Planners discuss challenges from increase in fuel prices and shortage of drivers

We recently held a meeting for 19 councils from across the UK with more than 30 home-to-school transport planners taking part.

It was brilliant to hear and see all the comments as they discussed common challenges.

Themes raised during the meeting included contract ‘hand-backs’, the current national shortage of drivers, and the expectations of schools and parents.

Driver shortage ‘biggest challenge’

Most planners felt the biggest challenge to keeping costs down was the driver shortage, closely followed by the rise in the price of fuel. A limited supply of vehicles also made it difficult to be financially efficient.

Assessing the validity of cost increases

Many planners talked about drivers “taking advantage” including an example of a driver asking for a 40% increase.

During the discussion, it emerged that several authorities don’t ask operators for a breakdown in costs. One respondent shared a rule of thumb for costs which attributes 33% to the driver, 33% to the operator, and 33% to the fuel. One participant pointed out that some drivers are also operators.

Exploring alternative models to keep costs down

Survey results showing very few authorities have an internal fleet; about a third have electric vehicles; and about half use fully accessible vehicles.

None of the attendees mentioned having internal fleets. However, QRoutes knows of a couple of councils that are exploring plans to bring in an internal fleet. This is to improve access vehicle utilisation.

We would love to hear what planning teams think about how this could work.

Electric vehicles and PSVAR compliance are reasonably well represented in the vehicles used.

Differences in how councils operate compliance

When talking about compliance, the differences in how each council operates emerged – some have compliance officers, another has a ‘quality assurance officer’, and another council makes their compliance checks when complaints or issues are raised.

One council said they worked alongside their compliance manager and after checking issues would possibly go out to a school and check the situation.

High expectations from schools and parents

The topic which created the most debate was about the expectation of schools.

Comments included schools are overwhelmed with their own challenges; they “have enough to deal with to worry about transport so they don’t engage”.

And that sometimes schools want “immediate changes when sometimes it is simply not possible” due to current vehicle and/or staff shortages.

Most of the planners taking part in the webinar seemed to have experienced similar problems with schools due to their “huge expectations”, with schools often blaming the transport staff.

Suggestion: Some of our customers use QRoutes to explain the implications of transport decisions to stakeholders. The ability to quickly reschedule different solutions and show them on the map can help planners communicate the reasons for choices clearly. This can be particularly helpful when the school stakeholders don’t know the geography of the area well. 

Occasionally planners are accused that they don’t understand the needs of individual pupils. Whereas, on the contrary, planners are trying to accommodate the needs of all the children on the vehicle.

The emotions around SEN transport can run high and a transport planner’s job involves a lot more than working out routes from home to school.

When the family-school-transport relationship works well

Some planners have had a more positive experience and said the schools help by acting as a go-between with the parents. This is particularly helpful where families’ use English as a second language.

Other examples included schools that let the planners know if a pupil is not coming in so they can cancel the transport.

One planner said it helped to be a “visible presence” at the school as they visit regularly.

Do these challenges resonate with you? We would love to hear your views. Get in touch or comment on our Twitter or LinkedIn posts.

QRoutes helps planners find efficiencies in how home to school transport is delivered. Its solutions use fewer vehicles (fewer drivers), less mileage (less fuel), and improve the travel experience for clients. 
Start with a Snapshot report to explore what's possible. 

Thinking outside the ‘back office’

By Andrew Fish, QRoutes Customer Success Manager

Words like ‘excited’ and ‘delighted’ are sometimes overused in business, but how else to describe how we feel about our latest case study?

Perhaps it is because it shows a genuine step forward in the approach local authorities are taking to procuring systems.

Last year, Central Bedfordshire Council embarked on an ambitious project to streamline their applications process for home-to-school transport.

They’ve built a process that works for them by combining products from QRoutes and three other software suppliers.

Faster and more accurate

As a result, they’re now processing 53% of all applications automatically; a further 38% need only a light-touch review. Only 9% of all applications need full manual reviews.

This improves the client experience, with faster, more accurate responses through self-service online access. And it gives the planning team more time to focus on the cases that need their attention.

This modular and partnered approach marks a step-change from the cumbersome back-office solutions that have been prevalent in the industry for the last twenty years

The way things were

Typically, one central database with a rich and accurate dataset along with all-encompassing functionality on top seemed like a great idea.

