EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Synovia Solutions (and its school bus tracking app Here Comes The Bus) tracks more than 100,000 buses across North America, including at seven of the largest 17 school bus fleets in the United States. Our aggregate and anonymized data shows the average school bus fleet slashed its mileage approximately 40 percent between March and December 2020 compared to 2019. That translated into massive reductions of diesel emissions and enough school bus miles taken off the road for a round trip to Saturn. 

We all know 2020 was a challenging year for school districts and student transportation that we hope to never have to face again. 

While challenges like this often bring out the best in people and teams, the volatility and uncertainty are simply too difficult to manage in the longer term. And the human toll on drivers, staff, teachers, students and everyone else associated with our industry was immeasurable. 

We know school bus drivers who perished for the virus. And we recognize countless others were impacted economically, some severely. We honor their work, sacrifice and commitment to the students as we start a new year. 

But we also know the pandemic accelerated many trends that were already impacting society. From remote work and e-commerce to virtual classrooms and streaming movies and TV at home, 2020 will be remembered as the year the pandemic forced many of us to adopt trends that were already emerging around us. 

For the student transportation industry, that includes the adoption of smart bus technology like mobile Wi-Fi and fleet intelligence products like those at Synovia. 

We’ve been able to draw anonymous data from the more than 110,000 school buses which use our technology to infer some significant trends that impacted our industry. 

First, we asked ourselves some big picture questions:

    • With all the disruption and changes, how many less miles (or more) are did busses log in 2020?
    • With the need for contact tracing, how many more school adopted Bus Guardian and its student ridership functionality to track individual students to their bus rides?
  • Hint: We helped scores of districts adopt contact tracing with our student ridership feature
  • How much did the pandemic ridership impact the usage of our app Here Comes The Bus? 
  • And what macro impact could all of this have on our society? 
    • Less pollution from diesel buses? 
    • More cars on the road for parents commuting? 
    • Impact on diesel gas prices? 
    • Impact on driver wages? 

Our data suggests that the average school bus fleet in North America saw its mileage plunge by more than 40 percent in 2020 compared to 2019. We’re assuming the shutdowns in March and April when nearly 100 percent of schools went remote drove much of that decrease. In fact, our chart shows an interesting trend:

2019 Average Monthly Mileage: 101,783
2020 Average Monthly Mileage: 56,259
A difference of 45,524 miles

The U.S. school bus fleet is the nation’s largest public transportation fleet at two and a half times the number of vehicles of all other forms of mass transportation combined, according to the National Association of Pupil Transportation. 

So what does that mean if we extrapolate these numbers across every school bus in the country? 

Nationally, 26 million children in the U.S. ride ~500,000 buses to and from school each day. The average school bus travels about 12,000 miles per year per bus, according to the NAPT.

A 40 percent reduction in miles would mean the average bus drove about 7,200 miles this year. 

Every bus on the combined cover almost 6 billion cumulative miles per year. That’s 2 billion fewer miles per year cumulatively. 

If we think about what that sort of reduction may potentially mean for emissions, it could be a staggering number. 

The Clean Air Trust estimates school buses are responsible for 3,000 tons of cancer-causing soot each year and another 95,000 tons of smog-causing compounds. 

That means the nearly 40 percent drop in bus mileage may have inadvertently led to more than 1,200 fewer tons of soot and about 40,000 less tons of smog compounds. 

The typical school bus replaces an average of 36 cars that would each travel 3,600 miles per year transporting children to and from school. It’s hard to calculate increased traffic due to less school bus miles, as many schools went virtual and it’s complicated to measure how many families began efficient carpools. 

If more students started riding individually with parents to and from school, any reduction in emissions from more parked buses would be countered with an increased number of private vehicles on the road.

Since school buses are the largest mass transit program in the country, providing approximately 10 billion student trips per year, it’s safe to say that a 40 percent reduction in mileage equates to significant changes to traffic, congestion and emissions. 

Our average K12 fleet is about 127 buses, but that number is likely skewed by including some of the largest school bus fleets in North America, including Los Angeles Unified Public Schools, Cobb County, Ga., and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina. 

The median number of buses per fleet is likely somewhere between 60 and 75. 

Back to the Classroom: A rise and fall with the virus surge 

Back to School drove the average fleet mileage back up to ~63,000 per month, but the chart below captures increasing miles in October soon dropped off in November as more schools went virtual or hybrid.  

We purposely did not include the summer months nor December because so much vacation time can skew the data.

We saw the use of our award-winning school bus tracking app, Here Comes The Bus, redefined as school districts use the app to alert parents when school-provided meals were arriving. 

In the early days of the pandemic, these meals were essential lifelines for countless families who depend on school-funded meals and were unable to quickly pivot amid the chaos of the early days of the pandemic.  

This chart from our app analytics show the trend usage for the Here Comes The Bus app. 

This chart shows usage of individual users over a certain time period. It follows the same basic trend as the charts above with a near collapse of usage at the start of the pandemic followed by a slow and steady return to regular usage in the fall. 

Experts estimate that 2019 was the first year the average American spent more time on their mobile devices than watching television. 

We know the convenience of mobile apps are a big reason why people are investing so much time on their smart devices. While Here Comes The Bus is unlikely to get the high amount of time Amazon or Netflix or Zillow receive, we are pleased to see the amount of time people use on the app held study even while usage dropped. 

This chart shows the average user logged about 4.5 minutes on the app every weekday. But not all minutes are created equal, and we’re confident those 4.5 minutes help families save countless hours in missed school bus hassle and saved school districts precious time responding to those frustrated parent phone calls. 

In short, we’re confident those minutes actually returned more time to people as it allowed them to be more efficient in the morning schedules. 

Our user data also shows some interesting trends: 

All told, 2020 was a year none of us hope to experience again, but the adoption of technology used to more intelligently manage the pandemic challenge will continue to provide significant benefits measure in improved efficiency and service well after the struggle of the pandemic fades.