Can a California tech company fix Howard County's school bus … – The Baltimore Banner

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Zūm is taking over half of the county’s routes and hopes to transform student transportation in Maryland and beyond
Published 8/28/2023 5:30 a.m. EDT, Updated 9/1/2023 5:40 p.m. EDT
You can now track packages on their way to your front door, and you can your track car keys when you misplace them. Starting this year, some Howard County parents will be able to track their child’s school bus.
It’s one of many tech-supported features that Zūm, a Silicon Valley-based company, hopes can transform student transportation in Maryland and beyond.
“It’s amazing to see how in Howard County it [student transportation] is even more antiquated than we have seen in other districts, so our goal is to modernize that,” said chief operating officer Vivek Garg, who co-founded the company with his sister and its CEO, Ritu Narayan.
Zūm sibling executive duo — CEO Ritu Narayan and her brother, COO Vivek Garg — pose for a photo aboard one of their company’s brand new buses on Aug. 22. (Daniel Zawodny/The Baltimore Banner)
The siblings were at Zūm’s Jessup operations hub last week for an event celebrating their new drivers in advance of the start of the school year. Zūm workers and their families ate ice cream, bid on raffles and listened to a DJ with 250 brand new school buses lined up and shining in the August sun behind them. Howard County school superintendent Michael Martirano even made an appearance.
Teachers and parents across the state have complained that school bus service has worsened since the pandemic — with older drivers opting to retire rather than risk catching COVID and stagnant wages contributing to a shortage of drivers. And since the news broke that the district would cut bus service to roughly 3,500 Howard County students by increasing the required distance from home to school to qualify for bus pickup, many parents are even more fed up. Now that school officials have turned over half of the district’s school bus routes to Zūm, the question is whether they can bring more timeliness and consistency to bus operations.
Crystal Shelley, who taught social studies at Atholton High School for 16 years before starting a new gig as a librarian at a different school this year, said bus transportation has continually been an issue since her school resumed in-person instruction.
Last year, at least some students in her first period class would show up late four out of five days each week, she said. And roughly once every two weeks, a couple kids would show up close to the end of first period, explaining that their bus never showed up.
“That’s all valuable instructional time that students are missing out on,” said Shelley, noting that the same students were typically showing up late every day. “It’s not a good way to begin your day educationally.”
Leaning over a state-of-the-art leather driver’s seat in a brand-new, yellow Thomas school bus, Garg made the same point. He said his sister wanted to start the company because school buses in San Francisco kept getting Narayan’s kids to school late, and she worried how it would affect their education.
“We think about it as access to education, an integral part of the school day,” Garg said.
Zūm’s fleet of brand new school buses don’t skimp on the bells and whistles. Fold-down harnesses can safely secure younger children for their rides to and from school. (Daniel Zawodny/The Baltimore Banner)
Now parents can track their kid’s bus on the Zūm app, both to know when to send their child out to meet their driver in the morning, and to ensure that they arrived on time.
Jenny Moore, the mother of a fourth-grader in a San Francisco district that contracted with Zūm, raved about the kindness of Zūm drivers and the convenience of the app, adding that her son usually tracks his bus on the app while he eats his breakfast. “I’ll be at the office, see on my phone that he gets on the bus [after school], so I know when I need to get home to meet him,” she said.
Garg said each driver will board their bus with a tablet pre-loaded with everything they will need for the day, including directions for their routes powered by the company’s own navigation technology and full student lists.
Kids cam swipe student identification cards to board the company’s buses, with a check mark popping up to confirm for the driver that each student is supposed to be on board. But what if a student misplaces their ID? It won’t be a problem, the company said.
And these are not your parents’ school buses.
Artificial intelligence armed with an onboard driver cam gives each Zūm driver a running safety score — Garg hopes that it will encourage drivers to avoid sloppy driving habits such as rolling stops at stop signs. The buses come equipped with outside cameras, too, which Garg said can be used to issue tickets to motorists who don’t slow down or stop for the bus.
Younger, smaller students will each have a fold-down safety harness. Seat belts will keep the bigger kids strapped in, and air conditioning should keep them comfortable.
Borrowing on his background in tech, Garg said the decision not to skimp on the added bus features was deliberate, all part of putting the user — drivers, families, and mostly the kids — at the center of the equation. He said that most other companies forego the bells and whistles to save money, but that he believes they bring comfort and enhance safety.
Some new drivers appear to like the changes, too. Jackie Scott has driven a bus for Howard County Public Schools for 10 years, shuttling among different companies. Two years ago, she went on strike with her fellow drivers while employed with another company to demand a pay increase and benefits.
