Jan 25, 2024 - Technology

AI is helping school districts navigate bus driver shortages

Illustration of a zero and a one created out of dotted lines, with navigation icons highlighting the ends of the numbers.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A handful of school districts nationwide are piloting a new AI-powered tool meant to help them optimize bus routes and other transportation options in the face of perennial driver shortages.

Why it matters: Bus driver shortages caused chaos in all 50 states this past back-to-school season, leaving many students (and their families) without a reliable way to get to and from class.

What's happening: Districts like Colorado Springs' District 11 (D11) are working with child-transportation provider HopSkipDrive to test the company's new AI offering, called "Strategic Routing."

  • HopSkipDrive's Strategic Routing team analyzes districts' needs — how many students have to be picked up, where they live, etc. — and offers suggestions, which can include a combination of traditional yellow buses and passenger cars operated by HopSkipDrive's "CareDrivers."
  • The aim, HopSkipDrive CEO Joanna McFarland tells Axios, is to address both the bus driver shortage and reduce student absenteeism, which remains well above pre-pandemic rates — especially for students from low-income families.

By the numbers: The tool has helped D11 go from over 100 bus routes to 55, in part by replacing some underutilized routes with HopSkipDrive rides.

  • The district, which serves around 22,000 students, says its on-time arrival rates went from 85% to 99% and that it's saving $8 million over a decade.

What they're saying: Strategic Routing "allows us to be predictive, instead of reactive," D11 superintendent Michael Gaal tells Axios, helping him see "what is the right number of bus drivers that I need to service my students" based on historical use patterns and more.

  • Gaal says he particularly appreciates that Strategic Routing suggests a broad variety of solutions, rather than just pushing districts to increase their use of HopSkipDrive's core product of rides to school in small passenger cars.
  • For instance, it might say a district needs "six more 12-passenger vehicles instead of 45-passenger vehicles because you have a lot of small-service routes — but it's still better to put them all on one vehicle than in a bunch of small vehicles."

Yes, but: HopSkipDrive rides can be part of the suggested solution if Strategic Routing thinks it makes sense to replace a severely underutilized bus route with car pickups.

  • Some parents are skeptical of HopSkipDrive rides at first, Gaal says, but are usually convinced once they see "the value of the personalization of transportation."

Plus: Districts can use the tool throughout the school year, helping them adjust on the fly as needed.

  • Gaal, for instance, says it makes the most sense to use Strategic Routing ahead of each school year, then again over winter break to make routing tweaks.

The bottom line: Here's a case of AI addressing a worker shortage, rather than replacing people who'd rather keep their jobs.

Go deeper