school starting times can transform transit efficiency

Matt Conway writes:

AC Transit (Oakland, CA and surroundings) recently came to an agreement with schools to adjust the start times at those schools to reduce the cost of providing bus service. I've never heard of schools adjusting [start times] to save agencies money!

Start and end times of schools can have a huge impact on transit agencies that are expected to serve them.  If three large schools choose to start at the same time, rather than at staggered times, they can dramatically increase both the fleet needs and the operating cost of the transit system.  To serve such a short, sharp peak of school demand, the transit agency needs more drivers to work very short shifts, and must own more buses for them to drive.  Staggered school times can replace four buses with one, and replace two 1-2 hour driver shifts with one 3-hour shift.  Note that drivers must often be paid more to work a short shift; often the rule is that they must be paid for four hours even if they work one.  That's understandable; would you be willing to commute to work for just one or two hours' pay?

When I worked as a network design consultant for small agencies across California and the American West, I encountered this problem constantly.  Schools were under intense budget pressure and were cutting their own school bus service, shifting their transportation needs on the transit agency.  Schools would change start and end times for their own reasons, and falsely assume that the transit agency could deliver a fleet of buses at whatever time they choose.  It's an example of a common problem wherever many government agencies overlap; your agency can appear to "solve" a problem by shifting it to some other agency.

Has this situation improved?  Are many public transit authorities now co-operating with school districts to ensure that expensive transit resources are used efficiently?

22 Responses to school starting times can transform transit efficiency

  1. Alex B. September 15, 2011 at 12:38 pm #

    There are often conflicting imperatives, however.
    As a kid growing up in a relatively large urban school district, there were three different start times for schools – 7:40 am, 8:40, and 9:40. This was done to spread the school bus fleet out in order to handle all of the demand.
    The flip side was the educational organization of the district, however – which had moved towards magnet schools based on various magnet programs (arts, science, etc). This educational choice ended up requiring more busing than neighborhood schools.

  2. EngineerScotty September 15, 2011 at 1:41 pm #

    One of the more frustrating stories out of Portland is that the state of Oregon is planning on cutting state transportation subsidies to school districts which use public transit (meaning, essentially, Portland Public Schools). Under the current program, upper-level students in PPS receive free TriMet passes, which not only can be used for their trip to and from school, but anywhere on the system.
    However, the state will (naturally) continue to subsidize yellow-bus service; even though this is more expensive to provide than a 9-month youth transit pass (and that’s assuming the price of the pass is what the public pays), only provides transportation for the school journey itself, and produces extra VMT–particularly if students become motivated to drive instead.

  3. Andre Lot September 15, 2011 at 4:19 pm #

    It is tricky to compare the costs of yellow buses with that of passes, particularly as transit passes are mostly subsidized in terms of their subscription price and average weighted deliver of service cost of transportation to pass holders.
    Free transit passes that allows unlimited rides are not a good policy for students, as it incentive zero-cost mobility and further stress the transportation system (students, not having cars – usually – and living on low personal budgets – usually -, and having plenty of time to spare, will use transit heavily for non-academic related trips like visiting friends, going for a date etc).

  4. david vartanoff September 15, 2011 at 8:08 pm #

    @Andre Lot I have to dissent. Free student transit passes teach students to depend on transit for all of their trips. This is a political benefit IMHO rather than having them lust for a car.

  5. ajedrez September 15, 2011 at 9:53 pm #

    Agreed. Plus, students are most likely to make those extra trips off-peak, which means that the cost to the transit agency is practically nothing.
    Here in NYC, students are limited to 3 rides per day with the assumption that that’s sufficient for school-related activities, and even if they get in some non-school rides, it’s still cheaper and more flexible than school buses (even taking into account that transit is subsidized)

  6. Jonathon September 16, 2011 at 3:40 am #

    In Toronto, high students are to make do with whatever bus service is already provided, which is usually good enough; One 2km stretch of Eglinton Avenue, however, is home to no less than three massive high schools (1500-2000 students each,) each starting around 9:00 with large amounts of demand originating to the west. This only adds to the peak demand on one of Toronto’s busiest corridors.

  7. Jonathan September 16, 2011 at 3:52 am #

    I find this very strange – shouldn’t the transit agency be very pleased to have the extra customers, even if carrying them causes some scheduling inconvenience? Surely it cannot really be true that there’s not even one bus somewhere on the system that’s sufficiently empty that it wouldn’t be more profitable to pull it off and send it on this school run.

  8. Paul K McGregor September 16, 2011 at 5:01 am #

    For AC Transit, it makes sense because they have routes that are specific school bus routes that have to be open to the public. Capital Metro in Austin, Texas also operates special school service but there it is only one school district so it is easier to plan for it. In both of these cases, I hope the school district is paying for these services and not having to impact the transit agency budget.

