Metro

In a bid to save $5m, city schools will slice bus routes

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/file

The Boston school system, in an effort to save up to $5 million, will consolidate scores of bus routes this fall, resulting in the layoff of dozens of drivers.

Many students in September will likely find themselves at new bus stops and on commutes that will either be longer or, in some cases, shorter than those they had this past school year because of the route changes.

John Hanlon, the school system’s chief of operations, said the changes “could yield significant savings for the district, savings that could be reinvested in the classroom.”

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Andre Francois, president of the bus drivers union, said the union just received notification about the changes Monday afternoon and said it would be premature to comment until the union obtained more information.

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School officials are making the move after hosting a hackathon-like event this spring that sought the best ideas from experts at Google, Uber, and major universities to find creative ways to make the bus system run more efficiently.

A team of researchers from MIT prevailed in what was billed as the Transportation Challenge, developing a new algorithm resulting in the changes. The MIT model calls for putting 77 fewer school buses on the road as it identified ways to consolidate bus stops.

But Hanlon said that number, at least initially, might be too aggressive; instead the school district might remove between 40 and 50 buses. The school system last year had 650 buses that transported more than 30,000 students to the city-run schools as well as charter, private, and parochial schools.

Dimitris Bertsimas, co-director of MIT’s Operations Research Center, said the computer model that he and two doctoral students developed created the efficiencies in the busing system by looking “at billions and billions of permutations.”

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“Only a computer model can do that,” he said. “Humans are incapable of doing these computations.”

Boston has been struggling for years to curtail transportation spending. This coming school year, transportation spending is expected to be $116 million, representing about 10 percent of the school system’s $1 billion budget, one of the highest rates in the country.

Over the last several years, the school system has attempted to cut spending by consolidating stops, scrutinizing more closely which special education students require door-to-door service, and providing T passes to most seventh- and eighth-graders instead of putting them on yellow buses.

But the efforts have included some notable flops. Most significantly in 2011 when the school system switched from relying on routes drawn by hand to ones created by a new software program, buses ran late for months, creating a crises that angered then-mayor Thomas M. Menino.

Drivers said the software failed to accurately predict traffic bottleneck areas, road construction, and other obstacles better gleaned from those who actually drive the roads and know such things as the travel patterns of garbage trucks. The fallout caused the transportation department to scale back its reliance on software in developing the routes.

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The Boston school system is undertaking these changes as it grapples with a vacuum in leadership in its transportation department. The system’s transportation director, Jonathan Steketee, left last month, and its assistant transportation director, Michael Hughes, retired this month. Officials are conducting a national search for a new director.

During a presentation Monday, officials laid out the challenges the school system faces in getting students to school. Officials noted that buses traveling to and from the Condon Elementary School in South Boston are transporting students who live as far west as Mattapan and Hyde Park.

The wide dispersion of students is leading to some long bus routes, even under the new MIT model.

James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.