Technology firms work together to help council plan home-to-school journeys

QRoutes has teamed up with transport management specialists Pax Systems to provide local authority transport planners with an online data management and routing system dedicated to their needs.

East Lothian Council is the first Scottish local authority to sign up and plans are in place to migrate over to the new system in the forthcoming months.

The council’s transport planning team will be supported by QRoutes and Pax Systems as they import data from Scotland’s education management system SEEMiS and its Click and Go transport module.

Phil Dyson, from Pax Systems, said the collaboration with QRoutes had created a unique and straightforward software package, enabling local authorities to deliver an efficient home-to-school transport service for schools and students.

Before setting up Pax Systems, Phil worked up to the Head of Integrated Transport at a county council and uses this knowledge to provide software that exactly matches local authority transport team needs.

“Councils are driven by customer needs, contract management and efficient use of budgets. For example, this integrated product can give local authorities a monthly forecast of spend and trends in client-demand. It’s easy to use and departments can get real control of route efficiency and a granular understanding of where spend is going,” he said.

“The days of councils being locked into a single software supplier are changing. Cloud technology and modern interfaces mean different solutions can talk to each other.”

Andrew Fish, Customer Success Manager, QRoutes

Andrew Fish, from QRoutes, said: “The days of councils being locked into a single software supplier are changing. Cloud technology and modern interfaces mean different solutions can talk to each other. This provides greater choice and flexibility for councils who are looking to update their business systems. East Lothian Council liked the routing software we provide, but they needed data management. The integration with Pax Systems is the ideal solution.”

East Lothian Council currently transports 1,266 pupils, on private contracts, as well as operating 56 routes and providing a supported public service network.

Bruce Moffat, Service Manager for Transport & Waste, said introducing a new system, along with delivering the service during the pandemic, had been a “unique challenge”.

He said: “East Lothian Council has chosen the QRoutes/Pax system as a replacement for the SEEMiS transport module, which has recently been removed from service.

“The new package brings an additional level of routing options along with administering our home to school transport provision. The Transport Services Team has been working closely with QRoutes and Pax to ensure the product meets the criteria of requirements.”

He added the system would primarily be used for mainstream home-to-school journeys with the intention of rolling it out to Additional Support Needs (ASN), the Scottish College Partnership and adult service provisions.

QRoutes helps trauma charity bring Christmas cheer to hundreds of isolated families

As London entered tier three, trauma charity Body & Soul continued its vital work. The team was busy organising the delivery of over 500 hampers to families isolated and impacted by the pandemic.

“We had to do something”

Hollie Smith, from Body & Soul, said: “We always mark the end of the year with a big Christmas party to celebrate everyone’s achievements – big and small. There had to find a different way to respond to such a difficult year. The office now looks like Santa’s Grotto as volunteers and staff pack hundreds of gifts and hampers.”

Manual planning would be “complicated”

Volunteer Ruby Stringer, whose day job is in sustainable transport planning, realised the logistics of delivering hampers all over London would be “complicated”.

“It’s not very often that transport planning is seen as a useful skill and I thought this is my chance. We also wanted to make sure drivers had time to check in with members – and that it wasn’t just a delivery but someone who cares,” she said.

QRoutes to the rescue

QRoutes came to the rescue. We took on the challenge to create a bespoke plan to deliver hundreds of hampers in time for Christmas.

See Body & Soul’s summary of The Big Give

Gratefully received

One Body & Soul member said: “I don’t know what to do or what to say.  I have never received a gift like this. Thank you so much it is really appreciated.”

All in a day’s work

Rob Roberston, from QRoutes, said: “Throughout the year, we’ve been helping organisations to plan deliveries around Covid restrictions. We are delighted to help Body & Soul bring some Christmas cheer to families in need.”