The market became dominated by a few specialist suppliers who understood the business domain thoroughly and would adapt their systems by adding layer upon layer of fantastic new features.

But there were technical downsides…

Large information systems can be difficult to adapt quickly to the changing needs of an authority and technology advancements.

Organisations now want more agility, to be ready to respond to their customers using modern digital technologies.

All-encompassing solutions can take a long time to implement and onboard and are expensive to customise. Many authorities then found themselves locked-in for many years with a single supplier because the cost of change is so prohibitive.

But not any more…

Central Bedfordshire’s approach

Integrating multiple products that supports a variety of business services, such as education and transport, needs a fresh mindset. – Thinking outside the back office!

It can involve multi-supplier relationships, something which council IT and Procurement teams have been wary of in the past but, increasingly, are more comfortable with because software technology makes it easier.

Playing to partners’ strengths

This approach helps authorities build process and customer experiences that work for them. It combines the best partners’ strengths for a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts.

The modular model provides more flexibility for the council to adapt and evolve systems and, importantly, to have more control over products and investment costs.

The arrival of subscription-based pricing models further increases this flexibility.

Rebalancing the power

And, finally, this approach helps authorities ensure they are getting the best quality and service.

If they are not happy with an element, they can replace it with another service provider’s solution without having to overhaul the whole system.

This places greater emphasis on the software supplier to innovate and provide value for money, putting the power back into the hands of authority.

So, yes, we are excited about this latest case study. If you can think of a better word, let me know…

Read the case study here

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

School Transport Post-Covid19

On 12th June 2020, we held a webinar for local authority school transport planners to discuss the impact of Covid19. These are notes from the event

There has been rife uncertainty about how and when schools will return. On the 7th June all schools in England would reopen on the 29th June. By 9th June, this had been abandoned.

Nevertheless, the future still looks uncertain.

When the schools do go back after the summer holidays (will there even be summer holidays?),

  • Will social distancing still be in place?
  • Will we be planning for children to travel in bubbles?
  • What other measures aimed at reducing contagion will be in place?
  • How will these measures affect what planners plan?

And schools also have their hands full. In this fluid and rapidly changing environment, successful stakeholder communication has never been more important. We started by asking planners how the last month has been for them.

We started by looking at local authorities’ statutory obligation to

  • promote the use of sustainable travel and transport
  • make transport arrangements for all eligible children

And that transport authorities also have an interest in ensuring that the return to school and college does not

  • create congestion,
  • contribute to air pollution or
  • pose a public health risk

Read the Urban Transport Group report on School Transport (updated 26th July 2020)

Planners can be forgiven for feeling like they’re stuck between uncertainty, looming deadlines, limited budgets and the longer strategic aims associated with the climate emergency and reducing carbon emissions.

Indeed, recognition of the demands on transport planners can be seen on the cover of this report.

QRoutes has been supporting local authorities throughout the crisis including providing free access to QRoutes to assist with route planning for emergency food supplies to vulnerable and shielding households.

And we like to think we are still here and ready to support and that speed with which QRoutes can deliver optimised solutions can give planners confidence in this age of rampant uncertainty. For example, QRoutes enables planners to

  • set up and use temporary bus stops as well as NAPTAN database,
  • plan for school road closures (to reduce congestion around schools), and
  • understand the impact of staggering school start times either for groups within the same school or across different schools.

Planning with confidence in an age of uncertainty. Get in touch to discuss how QRoutes can help get the answers you need, quickly

68% of attendees are looking at staggering school start times;
56% are looking at temporary road reallocation to active travel (e.g. pavement widening); and
25% are looking at using temporary bus stops.

Audience poll
Audience poll - are there any other implementations you are considering
Word cloud of other implementations being considered by the audience

We then heard from our guests from Birmingham City Council and National Express Accessible Transport.

They talked about how they have been responding to the crisis. They covered everything from PPE and who pays for what, to temporary screens around drivers, to personal transport budgets.

To watch the full webinar and be invited to future events, get in touch

79% of attendees are looking at offering SEND families travel budgets in place of providing transport;
17% are looking at this for mainstream provision.

Audience poll

It is undeniable that Personal Travel Budgets (PTBs) offer a practical solution to the pressing problems of social distancing and cost, but long-term this represents a threat to traffic congestion, air quality, and, of course, climate change targets.

We then moved on to Active Travel and the role this has in the post-Covid19 transport mix.

