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Georgia District Tests Connected School Buses, Signal Priority

Two buses in a Georgia school district outfitted with technology to allow them to communicate with traffic signals gave the buses green lights on heavily traveled corridors, resulting in improved performance.

A school bus from the Fulton County School District in Georgia gets a green light at a busy intersection. The bus was equipped with traffic signal priority technology, which resulted in improved performance.
Submitted Photo: Applied Information
Placing traffic signal priority technology on school buses seems to come with on-time arrivals, significant fuel savings and even better behaved students.

These were some of the findings in what has been described as the first major look at the benefits of connected vehicle technology applied to school bus fleets. The pilot study was conducted by Fulton County, Ga., in the city of Alpharetta, a part of the Atlanta metro area.

“The metrics really proved that we were able to improve mobility for that bus. And that would be in reducing travel times, better on-time performance, reducing the number of stops; all of those really showed that we can make a significant difference in both safety and mobility when it comes to school buses, and getting kids to and from school each day,” said Michael Ruelle, a transportation consultant with Kimley-Horn, the independent analysts on the project, during a virtual round-table discussion of the pilot study Oct. 11.

Other partners on the project included the Fulton County School District, city of Alpharetta and Applied Information, the private-sector technology provider.

Two buses were equipped with the connected vehicle radio equipment, which communicated with 62 signalized intersections along the bus routes. As the bus approached, those intersections reviewed real-time activity like pedestrians in the crosswalk, and then made decisions around whether the signal can safely give the school bus a green light, with minimal disturbance to the rest of the traffic. In most cases, it did.

“There’s a lot of details, a lot of algorithms and so forth. But to turn the lights green, for the school bus, so that it can smoothly complete its journey without stops,” said Bryan Mulligan, president of Applied Information, in some of his comments. “At the high level, there was just a significant reduction in the number of unintended stops — 40 percent.”

The study collected data for a month prior to deployment of the technology, and then another month while the connected vehicle technology was in place. By giving school buses traffic signal priority across busy intersections, researchers saw a 13 percent decrease in total trip times and 10.4 percent reduction in fuel use, which is tied to emissions reductions.

Trey Stow, director of transportation operations for Fulton County Schools, said he expected to see fuel savings.

“But I never expected to see what we actually gained,” said Stow.

The gains came in other areas, not often explored during connected vehicle testing. Bus operators reported being less stressed, said Ruelle, due to more on-time performance.

“That is important, because it gave each bus driver a little bit more time to take a break, rest their mind for a bit and catch up on anything they needed to do,” he remarked.

Also, when the bus makes fewer stops, students tend to be better behaved.

“Anytime you stop, that is an opportunity for a student to get up, and\or participate in mischievous behavior,” said Ruelle.

Getting students to school on time, or early, allowed the students to more fully participate in the school’s breakfast program.

The Fulton County School District, along with so many others, confront the persistent problem of driver shortages. And having buses run their routes quicker, could enable some buses to take up two routes, eliminating some driver staffing, district officials explained. Fulton County Schools operates more than 900 school buses, and began the school year short 125 bus drivers.

“It was clear that this had potential to serve our district and do something that we’ve really been looking for,” said Stow.

Connected vehicle technology like the type deployed on the school buses and intersections cost about $5,000 per bus, and about $5,000 per intersection said Mulligan who noted it can have multiple users, such as working with similar technology installed on transit and emergency vehicles.

“This initial study just shows the value in delivering this technology,” said Mulligan.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.