More than 10 percent of city school buses are late, despite MIT’s help
More than one out of 10 Boston school buses have been arriving late to school this fall, as officials have struggled over the past two months to match last year’s on-time performance, according to data released by the school system.
On just a handful of days did buses match or exceed last year’s performance. Last Wednesday — marked by windswept rains — was particularly bad as 20 percent of the school buses arrived late.
The tardy buses have been creating frustrations for parents, students, and school officials across the city, who were expecting the buses to run more efficiently under a routing model created by a team of MIT researchers who prevailed in a school system-sponsored competition earlier this year.
Late buses can result in students missing breakfast with their peers and classroom lessons, chipping away at the 40 minutes the school system recently added to its school day.
“It has made me question living in the city,” said Lisa Greenfield, whose 4-year-old son’s bus has consistently been arriving late at Josiah Quincy School in Chinatown, sometimes by as much as 45 minutes.
Almost every day for the past two months, she has been calling the school system’s transportation hot line or sending e-mails about the tardy bus. Occasionally, she has resorted to posting messages on Twitter to vent her frustration, such as last Monday, when she noted “my 4yo’s bus is late to school for the 29th time.”
The route, which she tracks on a cellphone app, has her son traveling from their Fort Point neighborhood through downtown, the West End, Beacon Hill, and the Back Bay as the bus picks up students before arriving in Chinatown. The bus finally pulled up to school on time Thursday and Friday, after transportation workers made adjustments, dropping a stop and starting the route 10 minutes early.
“It’s really insane it took this long,” Greenfield said.
John Hanlon, the school system’s chief of operations, said he is hopeful the MIT partnership will ultimately yield routes with better performance times as the school year unfolds. He chalked up some of the problems to increased traffic congestion in the city that even has tour bus operators rethinking their routes and some destinations.
“It’s not surprising on-time performance has dropped,” he said. “We’ve been working very hard to adjust routes on the fly, while handling hundreds of enrollment changes.”
But he added, “The Boston Public Schools is committed to ensuring students get to school in a safe and timely manner.”
On Friday, the buses slightly edged out last year’s on-time performance, with 89 percent arriving at school before the opening bell.
Boston has been struggling for years to curtail transportation spending while also improving the punctuality of its buses. This 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.
The MIT model, which the school system incorporated into its bus routing procedures over the summer, has enabled Boston to remove about 50 buses from the road, reducing the active fleet to 600 buses. That, in turn, has helped the city save $5 million and reduce emissions.
Dimitris Bertsimas, the MIT researcher who led the team that developed the model, offered limited comment Friday when reached by phone. Bertsimas, codirector of MIT’s Operations Research Center, pointed to the reduction of the bus fleet as one of the model’s successes, but said he did not have time to elaborate because he had a prior commitment.
Problems with school bus times were evident on the first day of school. Only 41 percent of buses showed up on time, down from 51 percent the previous year. The time also represents a slight decrease from the percentage the school system originally released last month. That performance is slightly worse than the school system originally reported.
Consequently, call volumes into the transportation’s customer service center spiked for much of the first two weeks of this school year, causing callers to stay on hold longer, even though BPS increased its staffing by 50 percent. On the first day of school, for instance, the center received 4,478 calls, compared to 3,992 the previous year.
Parents at Russell Elementary School in Dorchester have been among those pushing school officials to fix the late buses, prompting one parent to bring the matter to the School Committee’s attention earlier this month.
Dasan Harrington, who attended the meeting but didn’t testify, said that since then the school system has tackled the problems. He also noted the school system stepped up efforts after another parent climbed aboard a bus and berated the driver. Harrington’s son and daughter ride that bus, which was showing up late to school by 20 to 45 minutes.
“It wasn’t the driver’s fault,” Harrington said.
He said the route had the driver traveling from one side of Dorchester near the Mattapan line to the other side near Neponset Circle and then back over to the Mattapan side again before meandering its way up to the northern tip of Dorchester, where the Russell is located.
“As of right now, everything is going smoothly,” he said. “It’s not 100 percent [fixed], but it’s a hundred times better.”