“And then Zūm came along, and offered everything that we always wanted,” she said, including medical, vision and dental coverage, life insurance and vacation.
Zūm’s national and local executive teams were on-site the company’s Jessup operations hub on Aug. 22 to throw a welcome event for drivers as the school year gets underway. (Daniel Zawodny/The Baltimore Banner)
For Garg, it was a no-brainer — take care of the drivers, and they will take care of the kids. Starting pay ranges from $26 to $30 per hour depending on experience — Scott said it’s the highest wage she’s ever driven for.
And parents will actually be able to rate every ride through the Zūm app. When a rating comes in at three stars or below, Garg said his executive team automatically gets an email and contacts the parent that same day.
Garg stressed that out of 280,000 nationwide ratings across all Zūm routes — covering five cities with eight more on the way — 97% were a perfect five stars.
Reminding you of Uber? You’re not alone. Both got their start with venture capital, and some might worry the companies will share more similarities down the line.
With prices for an Uber ride now far higher than the initial low ones that made the company a household name, should Howard County worry about falling into a similar trap? Some refer to the “network effect” as a key component to the venture capital playbook — firms use an influx of upfront capital to build a competitive product like, say, a school bus fleet that’s safe and on time.
But how does that kind of company become profitable down the line? If Uber, Amazon or Netflix are any indicator, it’s by getting everyone on board and then hiking the price.
In a response to this concern, Garg distanced the company from the likes of Uber or Amazon, and said that Zūm has a “fundamentally different strategy.”
Of the roughly 500 bus routes in the Howard County system, Zūm will be covering 230 of them, according to Brian Bassett, director of communications and engagement for the school district.
Bassett said that a total of four companies placed bids for the routes, and the district decided that Zūm “met and/or exceeded the qualifications we were looking for.” A spokesperson for Zūm said it has a three-year, $27 million contract with the district.
Howard County transports roughly 43,600 students to and from school — about 75% of the district’s students. With a transportation budget of around $45 million, the district spends about $1,032 per student per year for those who ride the bus.
That means the district spends slightly less per student on transporting students by bus than its neighbors in the Baltimore region. It’s also unique in that it relies exclusively on private companies to provide that service, unlike, say, Baltimore County, which uses a mix of private companies and in-house drivers.
Some other school systems around the country say that Zūm has helped them. Kim Raney, director of transportation for Oakland Unified School District, California’s public school system, told The Baltimore Banner that officials there have turned over 100% of their bus routes to Zūm.
“Our service has improved drastically, [Zūm’s] tech and customer service model has really gone above and beyond,” said Raney, calling this month’s start to the school year the best that she’s seen in seven years on the job.
“I think they are a better partner,” said Raney, comparing Zūm to other bus companies she’s worked with. “Before … it was kind of like a big corporation, but Zūm will be on the phone with me at 1 a.m. if we need to fix something.”
Bassett said that his team has been pleased with the “exceptional open communication” from Zūm as the school year approaches, and went on to express confidence that Zūm will come through with exceptional service.
Zūm, a California based tech company, will handle 230 of Howard County Public School’s roughly 500 school bus routes for the next three years. (Daniel Zawodny/The Baltimore Banner)
Not all drivers have been completely impressed by their communication, though. Meghann Adams, president of SMART-TD Local 1741, the union that represents San Francisco bus drivers employed by Zūm, referred to them as a tech company doing transportation, not the other way around.
“School busing does need updating, but having people who are very tech-based and don’t have enough understanding of transportation, there ends up being a disconnect there,” Adams said. “We’ve seen some of that with routing — trying to save money and not thinking about what’s going to produce stable routes for drivers and families.”
Adams noted that the dynamic will be unique to each school district, though, conceding that school busing in San Francisco required a huge overhaul when Zūm came in. But she described some of the company’s follow-through as inconsistent, adding that “the bus yard is pretty divided” between drivers who want to keep giving the company a chance and those who have seen enough. And cost-saving measures that the company marketed as an efficiency decision have left drivers skipping breaks and having to hold bathroom trips, she said.
In a response to these concerns, a Zūm spokesperson said that “change is never easy,” but that the industry needs to evolve. The company acknowledged that drivers are a critical piece of that evolution and said that they “want to do everything to be the best employer.”
According to Bassett, Zūm was not involved in Howard County’s routing process, nor did they factor into the decision to expand the nontransportation distance for walkers. High school students who live less than two miles from school will have to walk. For middle schoolers, the distance is one-and-a-half miles, and for elementary schoolers, one mile.
Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America, a national service organization that places emerging journalists with local newsrooms that cover underreported issues.
The data graphic has been updated to reflect that Baltimore City Public Schools provides transportation services to a small portion of students.
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