You can support Body & Soul’s work here

2020 hindsight

It’s hard to know where to start when looking back at 2020. We’re all a bit shell-shocked, aren’t we? A year ago, images of Wuhan in lockdown were on the news; a curiosity that hardly seemed possible here. Here’s our take-away of what happened next for us and you, our community.

So, let’s start with you…

This year you have collectively directed your expertise to sort out how to get 🍱 food to shielding families,📚 get educational resources to socially disadvantaged children, 😷 get PPE to care homes, 🧪 COVID test kits to schools,👵 get adults receiving social care into day centres, and 🚸 get special educational needs and disabled children into school.

You’ve planned new school routes for bubbles, ‘knitted extra buses over the weekend’, and generally been all round superheroes! 🦸🏽‍♀️🦸‍♂️

Extra support for planning tasks

Throughout, we have looked at ways to support you, both our customers and the wider planning community. In March we began offering additional QRoutes support and even temporary subscriptions free of charge to those working to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. That included local authorities and charities distributing school meals, food deliveries and other essential items to children, vulnerable households and others in need.

A magnifying glass brings trees in a forest into sharp focus

In the midst of the distraction and ominous claustrophobia of the initial lockdown, we released a treasure hunt ‘quiz’. It was an opportunity for you to pursue something just for fun for a short while.

We planted trees for every successful completion. Well done to those of you that completed it. We have purchased one and a half acres in Argentina from the World Land Trust as a result.

Community forum

There was a strange duality to the summer month: a global urgency to do something coupled with a paralysis about what that should be.

In June, we ran a well-attended webinar on the future of school transport post-COVID, providing a forum for local authorities to share their response plans and discuss next steps.

Product developments

Meanwhile, we adapted QRoutes to make it easier to use for package deliveries, and we have released two new products.

  • A cut down version of QRoutes, QRoutes Lite, designed to meet the needs of smaller authorities. And
  • QPaths, a completely new tool for calculating safe walking route distances for a whole cohort in a flash.

We’re also delighted to be working with Pax Systems on an integrated database and finance solution – coming soon.

Welcome new customers

And despite the hiatus, we’ve welcomed new customers Cumbria, Cambridge and Peterborough, East Riding, Manchester, and Walsall.

Season’s greetings

As 2020 draws to a close, it promises to be a quiet holiday break. We send you our warmest wishes for a peaceful and contented time.

Happy Christmas ????✨

Using QRoutes for COVID tasks

It’s been the year of the COVID-curveball and tricky to say the least.

QRoutes has been there, ready to support planners with exceptional planning tasks. If you’re battling any of these, you might like to know, there’s an easier way to…

… plan in bubbles

Need to quickly and easily understand what’s needed to get children to school in their bubbles? Need clear outcomes to share with stakeholders?
QRoutes can help.

… plan for social distancing on vehicles

Need to understand the feasibility and cost of delivering socially distanced trips? Want to test the impact of using alternative fleets?
QRoutes can help.

… plan for social distancing at bus stops

Need to reallocate some students to alternative bus stops to avoid too many gathering at one place?
QRoutes can help.

… plan the distribution of emergency response supplies

Need to get warm meals, food parcels, or educational resources to vulnerable households? Need to plan the distribution of PPE to care homes?
QRoutes can help.

It has been one big nightmare getting the children all back to school, although must admit would have been 10 times worse without QRoutes.

Lynette Marks, Dudley
September 2020.

We’re here to help.

Roll-up, roll-up! G-Cloud 12 is here

QRoutes, QRoutes Lite and QPaths are all available via G-Cloud 12, for simple, hassle-free procurement.

G-Cloud is an UK Government’s initiative aimed at easing the procurement process for the public sector of cloud computing services.

It includes a series of framework agreements with suppliers, from which public sector organisations can buy services without needing to run a full tender or competition procurement process. And an online digital marketplace where where public bodies can search approved solutions.

QRoutes has been live on the G-Cloud portals since G-Cloud 9. But QRoutes Lite and QPaths are new entries.

