The yellow school bus has long been an icon used to represent school transportation, but for today's education institutions, transportation operations mean much more than a bus delivering students to and from schools.

The traditional yellow school bus has come face to face with changing standards and modern technology. A change in standards means a change in the way transportation departments operate. With stricter emissions standards comes an effort to make school buses healthier for students and better for the environment. And with modern technology comes the opportunity to increase transportation safety and efficiency.

Cleaner transportation

In January, President Bush signed a bill that allocated $5 million for the EPA's Clean School Bus USA Program, which is dedicated to ensuring cleaner school bus transportation. The president's 2005 budget proposal raises that figure to $65 million. Grants will help replace pre-1991 school buses with clean buses equipped with emission-control and safety features, and retrofit post-1990 school buses with similar emission controls.

Colorado Springs School District 11 is one of many districts that have received funding to upgrade its buses for pollution control as a result of the Clean School Bus USA Program. About half of the district's funding will be used to retrofit buses with diesel oxidation catalysts, and the other half will be used to experiment with biodiesel, a cleaner alternative to diesel, says Bill Bair, director of transportation for the district.

“We'll be buying and retrofitting probably about five or six buses for improved technologies for pollution reduction, and then also we are looking into doing a testing with the biodiesel fuels with those buses that have been retrofitted,” says Bair.

Biodiesel is a renewable fuel manufactured from vegetable oils and animal fats. It can be used in its pure form (B100), although this may require engine modification to avoid performance problems. It also can be used as a blend of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent petroleum (B20) in unmodified diesel engines, according to the EPA.

To help phase out older buses from its fleet, the Colorado Springs district has an annual replacement plan in which it replaces buses every 12 to 15 years.

“Having that type of plan … provides you the opportunity to move the older buses out and get the newer buses with the newer engine technologies into your fleet,” says Bair.

The Lower Merion School District, Ardmore, Pa., received more than $1.1 million in funding, mostly through the Pennsylvania Alternative Fuels Incentive Grant, to purchase 75 Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) vehicles (72 CNG school buses and three CNG work vehicles), says Michael Andre, supervisor of transportation for the district.

Natural gas school buses can reduce toxic soot by 90 percent compared with conventional new diesel-powered buses, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists' Pollution Report Card.

The district's CNG vehicles have been in service for almost seven years and have proven to be reliable, says Andre.

“Drivers love them because they're cleaner,” says Andre. “They don't smell like a diesel smells. From what I can tell, the community is very happy with this decision.”

In addition to CNG vehicles, the district still owns about 30 diesel buses. In some instances, such as long trips, diesel buses are more practical, says Andre.

“Sometimes when you're away from home base, finding compressed natural gas is not as easy as finding diesel fuel,” says Andre.

Like the Colorado Springs district, the Lower Merion School District also is looking into experimenting with biodiesel. Many transportation operations are experimenting with alternative fuels to improve efficiency. Other clean fuel options include emulsified diesel, which is a blended mixture of diesel fuel, water and additives, and ultra-low sulfur diesel (ULSD), which improves the performance of after-treatment technologies. ULSD will be available nationwide in June 2006, according to the EPA.

For those interested in making their transportation operations cleaner, the EPA offers several resources on its website, including a downloadable retrofit calculator, which can characterize a fleet and determine how much a given retrofit project will reduce emissions. The Department of Energy's Alternative Fuel Vehicle Fleet Buyer's Guide also has information on tax deductions, credits and grants to help with the cost of alternative fuel buses in its Incentives and Laws section (www.ccities.doe.gov/vbg/fleets).

Transforming operations

Aside from finding ways to make school buses cleaner, education institutions also should be on the lookout for ways to make transportation operations safer and more efficient.

The Colorado Springs district found a way to improve its transportation operations by using a web-based query system that simplifies the process of communicating with parents and the public. Before the district used the system, a person calling the school for information about transportation might have been transferred to multiple sources before reaching someone that could deliver helpful information. The new system makes it possible for anyone in the district to access information pertaining to bus scheduling, bus stop locations, eligibility requirements and other transportation issues.

“Anybody in the district, because it's on the intranet, has the capability of responding immediately to the question for the customer or for the parent,” says Bair.

