Commentary

How about a Beeline for school-going children?

Parents with school-going children share many school bus woes, chiefly, the early pick-up times and protracted bus journeys.

But the alternative is for most parents to drive their children to school, worsening the road congestion near schools.

Most schools start at 7.30am, but I've heard of bus pick-up times as early as 5.30am. This is the case for a friend who lives in Simei. The early start is a reflection of the distance from school and the bus driver's attempt to avoid the 7am traffic jam at Bukit Timah where her child's school is located.

In the end, she decided to drive her child to school, adding to the traffic woes.

I will be joining the complaints choir next year when my daughter enters Primary 1. I hope I don't have to sing the blues for long, as I'm hoping that the next "smart transportation" technology wave will change the way school bus drivers work.

One smart transportation pioneer is three-year-old bus and car pooling website ShareTransport.sg, which targets the working crowd.

Registered users share their daily routes on the site. When there are enough people sharing the same route, ShareTransport.sg will start selling bus seats on that route. Commuters buy a monthly bus pass that costs between $100 and $140 for a one-way trip each day on a 13-seater bus.

In August, the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) and Land Transport Authority (LTA) expanded on this concept with the launch of a smartphone app called Beeline. The app lets any office-goer suggest routes and book rides from private bus operators.

So far, it has facilitated the starting of 21 routes and 11 buses, with each bus reportedly having two or three passengers on average per commute.

Why can't a similar concept be applied to school bus drivers?

Schools are likely to continue with what they are used to - awarding contracts to one or two operators, and leaving the route planning entirely to them.

But there is so much more that can be done to provide school-going children with smarter transport options.

Bus pooling is one such option. One upside is the greater economies of scale from having students from different schools on the same bus. This means cheaper fares for those who value price over a shorter ride, for instance.

I wouldn't mind paying more and subscribing to such a service, if it promises a shorter ride and a later pick-up time than what the school-contracted bus driver offers.

The beauty of modern-day data- crunching technology is its ability to plot the best routes for the best returns for bus drivers based on any criteria.

But there are safety concerns.

Drivers must be held accountable for the children's safety, much like how school-contracted bus drivers are currently required to account for their service. If they slip up, they may not get to renew their contract with the schools.

Wouldn't it be great if IDA, LTA or the Education Ministry could spearhead a Beeline for school-going children, as not all private buses are allowed to enter the school compound?

The knock-on benefits of bus pooling cannot be ignored. Besides, when fewer parents drive to school, there would be less congestion on the roads.

There is so much more that can be done to provide school-going children with smarter transport options.

Bus pooling is one such option. One upside is the greater economies of scale from having students from different schools on the same bus. This means cheaper fares for those who value price over a shorter ride, for instance.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 18, 2015, with the headline 'How about a Beeline for school-going children?'. Print Edition | Subscribe