See our article in issue 64 of Education Technology here
Read our article on the Local Gov website here
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
- Minimal education trips on public transport
- Encourage active travel
- Social distance where possible
- 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.
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
- 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).
- Is sufficient local supply available?
- If so, what will this cost?
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
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;Audience poll
56% are looking at temporary road reallocation to active travel (e.g. pavement widening); and
25% are looking at using temporary bus stops.
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;Audience poll
17% are looking at this for mainstream provision.
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.Audience poll
45% were unsure as these decisions are handled by a different department.
Do you think access to school should be a consideration in planning active travel infrastructure?
81% YesAudience poll
19% Not sure
Planners feedback and discussion
In responses that echoed the opening sentiment test, planners are worried about the demands being made of them.
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
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.
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.
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.