INTRODUCTION

Reimagining the Yellow Bus

The school buses pulling up at stops around the country this fall are a bright yellow beacon of normalcy for thousands of parents whose children were relegated to remote school early in the pandemic. But as we rethink every aspect of the next “normal,” it’s time to put student transportation at the top of the list of archaic institutions that are ripe for reinvention.

Student transportation is the largest mass transit system in the U.S., with 27 million students traveling double a day. The U.S. school bus fleet is twice the size of all other mass transit combined, including buses, trains and airlines. Transportation is schools’ second-highest cost category, after salaries, totaling $28 billion a year nationwide. Yet the system is riddled with inefficiencies, from circuitous routes to under-capacity vehicles to one-size-fits all schedules that force students to spend too many precious hours each week in transit, rather than on critical learning and development.

The U.S. school bus fleet is twice the size of all other mass transit combined, including buses, trains and airlines.

At a time when transparency and agility rule the day in other industries, busing remains opaque. Parents have no visibility into where children are at any given moment or—often—who is driving them. Bullying and other safety incidents can take months to come to light. These and other problems translate into thousands of wasted hours and unnecessary stress for students and parents, millions of wasted dollars for already underfunded districts and many metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from a still primarily fossil-fueled school bus fleet.

These and other problems translate into thousands of wasted hours and unnecessary stress for students and parents, millions of wasted dollars for already underfunded districts and many metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from a still primarily fossil-fueled school bus fleet.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The technology currently exists to infuse our nation’s student transportation system with the flexibility, efficiency and transparency we have come to expect from all manner of other services. By modernizing student transportation, we can tackle some of the most significant societal, educational and environmental challenges of the next decade—furthering our broader societal goals of equity, accessibility and sustainability. And we can do all of this while increasing safety for our children and building community among schools, families and a trusted network of drivers.

Other types of transportation have been transformed by multiple evolutions in recent years. And, more change is on the way as electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles and optimized last-mile delivery become more widespread.

Student transportation, by contrast, has remained remarkably unchanged—tracing as far back as the seminal 1939 Columbia University conference where experts first voted on 44 national school bus standards—codifying everything from body length to ceiling height to, of course, color.

The school bus system, as an essential component of public education in this country, was designed to extend opportunity. But too often, it falls woefully short—and can even perpetuate inequality.

The school bus system, as an essential component of public education in this country, was designed to extend opportunity. But too often, it falls woefully short—and can even perpetuate inequality. These days, children from low-income households and those with special needs are more likely than their peers to depend solely on yellow buses for transportation—and are therefore disproportionately impacted by the system’s shortcomings.

At Zum, which has already helped 4,000 U.S. schools begin this transportation transformation, we envision a world where school districts have the best available tools and technologies at their fingertips. With these, they can share infrastructure with other nearby districts, deploy appropriately sized vehicles, create efficient routes, meet families’ changing transportation needs and, in the process, save millions of dollars that can be poured back into the classroom.

We envision a world where inefficiencies and inequities embedded in the school transportation system are rectified in real time, and where bus drivers receive the support they need to prioritize safety on the road and in their vehicles. In this world, families and students come first: Parents have visibility into their children’s whereabouts, students spend less time commuting and schools are able to provide transportation to and from an array of afterschool enrichment programs.

We have a rare window of opportunity to bring this vision to life, right now, due to a remarkable convergence of factors. School systems are more nimble now than ever before, after a prolonged period of forced reinvention. The events of the past year and a half have also brought new urgency to problems that modernizing school transportation can address, including the vast inequities in our society and the ravages of climate change. At the same time, cloud-based software and AI are fundamentally changing every industry. The technology exists to do this now, to do it safely and to do it well.

We believe the shifts in the coming years will be built upon six key pillars.

1 FLEXIBILITY

Transforming the Most Inflexible Part of Our School System

The pandemic has caused us to radically reconsider education in ways we never imagined we would, with hybrid models of virtual and in-person classes and newly flexible school schedules. Now’s the time to reinvent what remains the most inflexible part of the nation’s educational system: How students get to and from school.

