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