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One City Saved $5M by Routing School Buses with an Algorithm (routefifty.com)
350 points by emrosecoleman 11 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 153 comments
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Here’s an article about some MIT folks who tried to do this and were shut down by annoying rich people.

My greatest frustration is that they complain about black box algorithms when in fact it is a perfectly clear, ambiguity-free optimization function.

https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.wired.com/story/joi-ito-ai-...



Oh I remember this story. Back then when I dug into it, it was a real spin-versus-spin situation.

Sure, when you introduce an approach that suddenly creates considerable inconvenience for some population of parents, sure they complain (no one likes having to drop off kids at ~ vaguely recalling ~ 10 am and pick at 5 pm, sheesh, it was something terrible). Some large portion of working people are fairly dependent their children having ordinary school schedules. Maybe these were relatively better off parents in the public school system - where the actually wealthy use private schools (I know Boston well enough to attest to this). So the algorithm failed to "optimize for those they could effectively screw" but hey, would it be too much to ask to just give all schools a sane schedule? Maybe pony up that extra money, give up the need to optimize everything, keep the tail of bus optimization from wagging the dog of school scheduling?


For elementary students apparently “Hundreds of families were facing a 9:30 to 7:15 a.m. shift.”

That’s a significant change in wake up time. Yeah, I’m not keen on that. It’s a non-starter.


It's a change between years, and students moving to high school are already facing the exact same changes. The disparity can't be a non-starter because it already existed.

Those early hours exist. Someone has to take them (without doubling the bus fleet size). And it's better for the students if they have the early hours in elementary and not in high school.


Rather than penalise subsets of people with early starts, I would rather everyone pay marginally more in taxes for more buses.

Also what if your family has both teenagers and preteens? In my family we drove, so the schedule was based on when my parents had to go to work. I’d often arrive at school when the library opened or just before, which is a good hour before when classes started. Then again, my school experience wasn’t in the US, and schools started 8:30am / 8:45am consistently across the city.


> Also what if your family has both teenagers and preteens?

"When I was a kid" preteens and teenagers were expected to be able to get to the bus stop on their own; But maybe that's just because both of my parents worked and left before the bus came.


Well yeah but when you choose a school, you choose it based on those criterias. They cannot just change the schedule like this

It sounded like the hours were relatively consistent over the whole system. It wouldn't really affect school choice.

But fine, if this change is somehow egregious compared to other ones, give a 5 year warning.

The schedule benefits their kids, with a net zero change in the convenience of starting hours. What a shortsighted way to complain.


> What a shortsighted way to complain.

This is not how to build concensus for your argument.

I recently moved due to concerns outside my control, and the school time changed from 8:30am to 7:15am for my 6-year-old. This is manageable, but not a minor change at all. These types of changes are very significant for everyone in the region.


> This is not how to build concensus for your argument.

Sure, I'm not trying to convince the population being affected with that. Here's how I would say it:

"Your kids are going through 12 years of education. This change to the entire system will make it easier for them to learn, and to be smarter adults with better focusing habits. For some people the hours are tougher right now, I'm sorry, but it's not like those hours came out of nowhere. Your students were going to have school at those hours eventually. We've only changed which years."

It's not about how hard the change is. It's that a few years of early school starts are inevitable, so it's a fair trade.


Most substantive changes leave some fraction of stakeholders strictly worse off than before.

Wait... I thought they were going to later start times? The article indicated that studies showed start time before 8am were not helpful.

The studies showed that early start times for teenagers were a problem, but not for elementary schoolers. The schools had previously (and still do) started teenagers very early and elementary students later, and this proposal swapped them.

The thing is, all of these algorithms should be able to do well with arbitrary constraints. If it means saving less money then so be it.

Many of these systems start optimizing some simple criteria and work fairly well. But with additional constraints they fall apart.

Even companies that manage their own fleets for their own needs would like different things to purely optimizing distance/duration. They might want to balance the workload across all of their drivers, separate the drivers so they drive in a particular area, undefined start or end of the driving job.

In the case above, something could have definitely be done, if the algorithm was efficient enough.


I’m not sure I follow. All of those additional optimizations are pretty simple problems in the OR field.

I've worked recently in this exact field (known in OR as "pickup dropoff problem with time windows" or PDPTW). As you say, all these modifications are completely standard (especially ones that minimize the worst-case "suffering" of the most-affected passenger).

Saying these modifications are standard does not talk about their complexity.

Here's [0] a paper where they analyze the mistake of the feasibility check that experts in the field failed to do properly. Here's [1] a paper aggregating all the timing problems that arise and their algorithmic complexity. Some of the timing problems, including the constraint of limiting the time of the passenger in the bus had O(n^2) or O(n^3) feasibility checks. That's slow. Especially slow if combined with integer linear programming or branch and cut algorithms.