  9. Steve Lax September 16, 2011 at 6:54 am #

    @Jonathan – Having done bus service planning for a transit authority serving a large number of urban school districts, I can assure you that the added burden of carrying junior high and high school students was a major issue. Especially during the morning peak period when school reporting times overlapped the general peak commuting times, there were no underutilized buses (other than on a few routes operating base policy service in suburban areas) in the system.
    An example: A route that required a five minute peak headway on non-school days required a two minute peak headway on school days when a school district consolidated its two high schools onto one campus and placed the new high school at the north end of the district requiring students from the southern half of the district (who previously had a separate high school) to travel a longer distance. Many of these students took the public bus route. (State law required school buses for travel more than 2 1/2 miles to school and the new campus was placed just within that distance so the Board of Education would not have to provide busing.)

  10. Andre Lot September 16, 2011 at 8:47 am #

    @david vartanoff: if free transit passes (instead of route, time, school year and weekday-limited) are given to students on basis of…
    “teach students to depend on transit for all of their trips. This is a political benefit IMHO rather than having them lust for a car.”
    … is tantamount to set up a budget for undue social engineering. It’s like to enact/revoke some welfare program for mere political gain.
    I’m all for public investments in education, but I don’t think a handout on the form of “ride your city for free and go to a movie with your girlfriend” are part of any educational experience that should be funded by all taxpayers. Modern RIFD collection systems may allow much easier control of when and where students can use transit as school-related transport only (it’s easy for schools, for instance, to feed in the agency with scheduled extra-campus activities so that in those specific days students get to ride different routes/areas for free).

  11. anonymouse September 16, 2011 at 9:35 am #

    It’s not social engineering, it’s marketing to create a future customer base. If you teach teenagers that they can take transit anywhere, then they’re more likely to start buying passes. If you teach them that transit is about abiding by complicated restrictions about fare payment and who can go where and when and so on, then they’re more likely to just beg their parents for rides, and then buy cars once they can.

  12. david vartanoff September 16, 2011 at 9:43 am #

    social engineering, yes, undue?, no. As to funding a trip to a movie, fine, even if it’s Hollywood trash. Would you object if they went to the opera?Limiting discounted student/youth travel, that, too is social engineering just with a different agenda. Ultimately, I favor reduced use of autos both because of oil driven pollution/public health issues, and because I wish to encourage citizens to interact on urban transit rather than travel in isolation in cars.

  13. Andre Lot September 16, 2011 at 10:32 am #

    @david vartanoff: while I have not against citizens interacting, I fiercely oppose action from any government that force me to interact as a political choice at expense or other option. The relevant issue is not that it is a movie, is that it is a personal affair taxpayers shouldn’t fund. Likewise, in a complete different context, I also oppose public money spent on university (de facto professional) sports, an arms race that is absolutely horrendous in time of budget cuts.

  14. Jeffrey Bridgman September 16, 2011 at 11:02 am #

    But if the bulk of the cost is associated with providing peak service for students, how is “giving away” free rides during off-peak periods a problem? The buses will run anyway…
    Or rephrased: Will transit passes only for the school commute cost more than an all-day pass? If the primary extra cost lies in providing extra drivers/buses during the peak hour, then practically speaking, the off-peak trips cost nothing beyond what is already spent.

  15. Eric Doherty September 16, 2011 at 11:31 am #

    Getting back to the question of staggering start times, this was done at the University of British Columbia when a student transit pass (U-pass) was introduced. But there is probably a lot of untapped potential with a wide variety of employers and educational institutions.
    If I remember correctly this is in place already for federal employees in both Ottawa and Washington DC. But is anyone aware of effective programs that target multiple employers and institutions on the same corridor or in the same downtown core?
    The other question is how effective the staggered start time programs are. There must be very effective programs, and programs that don’t achieve much.

  16. EngineerScotty September 16, 2011 at 12:06 pm #

    Why would free bus passes to students, which they could use to go out on dates, be “social engineering” any more than building highways so they can conveniently drive cars? (Not to mention that cars provide a sheltered and semi-private place for all sorts of monkey business, if that sort of thing drives your concern).
    You seem to regard encouraging the use of transit as a pernicious attempt at government brainwashing. If so, do you hold the automobile to the same standard?
    Anything government does that affects the environment of its citizens is “social engineering”; the common use of the term by right-wingers is a unfortunate relic of auto-normative thinking; a belief that a car-centric society is the natural way of things and that riding the bus or train is somehow deviant behavior. Complaints about transit agencies engaging in “social engineering” aren’t that much different than anti-gay bigots complaining about the “homosexual agenda”. The two things differ in degree of course–transit riders have not been subject to anywhere near the levels of discrimination and violence that sexual minorities have, and I’m not trying to suggest otherwise–but the underlying mindset is the same: X is “normal”, Y is not; therefore any government action in support of Y is a violation of the state’s duty of neutrality, but active support of X (or even hostility to Y) is simply reflecting the will of the people.

