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This transit startup is reimagining the yellow school bus to save districts time and money

Zum, a winner in the Mobility category of the 2020 Innovation by Design Awards, wants to upend traditional school transportation.

This transit startup is reimagining the yellow school bus to save districts time and money
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Close your eyes and imagine a school bus. No matter how old you are or where you grew up, there’s a good chance everyone pictures the exact same thing. Yellow bus, screaming kids, endless stops until you finally get to your driveway.

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That’s because school buses have stayed remarkably the same for decades. But ride-share company Zum has a vision for how they could change, and its redesigned school transportation system is one of the Mobility winners in our 2020 Innovation by Design Awards.

COO Vivek Garg says one of the biggest issues with traditional buses is inefficiency. Routes are fixed regardless of things such as staggered start times or A/B schedules. In February, Zum started a 10-year partnership with the Oakland Unified School District to provide transportation for 1,300 of its students. Before Zum came in, he says 70% of students spent 60 minutes or more on the bus both to and from school, a factor that disproportionately impacts minority students. After Zum implemented new routes that were more flexible and dynamic, he says this dropped to just 3%.

[Photo: courtesy Zum]
Part of the way Zum accomplishes this is by treating its fleet of vehicles more flexibly. A standard-size bus might still pick up a lot of students, but smaller buses or cars could be deployed for children who live far off the route, significantly cutting down the amount of time that the majority of students spend on the bus. Zum’s app also helps optimize routes by letting parents note whether the child will be absent, which cuts down on needless stops.

Providing school districts with more dynamic options saves them money, Garg says, especially since Zum envisions a world where vehicles are rarely sitting idle (a standard practice otherwise). Ideally, any given city would have a mix of public and private schools using Zum’s fleet, taking advantage of different events and start times to fully maximize the vehicles. This is already the case in Oakland, where Garg says the Alameda Unified School District as well as several private schools are also using Zum. All the schools use the same fleet, which is dispatched from a central yard. (Zum also sees a future free from the diesel buses that dominate school systems. Garg says they plan to convert their entire fleet to electric in the next three years.)

COVID-19 caused school shutdowns just weeks after Zum inked its partnership with Oakland (a contract worth $10.39 million a year for 10 years). But this too showed the value of the system’s flexibility and dynamism. With 70% of Oakland’s students dependent on the schools for meals, Zum’s fleet started delivering district-made meals to their homes. “The technology is so strong—we can do routing and delivery systems and we already have the assets,” Garg says. “So we repurposed our infrastructure.”

While Garg sees this pivot as just a small, temporary piece of Zum’s work, it’s indicative of the company’s overarching mission. “Many times you do things for market opportunity,” he says. “But then there are times when the reason you exist becomes so important and you can make such a big impact on society. This is one of those times.”

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See more honorees from the 2020 Innovation by Design Awards here.