Youngstown City School District: Modernizing The Yellow School Bus

Leveraging digitization to create safer transportation for students

Perils of the journey to school

School buses are one of the primary means of transportation for students. Over 24 million students report using the 440,000 available public school buses each year. [1] However, students’ safety is often at risk during this daily travel from home to school, and vice versa. Over 800 students die and 152,000 are injured annually while traveling to and from school; this figure does not even include special trips or other school-related journeys. [2] Safer transportation options for students must be presented, and one school district is stepping up to this call for action.

Leveraging digitization to create safer transportation for students

Serving roughly 7,000 students in Ohio, Youngstown City School District embarked on a mission this school year to “enhance safety and accountability” in its transportation system. Their goal is simple: “We want to be able to account for every child, every day, on every bus at every bus stop, and to provide a safe bus.” [3]

To achieve this mission, the district has adopted two key pieces of technology. First, the district acquired the Tyler Telematic GPS system earlier this year. Built into each school bus, this technology integrates with the district’s global positioning system. It showcases the location of each school bus and issues a “driver report card as far as their speed, their braking and their driving habits in general.” [3] This can be used to monitor each bus driver and ensure safe driving behavior is rewarded and unsafe behavior is remedied.

The Tyler Telematic GPS system feeds into the Versatrans My Stop App, which the district launched during the summer. Through this smartphone application or its web browser equivalent, parents are able to look up a real-time estimated arrival time of a school bus at their designated bus stop by searching their child’s name and date of birth. This will prevent children from waiting for a school bus without adult supervision for prolonged periods of time, which is critical because reports estimate that roughly 38 percent of “attempted abductions” occurred while a child was heading to school. [5] Furthermore, drivers have been given electronic tablets that specify the children to be picked up at each stop on their route. This enables drivers to account for their passengers and ensures children aren’t accidentally on the wrong bus.

Are self-driving school buses the future?

While investing in current infrastructure to enhance safety is important, it’s equally necessary to explore other recent developments such as autonomous vehicles. The Pew Research Center uncovered that 39 percent of parents were “very or somewhat enthusiastic about driverless vehicle development for school buses.” [6] Teague, a technology-focused design firm, developed a “futuristic self-driving pod” to replace the modern school bus.

These pods are designed to combat the notorious “danger zone” problem: students face the highest risk of injury when the bus is loading or unloading. In 2016, four students were killed in these accidents. [7] Self-driving pods are small and can only seat six students, but this is by design because the pods will drop students off right in front of their house. This eliminates the danger zone risk by preventing children from crossing the street at all. It also limits the fear of traditional kidnapping by dismantling the need for a “bus stop and spoke-and-hub routing network.”

Remembering the mission: safety

As the quest to improve the transportation process for students continues, the district should prioritize the safety of students, not the efficiency of transportation, as the primary mission. While autonomous vehicles sound ideal theoretically, they pose new risks, particularly concerns of cyber-security. These vehicles may be an “irresistible target for a hacker . . . warns cyber security expert Eddie Schwartz.” [8] Moreover, autonomous vehicles are currently being built for fair weather, and technologists have not discovered how to reliably operate in more tumultuous environments such as heavy rain, excess snow, or unpaved roads.

When evaluating transportation investment decisions going forward, the district should consider:

  1. Does this transportation decision optimize for efficiency or safety?
  2. How can current school buses adopt other existing technologies, such as video cameras with facial recognition, to help keep children safe but mitigate the room for human error (i.e. students forgetting their Z+ wallet or a driver accidentally moving when a child is in the “danger zone” area around the vehicle)?

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[1] Chen, Grace. “Is Your Child Safe Riding Riding the Public School Bus?” Public School Review, October 2017, [URL] accessed November 2017.

[2] “Safety on The Way To School.” Healthy Children Magazine, November 2015, [URL] accessed November 2017.

[3] Milliken, Peter. “School bus technology enhances safety and accountability.” The Vindicator, June 2017. [URL] Accessed November 2017.