It is widely reported that the government have provided £250m of funding to support active travel investment. What if often missed is that this is the first tranche of a £2bn.

Temporary schemes set up to support socially distant travel during lockdown include

  • reallocating road space to pavements,
  • temporary bike lines, and
  • increased cycle ‘parking’.

We went to explore whether local authorities were considering access to school in decision making about active travel infrastructure and whether they should be.

QPaths, a new tool from QRoutes batch processes distance eligibility for mainstream home to school transport. It is more accurate than commonly used free tools both in distance measurements and completeness of the network.

QPaths would have reduced the number of requests eligible for a free school bus pass, as well as saving several days of work.

Our development partner

QPaths also enables local authorities to define paths as ‘unsafe’, for example if there is inadequate street lighting.

We explored an example where pupils living within 3 miles were eligible for home to school transport because of unsafe paths. And discussed the potential for this tool, with its GIS interface, to help local authorities quantify possible returns on investment.

For example, where improved walking and cycling paths could reduce future eligibility for free bus passes.

Is access to school a consideration in active travel infrastructure?

55% of attendees said access to schools is a consideration in planning active travel infrastructure.
45% were unsure as these decisions are handled by a different department.

Audience poll

Do you think access to school should be a consideration in planning active travel infrastructure?

81% Yes
19% Not sure

Audience poll

Planners feedback and discussion

In responses that echoed the opening sentiment test, planners are worried about the demands being made of them.

Averages of planners’ scaled responses to questions about their current working practices and conditions

Overall it was a useful forum to compare notes and air ideas. To watch the full webinar, including the 30 minutes Q&A, please get in touch

A distraction for when our users are distracted

Sometimes it is wearisome living through a pandemic. As a society we are suffering everything from anxiety about going outside to boredom from being inside to Zoom fatigue (yes, it’s a thing). 

Sometimes we’re fine, sometimes we’re angry, other times we’re weepy. It is an emotional rollercoaster. And while we cannot get off, we can think about something else for a while. 

So alongside doing what we can to support the emergency response effort [hyperlink to covid story], we wanted to do something to keep our users’ spirits up. A little distraction for when they are feeling distracted. 

We devised (that’s a ‘royal’ we. Jeff deserves the credit) a little treasure hunt. We have hidden six saplings in the QRoutes interface. When users find one, the clue for the next one appears. 

illustration of a sapling tree

The saplings look like this =>

The team at Hampshire worked together and were the first to send in the list of the locations.

But it is not a competition, as such. We are still encouraging our users to have a go. For every winning solution, we will donate at least one tree to World Land Trust up to a maximum of £500, as part of our commitment to reduce environmental impact. 

It is just a bit of fun while we all muddle through the ongoing abnormal, a little extra social connection while we’re all physically distant. If you’re a user, please take a look and have a go. The more correct answers, the more trees. 

We’ll report back on the results later in the year. 

Helping out in the best way we can

Our Covid-19 response

As a company, we are used to being humbled by the problems our software helps address.

No less so now, during the Covid-19 pandemic, when QRoutes is being used by several local authorities to help plan the delivery of 1000s of food deliveries to vulnerable families and individuals.  

As Covid-19 approached, it was apparent that this was a time for all-hands-on deck. We issued a statement saying we would support, free of charge, any public sector body facing extraordinary routing tasks until at least 21st June.

We know that some of our customers quickly adapted their use of QRoutes to planning delivery of free school meals and PPE to care homes. But we have also been working on some bespoke processes, including with non-customers and third parties supporting the effort.

Andrew has been working closely with Manchester City Council (MCC) to develop a custom route planning process to support vital food deliveries across the city.

“The support from QRoutes has been a huge help in enabling efficiencies with daily driver planning.”

Victoria Harper, who is leading the Food Response team at MCC.
Manchester City Council logo

And in Scottish Borders, alongside a similar process for planning meal deliveries, there is a separate process where carers need to stay for a short while to cook food.

In Redbridge, we were able to help planners test various alternatives policies to establish the most practicable way to get food to the families that need it.

In Birmingham, we’ve been helping to deliver around 1,000 food parcels each day to vulnerable people. Jeff has been working closely with the Council and National Express, who are undertaking the deliveries. Priority requests often arrive late in the day and QRoutes has been able to plan the deliveries so that National Express can set off promptly the next morning.