Student transportation may seem like a dreary logistical line item, entirely separate from what takes place within the walls of a classroom. Indeed, when it comes to education policy, transportation is often an afterthought. In fact, though, it impacts everything from the time the bell rings to the length of a student’s day to whether they are able to focus in or out of class. One recent study found that students with long commutes spend less time sleeping and exercising, suggesting “troubling public health implications for teens.”

Students with long commutes spend less time sleeping and exercising, suggesting “troubling public health implications for teens.”

During Covid-19, the student transportation system—which is really a patchwork of contractors and expenditures—has experienced a set of profound challenges. Many school districts cut bus companies’ budgets, forcing driver layoffs; in many places a severe bus driver shortage persists. Rather than sink new resources into patching this outdated, outmoded system, we now have a rare opportunity to challenge the status quo.

Cloud-based software and AI have transformed virtually every industry. We order groceries, shop for clothes and participate in work meetings in ways that depart radically from how we conducted these activities only a few years ago. These same tools and technologies can infuse the student transportation system with new flexibility, transparency and agility, while also offering superior safety supported by real-time visibility.

What if school districts had access to the real-time data analytics that other forms of transportation are using to achieve new efficiency and elevate customer satisfaction? What if districts could track capacity, ride duration, on-time arrivals, driver behavior and other key performance indicators? What if districts could optimize routes, then quickly reconfigure them based on real-time traffic and incident information? And what if they could solve challenges like inflexible routes, unpredictable schedules and inefficient vehicle use? These needn’t be hypothetical questions.

In addition to technology advancements, we can’t continue to expect that a one-size-fits-all vehicle works for every student. Some students live minutes from their schools, in highly dense city environments, while others live in rural communities where they are spread out from their peers. Reconsidering the configuration of fleets, and introducing multiple vehicle sizes, can accommodate for a variety of commutes.

Tech-enabled flexibility allows systems to respond quickly and effectively to unexpected changes. And if the pandemic taught us anything, it’s how swiftly and radically circumstances can change. If schools need to institute staggered schedules to enable social distancing, for example, or decide to extend the school day for students who are falling behind, they can do so seamlessly in the future we envision, using state-of-the-art software instead of pen, paper and outmoded logistics.

2 EQUITY

Better Access for All

The pandemic has highlighted and heightened the many inequities that continue to plague our society. Low-income Americans and people of color have been more likely to contract the virus and suffer from the most severe effects of Covid-19. They have also been more likely to lose their jobs or endure other economic hardships. At the same time, the Black Lives Matter movement raised new awareness around racial and economic injustices and the urgent need to rectify them.

Education is our society’s most important tool for addressing inequity. And yet, so often our public school systems reinforce inequalities rather than reduce them. The yellow school bus was designed to extend opportunity, and throughout American history, busing has been a critical yet imperfect tool towards that end. Many people still see the yellow bus as an icon of American progress and equality, symbolizing an endeavor that is noble at its core: free, easily accessible public education. Sadly, for many others, the experience does not live up to this aspiration.

Poor families, children of color and children with special needs are more likely to depend on school buses for transportation. It is these families, then, that stand to gain the most if we transform how the system works. These are the students who suffer from what some have described as an “exploitation of children's time,” as “students with large average times on buses report lower grades, poorer levels of fitness, fewer social activities and poor study habits.”

“Students with large average times on buses report lower grades, poorer levels of fitness, fewer social activities and poor study habits.”

Source:Long Rides, Tough Hides Enduring Long School Bus Rides

In affluent school districts, there is often a stay-at-home parent or caregiver to provide rides to school and extracurriculars and activities, via the family SUV—a luxury seldom shared in lower-income communities. Children in affluent areas are also more likely to be safe while walking or riding their bikes to school. Safe Routes to School, a federal program designed to make it safer for children to walk and bike, found that children from low-income households have a higher risk of being injured or killed as pedestrians.

