically ask your drivers to keep track of their passenger load for each run over a week. For the morning runs they simply need to count the number of passengers they deliver to school. For afternoon runs they need a count of passengers aboard their bus before they depart the school. Give each driver a clipboard with a grid they can fill in for each run, each day and each tier if applicable.

Finding savings is a management exercise of knowing where to look and how to achieve results. Good management of these problems will bring great results quickly!

Summary: Metrics & Actions

  1. Measure MPG without idle time. Upgrade vehicles as indicated by economics.
  2. Measure Idle time, work with drivers to educate and eradicate.
  3. Know how policy impacts cost. Educate, influence and adjust policy to meet service and cost objectives.
  4. Measure Vehicle Load Factor to determine where you have waste in the system. Assign vehicles according to load, combine routes and plan less to the maximum possible load and more to the load factor.

By Christopher Bunnell, January 31, 2019


1. $639B in total school district expenses among 13,506 districts with $24.2B allocated for transportation. https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2017/cb17-97-public-education-finance.html

2. 13,506 School Districts https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/School_district, 484,000 school buses https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/School_bus

3. $2 per gallon, January 2019