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How SaaS Firm Optibus Wants to Fix Bus Driver Shortages

As transit agencies face employee shortages, an Israeli firm is selling AI-powered software to better match drivers with preferred shift. The goal is to improve retention and morale and make routes more efficient.

Public transit involves more than clean trains and buses, on-time performance, and mobile apps that offer maps and real-time data. Making sure drivers and operators are happy — and making sure their shifts are assigned efficiently — can also impact ridership and revenue.

At least that’s the proposition behind Israel-based technology provider Optibus, which is working to grow its presence in the U.S.

The company says it artificial intelligence-powered platform can help solve an ongoing driver shortage that could gum up the works for mass transit even as the federal government prepares to invest more in such systems nationwide.

Since its launch in 2014, Optibus has sold its technology to more than 500 cities across the world, helping transit agencies to plan and schedule not only the movement of vehicles but drivers as well. Now CEO and co-founder Amos Haggiag said he aims to have the company’s platform help more agencies solve what he sees as a growing and serious problem for mass transit: driver shortages.

“There is a worldwide problem with driver shortages,” he told Government Technology, adding that U.S. transit agencies employ about 55,000 fewer bus drivers than two years ago. As well, according to Optibus, such shortages have led to trip cancellations — including as many as 2,200 over two recent months in New Jersey.

Trying to solve that problem is one of the motivations behind what he called the company’s ongoing “heavy” expansion in the U.S.

The general idea is to use AI and optimization algorithms to create what the company calls “lifestyle rosters” for driver scheduling. The software as a service enables agency supervisors to run scenarios in the hopes of arriving at the best scheduling possible.

That means matching drivers with preferred shifts — some drivers might dislike split shifts, for instance, or working during nighttime — while also dealing with the other realities of running buses and trains. As well, many drivers would prefer to not be assigned to routes with increased risk of assault from passengers, and the software can help transit agencies deal with that.

Doing so can reduce worker stress and burnout while improving retention and hiring, according to the company. A recent case study involving the Western Reserve Transit Authority (WRTA) illustrates the stakes involved.

The transit agency provides some 30 routes in the Youngstown, Ohio, area and serves more than 1 million passengers annually. Using the "multiple scenario creation" tool in the Optibus platform, the agency reduced undesirable driver shifts by 17 percent while keeping up identical levels of service.

The agency also improved the quality of its Saturday runs, which resulted in fewer driver call-outs and complaints, which in turn helps with driver retention.

“Our overtime costs have increased due to the driver shortage, but that cost is more than offset by the savings we’ve realized through Optibus,” said Judy Rodriguez, WRTA’s director of transportation, in a statement.

Optibus, as it works to expand its sales in North America, also is touting how its software can help transit agencies essentially do more with less or perform better optimization.
Thad Rueter writes about the business of government technology. He covered local and state governments for newspapers in the Chicago area and Florida, as well as e-commerce, digital payments and related topics for various publications. He lives in Wisconsin.