Students from low-income homes and special needs students are more likely to waste valuable hours as buses make circuitous routes. And because the current system is inflexible, these students are often denied the opportunity to participate in afterschool enrichment programs because they have no way of getting home.

We believe it’s possible to create a flexible, efficient busing system that offers an array of options, so that all students have the ability to seize these afterschool enrichment opportunities.

We believe it’s possible to create a flexible, efficient busing system that offers an array of options, so that all students have the ability to seize these afterschool enrichment opportunities.

By rethinking our approach to student transportation, we can find creative ways to provide transportation to students around the country who do not currently have access to it. In Washington, D.C., for example, the district does not offer busing to the majority of students, forcing them to rely on public transportation and, according to some educators, contributing to high truancy rates. Modernizing student transportation would allow us to provide solutions for the large swaths of students who do not qualify for busing under the current, outmoded system—whether because they live too close to school (despite the fact that it’s unsafe to walk), because they are deemed to live too far from school or for other reasons.

3 EFFICIENCY

Redirecting Money From Buses to Classrooms

Studies have found that since the 1980s, the cost of student transportation has increased by 75 percent per student, on average. The contribution from state budgets has not kept pace, forcing many local districts to earmark a growing share of their funds for transportation. In low-income districts that are already underfunded, any savings gained through busing efficiencies can be put directly into the classroom to boost student achievement.

When we meet with school district officials across the country, we hear repeatedly about the headaches, confusion and enormous administrative burdens that characterize the current transportation system. At a time when seamless, instantaneous remote communication is something we take for granted in most other aspects of life, why should communication among schools, drivers and parents—about something as pivotal as the well-being and whereabouts of our children—remain opaque and inadequate? This is particularly vexing when we consider the outsized impact on communities that are already disadvantaged.

By designing efficient routes and assigning an appropriately sized vehicle to each, we can save school systems millions of dollars. It may make sense to break up certain long routes, for example, and have an SUV serve children in one neighborhood while a minibus serves another, larger group in a different part of town. We can further maximize efficiency across cities and states, by making it possible for multiple school districts located within a geographic region to share infrastructure —including vehicles, network technology and maintenance capabilities— in order to more easily manage the supply and demand of student transportation.

Managing this infrastructure centrally, rather than siloing vehicles by each school, would allow for more efficient use of resources across the community. This will also help in speeding up the rollout of electric vehicles which will require charging stations, upgraded grid infrastructure and more.

In terms of time and money saved, this would be a tremendous boon for cities and counties.

4 SAFETY

Tech and Transparency Can Make Our Buses Safe Spaces

When it comes to our children, of course, safety is far and away the most important consideration. There is no amount of cost savings or operational efficiency that would make this endeavor worthwhile if safety were compromised, even in the slightest.

Perhaps the chief benefit of modernizing student transportation is that it would greatly enhance students’ safety and well-being, at the same time as it brings new efficiencies and savings.

School buses, as The Washington Post poetically noted, have been “precarious environments beset by drug use, bullying, fighting and sexual activity—a ‘Lord of the Flies’-like island on wheels where the law of the jungle too often prevails.” One study found that 40 percent of bus drivers said they had received reports of bullying within the previous month.

Imagine if bus drivers could report, monitor and track safety incidents using cloud-based tools. Imagine if parents and districts had visibility into what takes place on the bus, which may in and of itself be a prevention technique. School buses have been a traditional breeding ground for bullying precisely because they are unsupervised spaces—or, rather, spaces supervised by adults who, by definition, must keep their eyes on the road. Secure on-board cameras can provide an additional pair of eyes, where necessary and appropriate.

In addition to technology advancements, we can’t continue to expect that a one-size-fits-all vehicle works for every student. Some students live minutes from their schools, in highly dense city environments, while others live in rural communities where they are spread out from their peers. Reconsidering the configuration of fleets, and introducing multiple vehicle sizes, can accommodate for a variety of commutes.