[4] Cortez, Meghan Bogardus. “Technology Optimizes School Bus Routes and Enhances Safety.”Ed Tech Magazine, September 2017. [URL] Accessed November 2017.

[5] Potts, Courtney. “Child abduction: Kids most at risk going, returning from school.” Utica Observer-Dispatch, October 2010. [URL] Accessed November 2017.

[6] Marshall, Aarian. “Who’s ready to put their kid on a self-driving school bus?” Wired, November 2017. [URL] Accessed November 2017.

[7] McMahon, Thomas. “4 Kids Killed in School Bus Danger Zone in 2015-16.” School Bus Fleet, January 2017. [URL] Accessed November 2017.

[8] Litmann, Todd. “The Many Problems With Autonomous Vehicles.” Planetizen, October 2017. [URL] Accessed November 2017.


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Student comments on Youngstown City School District: Modernizing The Yellow School Bus

  1. The Tyler Telematic GPS system reminded me of the case we discussed in marketing class, “Pricing in a Digital World”, regarding usage-based car insurance [1]. The driver report cards that the system issues will incentivize safer driving behaviors, and creates a system of accountability. If a driver behaves in an unsafe manner (i.e. consistently speeding), the report card creates a track record that allows the school bus company to enforce penalties, up to and including dismissal. As with the usage-based car insurance, the more bus drivers that adopt this digital technology, positive externalities will be realized as roads become safer, thus reducing accidents and improving overall safety over time.

    While I see the benefits of the Versatrans My Stop app that are discussed in this article, I have concerns about the security of the app. The app allows parents to track the precise location of their children as they are transported to and from school. Although the app is password protected, the only search input needed is the child’s name and birthdate – inputs that are not necessarily only known to the parent. [2] If the app were to be hacked, the hacker would be able to have access to a child’s location. In the wrong hands, the app could actually put the child at risk of potential abduction, rather than serving as a protective mechanism.

    [1] Gourville, John. “Pricing in a Digital World (2015).” Harvard Business School Case 515-104, May 2015.
    [2] John Turk, “Lake Orion schools launching use of new app to help parents track bus arrival, departure times,” The Oakland Press, August 25, 2016, Accessed November 2017.

  2. This article was very helpful in thinking through one use of autonomous vehicles and the unique operational challenges that accompany the application! An important issue for school districts to consider if and when they explore self-driving school buses is potential blowback from labor unions. There are about one million individuals in the US who make a living as drivers. [1] This includes 150,000 transit bus drivers and 500,000 school bus drivers. [1] The use of autonomous vehicles jeopardizes driver jobs, increasing the likelihood of union tensions if such technology is considered. This is not to say that the transition could not bring the benefits outlined in the above article but employer/employee tensions could lead to significant operational challenges in the short-run.

    [1] Will Driverless Buses Be a Reality? Busbud.

  3. Great article, Sana! This is a fascinating deep-dive into the many ways digital technology can increase student safety when it comes to school transportation. Having worked on a 9-month consulting project with the Pittsburgh Public Schools on their bus transportation optimization, I can agree wholeheartedly that school districts have a long way to go before they fully take advantage of all the benefits that digital technology can confer on their transportation operations. Interestingly, my work with PPS and my research on other U.S. school districts highlighted an arguably even more fundamental benefit to using digital technology: route and tiering optimization. Such efforts have the potential to save the average urban school district millions of dollars each year, which could be reinvested in programming that actually improves student academic outcomes. In Pittsburgh, we found over $5M in potential savings. As a more recent example, Boston Public Schools just launched a city-wide hackathon this past summer to find ways to optimize its bus transportation using digital technology. As this article explains [1], the winning team found opportunities to save BPS tens of millions of dollars by rerouting busses and eliminating unnecessary vehicles. Imagine what that money could do if reinvested back into student safety and achievement! All of this brings me back to your last paragraph: are transportation efficiency and student wellbeing mutually exclusive, or can digitization actually improve both?

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