  17. Zoltán September 16, 2011 at 1:37 pm #

    “Why would free bus passes to students, which they could use to go out on dates, be “social engineering” any more than building highways so they can conveniently drive cars?… Anything government does that affects the environment of its citizens is “social engineering”; the common use of the term by right-wingers is a unfortunate relic of auto-normative thinking; a belief that a car-centric society is the natural way of things”.
    Scotty, I couldn’t have put it better myself.
    Andre, There is a matter of simple efficiency here, which someone opposed to excessive taxation ought to be receptive to. To provide a whole lot of roads and deal with environmental degradation for the lifetime of a motorist is very expensive indeed. Better to provide free transit at (for reasons argued above) a very low marginal cost if even a small proportion of those that receive it don’t become lifetime motorists.

  18. Chris, Public Transport September 16, 2011 at 4:54 pm #

    This is a serious problem that takes up a lot of staff time of transit employees. When I worked at a major Southern California transit system as a scheduler, much of the work day was spent trying to follow all the early dismissal times that each school decided to do separately, and rearrange all the buses to meet them.
    In my current city most of the high school have two dismissal times, which is helpful in that one bus can serve both dismissal times.
    The problem occurs when too many of the students want to take the bus the school rather than walk, bike, or even drive themselves. I can’t think of many transit agencies that have an extra 40 spare peak buses laying around to transport all 2,000 students of a typical high school. This kind of gives a perverse incentive to make the high school transit service bad enough to limit demand that you cannot possibly serve.
    On the other topic, I think giving high school students an unlimited bus pass is a great idea. Since high school students, with the exception of going to class, travel at low ridership times (like late evening), I think is a great way to increase ridership without any increase of marginal cost.

  19. anonymouse September 16, 2011 at 9:07 pm #

    One other thing is that in certain low ridership transit agencies, if the schools all decide to use the transit agency as their school bus, that can make up a very significant portion of their peak fleet requirement. For example, SamTrans seems to require about 80 buses to provide the school service around 3 pm (so very few of those trips can be combined). They have a total fleet size of 296 buses.

  20. Eric September 17, 2011 at 10:12 pm #

    “The relevant issue is not that it is a movie, is that it is a personal affair taxpayers shouldn’t fund.”
    Three arguments against this point:
    1) Taxpayers subsidize driving via roads and parking for all trips, not just work trips. Why should transit receive subsidies only for work trips?
    Taking your argument further, all transit service during off-peak times, especially evenings and weekends is subsidizing “personal” affairs. The result of such thinking is that in order to travel anywhere other than work, you have to buy, insure and maintain your own car. Once you already do that, a typical bus fare is about the same as the cost of gas for a typical local trip, and parking is almost always “free”, so you may as well just drive everywhere, including to work and back. In the end, the total cost to society of all the extra cars to buy, insure, maintain, and store, plus the extra road space and parking space required for them costs society more than what it would cost to operate a decent transit system, although since the cost is more difficult to quantify, we don’t easily see it.
    3) The distinction between what’s a personal trip and what is not is not always black and white. People might have soccer practice after school and leave well after the normal dismissal time. Or they may choose to stop at a store on the way home. If the school->store trip is done by walking, the “bus” portion of the trip may not even originate at the school! Similarly, the fastest way home might involve biking a few miles and then catching the bus somewhere with more direct service to wherever you live. Again, it’s a school trip, but the place where you catch the bus is not the school.
    It is impossible to police what’s a personal trip and what isn’t. So, we shouldn’t try. Instead, we should either give out unlimited passes if overcrowding during off-peak times is not an issue, or, if it is an issue, give passes good for a finite number of rides, approximating the number of school days in a year. If people have a few extra trips for personal use because they didn’t ride the bus to school every single day, so be it.

  21. Chris, Public Transport September 19, 2011 at 8:59 am #

    You could argue that the school tripper situation at SamTrans has severely aggravated their very bad financial situation. At transit agencies that do not allow part-time employees (or limit part-time employees) it’s likely going to be financially ruinous to operate a lot of extra school sections. I imagine this issue will become even more important in the future as school districts offload even more of their transportation onto local agencies without any money to pay for it.
    When you consider that students typically only pay half of the adult fare, and frequently incur security costs to prevent fights and tagging as well as additional operating costs, are these passengers that the local transit agency really wants to have?

  22. Al Dimond September 22, 2011 at 9:26 pm #

    @Chris: As long as public transit isn’t profitable there are always perverse incentives in offering it. This is especially true of peak commute services.