Tech-enabled flexibility allows systems to respond quickly and effectively to unexpected changes. And if the pandemic taught us anything, it’s how swiftly and radically circumstances can change. If schools need to institute staggered schedules to enable social distancing, for example, or decide to extend the school day for students who are falling behind, they can do so seamlessly in the future we envision, using state-of-the-art software instead of pen, paper and outmoded logistics.

5 SUSTAINABILITY

Respecting the Environment

Transportation accounts for the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Over 90 percent of the nation’s 500,000 school buses are diesel buses, which emit notoriously noxious exhaust. More than 25 million children, and thousands of drivers, breathe this impure air on the way to and from school, which has a negative impact on health and academic performance, particularly for students with asthma and other respiratory conditions.

Over 90 percent of the nation’s 500,000 school buses are diesel buses… More than 25 million children, and thousands of drivers, breathe this impure air on the way to and from school.

American school buses travel about four billion miles per year, with diesel buses emitting 8.4 million metric tons of greenhouse gas annually—equivalent to the annual energy use of more than one million homes. Transitioning to cleaner, greener buses can meaningfully shrink our society’s environmental footprint and create healthier communities across the U.S.

In the near term, we can improve sustainability by taking vehicles that have traditionally spent the majority of their lifetimes stalled or parked and expanding their use in multiple ways, including repurposing them for after-school activities and field trips. We can also create more efficient routes and assign an appropriately sized vehicle to each. A route with five or six students, for example, can be served by an SUV, while one with fewer than 30 students can be served with a minibus.

At Zum, we are already taking these steps. Additionally, we’ve chosen to offset the emissions of our entire fleet in 2021 as part of our Zum Net Zero initiative, a program rooted in creating a safer, healthier, more sustainable planet.

Longer term, we can transition toward electric vehicles. Zum, for example, has committed to having an all-electric fleet by 2025. In addition to reducing air pollution, electric vehicles reduce energy costs by 80 percent and maintenance costs by 60 percent.

Zūm’s commitment

100% electric fleet by 2025

100% carbon neutral today

Beyond that, imagine if the nation’s fleet of school buses could serve as a battery, providing power back to the grid. School buses have predictable daily schedules and are typically used only a few hours each day, sitting idle during peak power usage times—making them an ideal resource for communities. At Zum we’ve recently partnered with AutoGrid's Virtual Power Plant technology (VPP) platform to deploy 10,000 electric school buses in the next four years to create over one gigawatt of flexible capacity—the equivalent of powering more than one million homes for one to four hours—when the electricity grid is overloaded. When fully deployed, this is expected to be one of the largest VPPs in the world. If we collectively build on this critical infrastructure, student transportation can play an even deeper and more important role in our communities.

The Biden Administration sees the current moment as an opportunity to make substantial infrastructure investments that will pay off for generations to come. The Administration is prioritizing investment in both “hard infrastructure,” including public transit, and “soft infrastructure,” like childcare and other domestic programs that will benefit underserved Americans. The Administration is particularly focused on investing in infrastructure and practices that promote environmental sustainability.

Our vision for student transportation covers all three priority areas. Buses are a clear example of hard infrastructure; the sooner we invest in energy-efficient vehicles, the more good we can do for our planet. And the work that these buses accomplish goes straight to the heart of soft infrastructure: Student transportation, done well, has the potential to ease the burden on parents, make it possible for children from all walks of life to participate in afterschool enrichment programs and reduce the amount of time wasted commuting.

6 COMMUNITY

Creating Connections: Schools, Families and a Trusted Network of Drivers

Student transportation shouldn’t be seen as only a school district’s problem. It should be considered a community challenge, with the potential to influence and improve the lives of parents, students, teachers and drivers.

By giving districts the opportunity to share and collectively manage infrastructure across cities and regions, we can leverage communities’ various strengths and enable them to make decisions that suit them. By transitioning to electric and fuel-efficient vehicles, we can improve the air quality that all community members breathe.

