When school buses in Maryland’s Prince George’s County were running behind schedule earlier this fall—in some cases, picking up and dropping off students up to several hours late for school—critics blamed a new $400,000 bus routing software package for the district’s problems.

But in an interview with eSchool News, district officials said the problem lay with how they used the software, not with the investment itself. Their example proves that even the most technologically advanced routing software can’t replace human discretion.

The 2001-02 school year marks the first time Prince George’s County schools have used a computerized bus routing system to calculate and maintain the district’s bus stops.

The $400,000 purchase from Trapeze Software, which has supplied similar systems to 250 other districts nationwide, allowed the district to replace its primitive manual system—composed of maps and thumbtacks—with a fully computerized one.

Originally, implementation of the software was met with high hopes from school officials and parents, because there would be a way to plot and organize more than 1,100 bus routes on a single system. But it wouldn’t be that easy.

Superintendent Iris Metts, who joined the county nearly two years ago, said Prince George’s County was the only district in the region without a computerized bus routing system.

“We were terribly far behind,” she said.

Despite the software’s highly anticipated arrival, a number of adjustments and policy changes within the district hampered its immediate success. For instance, bus stops were moved or relocated, a shortage of bus drivers forced the county to cut routes, and a long-standing policy requiring students living within 1.5 miles of school to walk was enforced. Officials say these changes are what caused major problems.

According to a story in the Washington Post, some buses were showing up to school three hours behind schedule, and others not at all. One parent told reporters that her child arrived at school no earlier than noon on three days in one week.

According to the Post report, critics prematurely blamed the Trapeze software for the problems, claiming the new system was putting buses behind schedule, placing stops in dangerous areas, and eliminating stops from routes.

But Metts said it was not the software’s fault.

The real problem, she said, was an overestimation of the software’s ability to replace the “human element.” For instance, the program was not capable of making certain deductions about traffic variations, stop times, and route safety.

According to Rick Bacchus, chief operating officer for Trapeze Software, the bus routing program is designed so that it can create routes based on schools’ available resources and pick-up needs. The software can also designate where buses will stop based on population boundaries. But, he says, the system has its limitations.

In a large district such as Prince George’s County, the software cannot be expected to work seamlessly from the moment it is installed.

“You don’t get the software out of the box and have it say, ‘Oh, this stop is in a drug haven,” said Bacchus.

Officials from neighboring Montgomery County (Md.) Schools—where the Trapeze bus routing software has been used for years—have made similar deductions. While technology is key, officials there say it cannot replace the need for human discretion.

Todd Watkins, bus operations officer for Montgomery County, said that the software is valuable because it can combine, store, and process a lot of information at once. But while the software has the advantage of being able to cope with large amounts of data, there is still a necessity for human interaction.

There are various elements that a computerized program cannot predict, he said: “Some bus stops take a longer time. The software doesn’t accommodate that fact.”

For example, if buses are slated to leave school seven minutes after the bell rings, the software matches that time to the schedule of every bus. It does not consider automatically that loading elementary students might take longer than loading high school students. There are also discrepancies in the location, safety, and traffic patterns of certain stops, Watkins said.

“People who do routing know where the problems are in an area. Computers don’t know that,” he said.

To deal with this shortcoming, Montgomery County does not allow the software to select any of its bus stops. “In theory, we didn’t make use of all of the efficiencies. We use historical stops,” Watkins said.

“Historical stops” are pre-approved by bus drivers and community members and have long-standing reputations for being safe and timely pick-up points.

This was not the case in Prince George’s County, where officials allowed the system to redistribute many of its stops based on population mapping.

“We just relied too heavily on the technology,” said Metts. “We should have conferred more with bus drivers and used their expertise.”

If she had to do it all again, Metts says she would approach the software’s implementation differently. Although the software was not to blame for the problems that occurred, she said the district should have made a more concentrated effort to inform the public that its arrival would result in a shake-up of transportation policies and bus routes.

Also, she said, officials should have made sure the county had enough drivers to make all necessary stops. No software could be expected to make up for a system that fell 74 bus drivers short of having all of its routes covered.

“We know now that we need to keep training people,” Metts said.

Despite the continued need for human discretion, county officials remain optimistic about the software’s potential for improved transportation. “Technology has still saved us a lot,” Metts said.

The Trapeze program has allowed officials to computerize bus rosters, enabling them to locate any given student on a particular bus. It also has allowed for better keeping of disciplinary records and advanced problem notification.

“Now, if a bus is going to be late, people can call parents and let them know,” said Metts. “In the coming years we expect to see a tremendous amount of new efficiency with the computerized bus routing system.”

Related links:
Trapeze Software
http://www.trapezesoftware.com

Prince George’s County Public Schools
http://www.pgcps.pg.k12.md.us

Montgomery County Public Schools
http://www.mcps.k12.md.us