If your system instead minimizes the riding time by adding a cost function to a constraint, making it soft, in most cases the cost function is so ill defined that the solution no longer does what you want, can hardly minimize all the constraint to a normal solution, and you get a huge mess.

There's no state of the art solution that models these constraints as soft ones.

These problems being standard does not mean that they are simple.

0: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.927...

1: https://w1.cirrelt.ca/~vidalt/papers/Timing-Problems-Final.p...


Undefined start or end time with a limit on driving duration is not trivial.

Well, routing school buses is already less than trivial. You have pickup & delivery. So there's a precedence constraint to orders. Child won't be kept for hours in the bus, so the bus has to make several trips to school. Limiting the time between delivery of the child and the pickup is already less than trivial.

Just to know if route is feasible (all constraints satisfied) given a list of child pickups, child dropoffs and time limit between pickup and dropoff is nontrivial and can mess up the optimization.

Adding school shifts to the equation, minimizing number of vehicles and a bunch of other constraints might make the optimization just too slow or too constrained for an algorithm that was working incredible without all those constraints.


In rural Iowa (where I live and grew up) the middle-school bus and high-school bus are full the first couple of days of school, then they all start driving/getting rides to school. At the middle of the school year, maybe 12 people on a bus build for 60. That makes it complicated too.

And 'optimization' solutions result in 1hour+ rides to a school just down the road, as the bus winds about the countryside scavenging the few remaining students. The longer the trip gets, the more that find another way, the emptier the bus, the longer the trip to try to fill it again.

We drove our kids to school for most of their school careers, even though three busses went by our house every day.


It was a good article but my main takeaway was that the city botched the marketing of the planned change. Had they communicated what was being planned and why ahead of time, as well as providing the tool/simulation to make it more tangible to residents, they might have had less objection to the change. If not, they at least would have likely had more support from the majority who stood to benefit to counteract it.

No, they tried a build perfect, cost optimal system to maximize ROI. They ended up losing money. A solution you cannot implement isn’t good engineering.

Big changes that impact tens or hundreds of thousands of people need to be staged out to minimize impact. The Big Bang approach doesn’t work for problems like this — i bet a few thousand people would lose jobs over these schedule changes.


It's the same system and it's mentioned in the OP.

I was overeager

The OP article is also about the Boston bussing system changes, before it was cancelled.

Cry me a river for the poor optimization function.

“After it was unveiled parents loudly objected to the proposal. Less than a month later, the district repealed the proposed new school start times. As Dimitris Bertsimas, a professor who led the MIT team, pointed out in a presentation about the solution, those who favored the status quo had the most to lose. “When your kids are affected negatively, it is hard to see the big picture,” he said.”

Joi Ito wrote on this https://joi.ito.com/weblog/2018/12/05/what-the-boston-school... :

“In very polite email, they told me that I didn’t have the whole story.

Kade and I met later that month with Arthur, Sebastien, and their adviser, MIT professor Dimitris Bertsimas. One of the first things they showed us was a photo of the parents who had protested against the schedules devised by the algorithm. Nearly all of them were white. The majority of families in the Boston school system are not white. White families represent only about 15 percent the public school population in the city. Clearly something was off.”

“Optimizing the algorithm for greater “equity" also meant many of the planned changes were "biased" against families with privilege. My view is that the fact that an algorithm was making decisions also upset people. And the families who were happy with the new schedule probably didn’t pay as much attention. The families who were upset marched on City Hall in an effort to overturn the planned changes.”


>Optimizing the algorithm for greater “equity" also meant many of the planned changes were "biased" against families with privilege.

I mean maybe but measuring that by the skin color of those protesting is... not a good method. Of course people marching on City Hall or showing up at schoolboard meetings are going to be the disproportionately privileged, they're the people who have the time for that sort of thing. But even there I'm a bit skeptical, take a look at this:

>Parent Antonia Rodriguez after a fiery address. She says of her and fellow parents, “We don’t have careers; we have jobs!... We’re laborers!” And that makes it hard to handle early starts and early dismissals.

or this video just below:

https://twitter.com/jmlarkin/status/941104843137064960

which gets to the main root of the opposition which was drastically earlier start and end times for elementary school students, two hours earlier in some cases.

>But for those who can’t stagger working hours — specifically single parents or families who don’t have any wiggle room on working hours — kids often see themselves to bus stops in the morning, then wait an hour or so after school, alone, until parents return. I see it every day.

>Under the new start times, and therefore early end times, these kids will be spending up to four hours home alone every day.