We have even been able to help pop-up cargo bike delivery services.

Altogether, QRoutes currently plays a part in the delivery of 10,000s meals and vital supplies up and down the country every day.

In the grand scheme of the sacrifices people are making during the crisis, we recognise our support is a small part of the overall effort. But we are delighted to be able to help where we can.

If your Covid-19 emergency response means you need a quick, efficient and optimised route solution, please get in touch. We’re here to help.

Extraordinary times, extraordinary tasks?

It’s been a whirlwind week. The carpet has been swept out from beneath us and everyone is scrambling to work out what next. The new norm of sit inside and wait until the pandemic has passed has its own profound implications – not least how do we as a society look after our children and vulnerable people?

QRoutes is primarily used for planning home to school transport. So, you would think in these extraordinary times, when schools are closed, that there would be little call for it. But extraordinary times sometimes throw extraordinary tasks our way.

One of our customers has been using QRoutes in earnest this week to contingency plan the delivery of free school meals to vulnerable children during the school closure.

Free route planning from QRoutes

For at least the next three months, we’re offering free of charge advice and support to public bodies faced with extraordinary tasks. If the current public health crisis has thrown you a routing problem – such as deliveries or transport where normal services aren’t running – we would very much like to help.

QRoutes is cloud-based, ideal for remote working, and we could be delivering route plans within an hour.

Please, reach out – we’re here to help.

Tom Thomson joins QRoutes

profile picture of Tom ThomsonWe are delighted to announce that Tom Thomson has joined our team.

The number of local authorities realising significant benefits from QRoutes on their home-to-school transport planning is growing at an unprecedented rate. And to keep providing those customers with our trademark level of support, we need to keep expanding the team.
“Tom’s methodical approach and focus on exceeding customer expectations is an excellent match for us.” says Business Development Director, Jeff Duffell.
Tom adds, “I am delighted to be associated with the Team at QRoutes. There is no doubt that their Home to School Transport Routing and Scheduling solution is fast becoming the benchmark for School Transport planning within Councils and Unitary Authorities throughout the UK”.
Tom will be covering Scotland and parts of Northern England.

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.

Why didn’t we save money after spending so much on a new Transport Management system?

In the last 30 years, many local authorities have invested large sums of money purchasing and implementing systems to manage their data for transport services, such as home to school. But, it seems, most of these authorities continue to wonder if the cost savings they hoped for are ever realised.

So why aren’t the savings obvious?

Pie chart showing the proportion of transport costs associated with contracts compared to planning overheads

The savings aren’t obvious because traditional systems aren’t good at optimising the majority of the spend.

The chart shows how the cost of providing transport (for mainstream school, SEN, SC& H etc.) is split between that directly associated with transport contracts and the expense of overheads, such as offices and people managing the contracts.

It may not be exactly 95% relating to the contract costs for all authorities but it is of that order.

The quality of service provision is essential; the consequences of error can be dire – e.g. leaving a vulnerable child stranded without transport. Many functions within transport management systems relate to ‘getting it right’; making the workflow of planning and managing passenger data and services secure and robust. This may save some money by creating smooth processes and reducing errors, but the savings aren’t obvious because the proportion compared to the total budget is so small.

To save money in school transport target the highest costs

Where authorities need to save money, the focus needs to be on reducing the number of contracts and ensuring that the remaining contracts are as efficient as possible.

Time and again, authorities tell us that the routing component within larger systems, if there is one at all, isn’t as good as an experienced human planner. This is because routing problems are complex. The best technical solutions are based on advanced algorithms and machine learning that are beyond the scope of the development of a database system.

This is where specialist, automated GIS based route planners, like QRoutes, step in. Our customers regularly report a reduction of between 10% and 20% in the cost of their contracts as a result of using QRoutes. Cost savings that are often six or even 7 figures.

QRoutes is a stand-alone tool which interfaces with, rather than existing within a big system. So, authorities can gain the benefit of advanced routing functions, saving money without the pain and expense of replacing their systems.

QRoutes focusses on the improvement of contracts, reducing them in number while ensuring the remaining stick to operational policies. We target development effort at making QRoutes the best tool available to your planners without having to also continuously develop another database system.

Challenge us

Challenge us – is your routing solution giving the best results? Test QRoutes against your current routing solution, for free, using your data, at your site by booking a visit now