You can see the respective entries by following the links below.

QRoutesQRoutes LiteQPaths

And, of course, any questions, please get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.

Clarity on savings in SEN transport – now for a smaller price

September 2020. The world continues to battle Covid and the consequences of Covid.

In the UK, the government are seeking to steady the economic ship and re-establish some sense of normality. Although nobody seems to know what normality looks like, except that it is different to before. Or should be. Maybe.

Whatever the future holds, it’s safe to assume the drive to reduce costs will remain constant. And answers to how and where this money can be found will be more valuable.

Good news then that those answers can now be found at a lower price.

QRoutes Lite is the latest product in the QRoutes suite. It has the same look and feel as QRoutes and uses the same mighty optimisation engine. 

It is ‘lite‘ because the functionality is limited to planning SEN transport, making it ideal for local authorities who want to identify savings in this area. 

QRoutes customers typically find 10% to 15% savings in contract costs along with improvements in client experience and emissions. Yes, really: lower costs, better service and lower emissions.

If come 2021, you’ll need to find actionable savings while maintaining services, take a look at QRoutes Lite. Get in touch today to find out more

The Transport Demand Management Toolkit and the return to school

The countdown to the beginning of term has begun. For now, at least, schools will return at the beginning of September and transport planners have precious little time to finalise routes for the new academic year.

In the spirit of never waste a good crisis, is this is an opportunity for us (as a society) to create a shift change towards active travel for better health and wellbeing? Let’s hope so. But, despite its benefits, it isn’t always viable. In rural authorities, distances are typically too far to expect someone to walk or cycle, and/or the routes are not safe to do so. And, of course, for many SEND children active travel isn’t an option.

On Saturday the Government released the Transport Demand Toolkit to help planners reach their best solution for their local situation. This post breaks down the guidelines and how QRoutes can help speed up processes and ensure that solutions are optimised to keep costs at a minimum.

A summary of the key guidelines

  1. Minimal education trips on public transport
  2. Encourage active travel
  3. Social distance where possible
  4. And in devising plans, consider
    • transporting in bubbles,
    • staggered start times,
    • exclusion zones around schools, and
    • how to manage public transport facilities

The capacity gap

The Government are quick to acknowledge that plans that adhere to Covid restrictions are likely to expose a capacity gap and that authorities should do the best they can, given their respective circumstances. (Which is by turns pragmatic and vague!) So how planners bridge the capacity gap and implement school transport is likely to vary by authority. 

In Scotland, schools return a few weeks earlier and have already gone back. One of our customers quipped on the Friday before term started that she was thinking of ‘knitting buses over the weekend’ to fill the shortfall. In the end, she managed to procure the vehicles she needed, but it may be that some authorities have to modify plans to accommodate supply.

How QRoutes can help

So, what steps do authorities need to do and how can QRoutes help? The toolkit outlines five broad steps to creating an effective plan.

Taking these in order …

Step 1: Collect and analyse data

This is a critical step to an accurate understanding and saving time and money later.

Liaise with schools

The authorities we talk to have been doing this for some time but we’re including it here for the sake of completeness.

Establishments and planners need to work out:

  • What bubbles look like? (Although the guidance is that transport bubbles reflect school bubbles ‘as far as possible’, what are schools planning?)
  • What are the time constraints? Are staggered start times an option? (Again, feedback from customers is that some schools are actually narrowing arrival times rather than extending them, e.g. by discontinuing breakfast clubs.)
  • Use of school gates? Are there multiple school gates? Are one-way systems in operation? If so, what impact does this have on drop-off and pick-up points?
  • What are the traffic pinch-points? Are street closures, which widen the perimeter of the school, desirable and what impact does this have on drop-off and pick-up points?
  • How can active travel be encouraged? A comment during the Optimising School Transport webinar, hosted by Landor on 11th August, suggests a dispiriting gap between the aspiration and implementation: one school is reducing cycle parking because there is insufficient space to enable social distancing.
    Evaluating the likelihood of conflicting risks all of which endanger life is tricky to navigate. Schools may be (understandably) sensitive about the threat of infection to staff when young people seem to be the principle spreaders at the moment. But, on the other hand, there is a link between poor air quality and Covid deaths. Not to mention, road traffic accidents as a by-product of congestion.
Determine entitlement

Quickly and accurately understand who is entitled to home to school transport provision.