The system also can be placed on the Internet, but information about bus stop locations and gathering times should be limited for safety reasons, says Bair.

To make operations run more smoothly, the Pennsylvania district uses a phone system that allows instant communication with bus drivers. Unlike the traditional radios that are mounted in buses, the phone system allows a driver to carry the phone with him or her at all times, says Andre.

The district also is investigating a security technology that would track a student's whereabouts using GPS technology. As a student boards the school bus, the technology would allow him or her to scan an ID card, which would contain the student's data. The technology would record the exact location and time that the student entered the bus and transmit that information to a database to be viewed by designated individuals. In this way, administrators could track, in real time, the location, time of day, and the name of the student that boards the bus, says Andre.

“With a couple thousand kids, it's hard to keep track of them without some kind of technology,” says Andre.

Communication also is an important part of transportation operations at the college and university level. In addition to driver communication and communication between the department and the public, colleges and universities can benefit from seeking rider feedback.

Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., has a contract with a private bus company to provide transportation for its students around campus and into Boston. The school recently formed a Transportation Advisory Committee, which primarily is made up of student volunteers, says Peter Eastment, director of housing and transportation at Wellesley. The committee meets several times a semester to talk about initiatives and improvements that can be made to all aspects of transportation at the college.

Last fall, the committee addressed the problem of crowded buses by doing ridership counts on the buses that seemed to be most crowded. This helped determine where backup buses were needed, says Eastment.

The college also has set up several conferences on the school website for students to post feedback and ask questions.

“It's a good way for the ridership to give us feedback so that we can then work with the vendor, the bus company on what's going right, what's going wrong and what needs to change,” says Eastment.

Strahle, associate editor, can be reached at jstrahle@primediabusiness.com.

NOTABLE

  • 90

    Percent by which natural gas school buses can reduce toxic soot compared with conventional diesel buses.

    Source: Union of Concerned Scientists' Pollution Report Card

  • 30

    Percent by which natural gas school buses reduce smog-forming pollution compared with conventional diesel buses.

    Source: Union of Concerned Scientists' Pollution Report Card

  • 19

    Number of states that have school districts that use natural gas buses.

    Source: Union of Concerned Scientists' Pollution Report Card

  • 190,000

    Number of gallons of diesel fuel saved by a CNG bus over its lifetime compared with a new diesel bus.

    Source: Natural Resources Defense Council, www.nrdc.org

Denver Public Schools introduces regional transportation

Beginning in August, Denver Public Schools (DPS) will transport its high school students using Regional Transportation District (RTD) services instead of traditional school buses.

Under the district's current transportation program, high schools begin the school day at 7:30 a.m. DPS transportation provides services to all students that live more than 3.5 miles from their home school and/or magnet programs at the high school level.

Even with theses DPS services offered, more than 2,400 high school students purchase RTD passes each month. This fact, along with research that indicates that a later school start time for high school students may improve attention, attendance, and achievement, prompted the district to look into using the RTD to transport high school students to and from school.

“Since we are an urban school district with a fully developed regional transportation district, it only made sense to see if they could meet our needs,” says Guy Champlin, executive director of transportation and support services for the district.

Using RTD services will allow the district to have school start times that are more flexible. The official high school start time will remain 7:30 a.m., but the school day will be extended to 4:15 p.m. Each individual student will be able to establish his or her own school start time based on individual needs.

“If it's in their best interest, for whatever personal reason, they can start school at 9 o'clock if they choose and go until 4:15, or they can go at 7:30 as they are today if they want to play sports in the afternoon or if they have to go to a job after school,” says Champlin.

Bus stops will be similar to what is currently provided. High school athletic programs will have more flexibility in scheduling practices in either the morning or the afternoon. High school students will be able to use their bus passes on school nights and on weekends at no additional fee. About 3,000 students will be eligible to receive RTD bus passes.

Concerns from the public include a longer ride time for some students and student safety.

“There have been some folks that have spoken out, and we've answered those questions with the RTD safety record and the RTD's ability to respond, and a number of other issues that are quantifiable and explainable,” says Champlin. “Parents were concerned, … but we have 3,600 to 4,000 middle and high school students riding the buses now with no problem.”

The district will pay $19 per bus pass each month for the eligible students. The annual estimated savings to the district is $750,000.