And let’s recognize and honor the critical role that school bus drivers play in our communities. Because they are caretakers who interact with students on a daily basis, we believe they should be properly trained, supported and empowered with state-of-the-art tools and technology. Many Americans remember at least one school bus driver who they knew by name, and vice versa—a driver who knew everyone and, it seemed, everything, despite keeping their eyes on the road during whatever drama was unfolding in the back. What if we could create an entire network of trusted, respected drivers like these and provide them with the compensation and benefits that are commensurate with the role? How much stronger and more resilient would our communities be?

Student transportation was never just about getting kids to school. From the earliest days of the yellow bus, it was fundamentally about achieving community potential. It’s time to restore that vision, and elevate it to meet our communities’ evolving 21st-century needs.

Photo courtesy of Denys Nevozhai
TAKING ACTION

Demonstrable Benefits in Oakland

At Zum, our partnership with the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) provides a clear example of what modern student transportation looks like for children, parents and school officials. OUSD educates more than 37,000 students at 118 schools. Nearly three-quarters of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. More than 50 percent speak a home language other than English.

Before our partnership, 70 percent of OUSD’s students spent more than an hour on each leg of their school commute. Inefficient routes led not only to long travel times but to unexpected delays, which reverberated across the district and community. Teachers would need to slow down an entire class when a group of students was late. Parents had to juggle irregular dropoff and pickup times, and drivers labored under inconsistent schedules.

Before our partnership, 70 percent of OUSD’s students spent more than an hour on each leg of their school commute.

Since we started working together, ride delays have been reduced, whereas previously, the district’s buses ran roughly 30 minutes late on average. Customer support calls have dropped, because parents and schools have full visibility and are able to track rides in real time. These days, only 3 percent of children spend more than an hour commuting to or from school. All of this amounts to thousands of hours of saved travel time for OUSD students and their families.

These days, only 3 percent of children spend more than an hour commuting to or from school.

CONCLUSION

A Personal Message From Zum’s Founder

Ritu Narayan
Founder & CEO

My inspiration for the company that has grown into Zum came eight years ago, while I was working as a group product manager at eBay. My job was demanding, but relatively lucrative and more flexible than positions held by the vast majority of American parents. Despite this position of privilege, almost every day there was some sort of minor crisis on the home front that distracted me from my work. Very often, it was transportation-related: One of my children had missed their transportation back home, or needed a ride home from an after-school art class or basketball practice.

I saw the other parents around me frequently engaged in similar frantic fire drills. How could it be that we could call ourselves a taxi with a few swipes on our phone, and get a photograph and ratings information on the driver who would soon whisk us off to dinner—while the method for transporting our most precious assets, our school-age children, had not changed since my own mother struggled with this very challenge back in India, while I was growing up?

Struck by this disconnect, my original idea was to create a door-to-door ride-hailing service for kids. When I started investigating the possibilities, though, I discovered a wider world of untapped opportunity.

It quickly became clear that this was about more than helping with the (very real, and important) logistical challenges around transporting the children of privileged parents. There was—and remains—an urgent need for profound systemic changes to a core American institution, with the potential to impact children and families from all walks of life.

Picture this: A parent busy at work receives an alert on her smartphone confirming that her daughter is on the school van, heading to her after-school soccer game. When the game is over, the mother gets a similar alert notifying her the minute her daughter hops on the school van back home. She will be able to track the van’s progress block by block, and know when her child has safely reached home.

This parent marvels at how much has changed since her son was a student at the same school. Back then, the trip from home to school was 20 minutes longer each way, because of routing mysteries she could never unravel. Transportation to and from afterschool programs wasn’t available. If the bus was late, she had no way of knowing where it was or whether there was cause for concern. And for her friend, the parent of a child with special needs, those previous anxieties—and the benefits of the new approach—were even more profound.

The beautiful thing about this scenario is that the technology exists to make this happen, safely and almost immediately.

During this period of unprecedented transformation and disruption, we have an opportunity to rethink one of our country’s most iconic institutions—the yellow school bus. Let’s act now to reinvent student transportation for the future that we want to live, learn and travel in. We owe it to our children. We owe it to ourselves.

Modern student transportation that’s safe, flexible, efficient and sustainable