QPaths batch processes transport eligibility requests for mainstream travel using the OS Paths network, the UK’s most accurate data set for walking routes. Planners can exclude sections they know to be unsafe, set multiple gates for schools, and process 1000s of applications in minutes.

Once this is complete, planners have a list of the mainstream trips they need to plan.

Step 2: Identify possible solutions

While this can (and should) be systemised, this step is an iterative rather than linear process. One approach would be

  1. Compare options per establishment, taking into account temporary stops (e.g. where there are school street closures)

QRoutes has quick and easy processes for planning in bubbles and testing alternative fleets, including socially distanced fleets, different vehicle sizes, etc.

It can also enable more creative approaches, such as how to share transport between schools (where the local policy on bubbles allows).

2. Evaluate

  • Is sufficient local supply available?
  • If so, what will this cost?

3. Select

Step 3: Implementation of solutions

Irrespective how planners proceed, there may be a need to reduce the numbers of students boarding bus stops to enable social distancing at stops before boarding, particularly where stops are shared with public services.

QRoutes can help planners quickly move passengers between stops, balancing distance from home with boarding numbers.

Step 4: Marketing, communications and engagement

At the risk of cliché, these are difficult times. Some people are worried about their health and that of their loved ones, others about their livelihoods, and others about both. Lockdown has been tough, winter looms, and tensions are running high.

And this applies to everyone from students to teachers, from drivers to operators, from planners to executives. Careful, clear communication and sensitive engagement is crucial to a smooth return to school.

QRoutes’ GIS interface with the ability to quickly evaluate different options can help show stakeholders the rationale behind decisions with better transparency than is possible with conventional reports.

There is also potential for QRoutes, as a cloud-tool, to be integrated into a digital solution to inform parents.

Step 5: Monitor, evaluate and adapt

And again, QRoutes’ ability to quickly schedule optimised solutions within planner defined constraints aids confident decisions going forward.

We’re here to help

Throughout this crisis, QRoutes has looked to support authorities (irrespective of whether they are customers) while they provide additional support to their communities.

We can’t knit buses, drivers or passenger assistants, at least, not in time. But we are ready and willing to help where we can. We have new, competitively priced products and consultancy packages to help authorities plan provision ahead of the start of term. Get in touch today to see a demo of how to plan in bubbles, set up a socially distanced fleet, or to discuss how we might help

Election fever

In case you hadn’t noticed(!), we’ve just had another vote. And while in the run up pundits analysed polls and predictions, others were getting on with the practicalities of preparing for an election.

The booth that you step into to cast your ballot doesn’t live at the local church hall or primary school that has been transformed into a polling station for the day. Nor do any extra lighting or heating, additional accessibility ramps, or barriers that are needed for the day.

All the election equipment has to be delivered to the polling stations ahead of time. And the Transport Team at Sheffield CC support the Election Team by planning the routes for delivering that equipment efficiently and on-time. And, you guessed it, they use QRoutes to help them do this.

Once the Election Team have booked and confirmed all the polling stations, they send the list of addresses to the Transport Team, who get to work sorting the list into schedules for the delivery of equipment before polling day and collection shortly after.

First, they convert the list into a QRoutes file, validating the addresses within the application.

Next, they enter the available fleet and create different consignment types for the equipment, allocating the time it takes to load and unload it.

And then they begin planning. There are two types of deliveries – manned and unmanned.

Unmanned buildings are part of ‘key’ routes and these are planned first, using QRoutes’ skip function.

