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Fall 2004
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In Tulsa, Oklahoma, Public Schools Lower Transportation Costs With GIS

By Scott McCarty, Technical Director, Software Perfection, LLC

Rising fuel prices and increasing requirements on school district transportation departments are placing an additional burden on educational expenses. Special needs students require additional, often specialized equipment and have greater routing needs, such as curbside pickup or limited ride time on a bus. These students typically ride only 60-70 percent of the time but account for the largest percentage of the transportation budget.

  click to enlarge
This image shows the application window with a generated route expanded. It indicates the students that Vehicle #92 was selected to route (student names have been obscured to protect their privacy). Two student items have been expanded to show that one requred a wheelchair, another required a standard seat. All of this information is stored in a central database for downloading to the electronic route book on the Pocket PC for the driver.

Tulsa Public Schools (TPS), the largest public school district in Oklahoma with more than 40,000 students, sought to lower these costs by routing only those students who would physically ride each day. Since this is not practical with a traditional routing process because of the amount of labor required, the district desired a system that was as automated as possible.

TPS wanted a system that could automatically create the routes and eliminate from service those buses not required and, at the same time, lower the staff's workload. Bob Haddox, TPS transportation director, says, "The idea behind this automation is you eliminate much of the work and staff members required to achieve the task at hand. A fully automated system should be considerably faster and less labor intensive."

TPS selected Esri Business Partner Software Perfection, LLC (Tulsa), to develop an appropriate solution because the company had spent seven years learning the ins and outs of bus routing and operations for TPS.

While Esri's NetEngine was chosen to provide the core routing capabilities, part of automating this process required a method to determine which students would or would not ride the bus on a given day. An automated telephone interface provides this ability, allowing parents and guardians to call the system and indicate when transportation will not be needed. This information provides a means for realizing cost savings, allowing a district to save fuel and maintenance costs on vehicles not only with an optimized route but also eliminating vehicles from routes when they are not required.

Off the Beaten Track

Another consideration was how to provide routing instructions to the drivers. Traditionally, drivers are familiar with a particular route that is driven each day. With this new approach, the route driven could be completely different each day, depending on which students ride the bus. Utilizing industrialized Pocket PCs, such as Symbol Technologies' PPT 2800 Pocket PC, route information is provided to the TPS driver as an electronic route book, complete with student pictures, equipment needs, or other special instructions or pertinent information the driver may require. Utilizing speakers or a simple earbud, these instructions are relayed to the driver using state-of-the-art text-to-speech technologies, providing clear and understandable instructions to the driver. By using Esri's ArcPad software, a map is also provided to the driver for further clarification.

The Symbol Pocket PC also includes an integrated bar code scanner, so a driver can scan the students' ID cards to record boarding or disembarking the bus. If students forget their ID cards, a simple tap on the name or picture on the Pocket PC can also record boarding or departure.

With feedback from the Pocket PC, the TPS system recognizes who did not ride a bus but was scheduled to ride. The system can automatically remove a no-show student from the routing system after a specified number of attempts to transport. Using an outbound, automated telephone interface, the system can also call the parents and guardians of such no-shows and provide instructions on how to reestablish transportation for their child.

Finally, accurate data is critical for use with daily transportation needs. The system uses Microsoft SQL Server as the central database, providing an open, extensible, and enterprise-level architecture for importing, exporting, and integrating a district's existing data.


TPS added to this infrastructure and enhanced its GIS functions by upgrading to ArcSDE. This allows multiple users efficient access to the map data. TPS' capabilities were further enhanced with training on ArcGIS (ArcInfo and ArcEditor) software. Using ArcEditor, TPS now has the ability to maintain its own map data, which is critical to the success of the routing function. Combined with ArcSDE, multiple users can edit the data and TPS can maintain effective version control of its map data. TPS also procured a large-format plotter, enabling it to print its maps for display on a wall. These tools, combined with online training courses on Esri products, effectively transformed TPS' routing department into a routing and GIS department, enabling the district to edit maps and keep data current.

The end result is the Bus Router, a system that generates the routes automatically and dynamically, selecting the best vehicle that meets the students' needs based on the scheduled pickup and delivery times specified for the students—which students are riding on a given day, the necessary equipment for each student, the maximum allowable time a student can ride on a bus, and the vehicle's location in proximity to the student and/or pickup/destination.

According to Haddox, "We anticipate saving approximately $500,000 per year and possibly more as we get further into this new, fully automated routing system. The regular education aspects of the budget will be impacted by the new system, but we have not arrived at an accurate projection since we have been focused mostly on the special education aspect of pupil transportation."

For more information, contact Steve Smith, GIS analyst, or Jim Taylor, in-house supervisor, Tulsa Public Schools (tel.: 918-833-8101), or Software Perfection, LLC (tel.: 877-277-3976, e-mail:

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