Manned deliveries are organised separately, with care taken to ensure the delivery at each venue will be when someone is there to meet it.

There are 190 stations within the Sheffield boundary. In theory, these deliveries could be arranged in 190! ways (which is a very big number). But QRoutes helps the team find the best solutions quickly.

Mike Keen, Senior Transport Officer, says the “speed of QRoutes is useful for bulk processing”.

QRoutes’ GIS interface means the team can switch visibility of routes on and off, seeing the overall picture or drilling down for detail when they need to. And the speed of processing means they can quickly recalculate schedules if they need to.

In fact, this time around because of the threat of bad weather, the team opted to deliver much of the equipment the week before the election, rather than the Tuesday or Wednesday of election week. So, getting the job done quickly was extra helpful.

And once it was over and pundits were pondering about the results, the teams were out collecting the election equipment for storage until the next one.

Bedford Borough Council Boosts Transport Efficiency with QRoutes

Bristol, 10 April 2018 – Bedford Borough Council has employed the latest computer software from QRoutes to optimise the council’s transport services.  With transformation of Bedford’s schools from a three-tier to a two-tier structure, policy changes meant that the council’s home to school transport network had to be reorganised. QRoutes route planning software was used to assess the most efficient routes and maximise vehicle utilisation.  The re-structured services are saving the council over £200,000 a year in transport costs.

Bedford uses QRoutes, which is provided as an easy to use cloud-based service, to plan transport for 3000 school children, as well as 700 special educational needs and 1000 social care users.  The council operates a fleet of approximately 50 in-house vehicles mainly for transporting the most vulnerable people, with mainstream school transport largely contracted out.

Although Bedford had tried other systems in the past, the task of building routes was still very much a manual process because of the complexity of the many variables affecting services.  With the transformation of education coupled with budget reductions, the council had to find a way to improve the efficiency of council transport but with minimal impact on service provision.

“With council budget restrictions and policy changes we knew we had to review the council’s client transport network significantly. We needed software that could support this process of the best routes and vehicle suitability in view of all the complexities of school, special needs and social care transport,” says Chris Pettifer, Chief Officer for Transport, Bedford Borough Council.  “Over the years we have tried different systems but none really delivered what we needed and were also costly.  QRoutes has conversely been fantastic in providing an easy to use interface that cannot only re-plan our network in minutes but was also available as an affordable solution over the web.”

One of Bedford’s transport planning team using QRoutes

By improving routes Bedford has been able to reduce the number of routes, removing eight large buses from the network due to improved vehicle utilisation.  “With reorganisation and budget cuts we had to save £150k a year but by optimising operations with the help of QRoutes we were able to realise another £65k in savings, reducing transport expenditure by £215k a year,” explains Pettifer.

“For us, QRoutes arrived just at the right time.  It fitted in perfectly to scope new school routes as Bedford reorganised its schools organisation.  It used to take days or weeks to re-plan routes but with QRoutes we can run a new plan for 3000 school bus children literally in minutes.  We manually intervene sometimes as some individual requirements can be very unusual, but the system saves a lot of time and we can run different ‘what if’ scenarios to work out the best options.” Adds Pettifer.

“QRoutes has been a tremendous asset, making it so much easier and quicker to re-plan mainstream transport routes and the user interface is really simple to use” Says Daniel Barrett, Bedford’s Client Transport Officer (Education). “People at QRoutes have been brilliant and listened to our requirements and they have taken a very flexible approach to developing the software to meet our needs.”

“We have been involved with QRoutes right at its infancy” adds Pettifer. “With the basics working well, we see a great opportunity with the software and something that can grow to become an even more valuable tool for improving council-managed transport services.”

QRoutes is offered as a Software as a Service (SaaS) subscription, making it easy to access anywhere, anytime, through any web-connected device. Subscribers have automatic access to new functionality as releases come online, without having to update versions locally.