>Let’s not sugarcoat: After-school care is for financially advantaged families. Costs vary, but for two children at the YMCA in West Roxbury, after-school care from 3:25 p.m. until 6 p.m. is more than $700 per month (the cost would naturally go up with the extension of hours needed), plus the yearly membership cost of the YMCA (currently $90 per family).

...

>And for what? So Boston Public School can save a little in transportation expenses. And while they save, families will find themselves in increasingly precarious financial straits.

https://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2017/12/12/boston-public-sc...

Or this analysis from the Boston NAACP, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, and the East Boston Ecumenical Community Council:

>This ignores the fact that parents of color are disproportionately in lower-wage jobs, and are less likely to have the flexibility needed to build their schedules around a school day that ends at 1:15 or 1:55, let alone pay for any resulting need in after school care

https://www.boston.com/news/education/2017/12/16/naacp-lette...

---

Now it's clear that BPS used the MIT students here as a tool, a coating of algorithmic sophistication over a plan they already had, but it strikes me a bit poorly to see those students using 'actually we did everything right, it's just rich parents who stopped us' as a scapegoat.


Thanks for sharing this. I don't live in Boston so I haven't closely tracked all the views on BPS.

Excellent rebuttal.

Something about the presence of a metric and an algorithm causes our brains to switch off.


Interesting - so is it "a thing" in the US that the city runs a dedicated bus service for all schools/students? Quite a surprise for me considering how poor people say public transport is in general in the US?

In the UK some schools run their own bus things (in the same way that Goolge, Facebook et al do in San Francisco), but most of the other schools just get by with the public buses.

There is often some coordination to make sure buses stop at/very near schools, and they may send extra ones at certain times - e.g. there were often several buses parked up and waiting empty at my school so they could be filled at the end of the school day, but any member of the public was then able to get onboard once it was on its usual route after that, and if you were late getting out (e.g. detention/sports etc) you'd just wait at the stop outside the school for the usual bus on its usual route to come by.

What do the US school buses and their drivers do for the rest of the day and on weekends? Just sit idle?


Yes. Our population densities are lower, school distances are often not walkable reasonably, and schools being public they want to ensure that their students are not impeded from getting to the classroom for any factors related to logistics, income, etc.

Often times these are part-time positions. Set block of hours twice a day. Drivers can take on additional duties or other jobs. The buses themselves are either owned by a transportation company that can also hire them out on weekends or making additional money on field trips / sports transportation.

My kids are fortunate enough to be able to walk to their school - there are sidewalks and it's only a half mile away, but many other students have a longer walk, no sidewalks, or other impediments that leads them to prefer a bus. Kids could take public transit, but typically this is not a great solution in most places, and it doesn't deliver you to a school directly. The latter factor helps with truancy, security, and a number of other things. There's a cost to it, but it is a norm.

It would be straightforward for a school district to agree to change the policy or reduce bus service for cost reasons if public transit and things like walking, biking were preferred options. These are typically the norm for private schools.


Indiana had a school district on the south side of Indianapolis that tried to stop busing students (https://www.governing.com/topics/education/gov-indiana-schoo...). It was a mess, and frankly due to the irresponsible way the state handles funding schools. Certain districts around the Indianapolis area, refuse to approve tax referendums for their schools, while others have voters that are happy to fund education. It's unsustainable long term.

Most US cities and towns have minimal public transit that wouldn't be anywhere near sufficient for getting kids to and from school, so they run school buses instead. In some places with good public transit, like Somerville MA where I live, the city doesn't run school buses and people walk or take general purpose public transit, but that's very unusual here.

It's the same deal as the tech shuttles: in places where public transit is good (NYC, Chicago, Boston) the tech companies don't run shuttles because there's no need.

> What do the US school buses and their drivers do for the rest of the day and on weekends? Just sit idle?

Yes. The drivers typically work a "split shift" with time off in the middle of the day, and the buses sit empty both then and on weekends.


My father was a school bus driver. The pickup and drop off routes were often 3 hours each, as they were mandated by local law to provide service to the whole country.

Kindergarten is just half a day in many places, so the middle of the day would be another 3 hours to shift those around.

There were also many field trips, sporting events, and other miscellaneous calls for transport throughout the day and into the evenings, as well as some weekends.

Much of all of this would vary quite a bit depending on a particular town’s location, population needs, layout, etc. but I just wanted to say that although it’s a relatively chill job and there is indeed often a lot of downtime, it’s not like bus drivers universally work 1 hr in the morning, 1 hr in the afternoon, and then just bum around all day.


All the districts in my area are begging for school bus drivers. The pay is going up and some are offering full time benefits for driving part time. I've also seen them offering to split the morning / afternoon shift and paying teachers extra to drive buses instead of coach after school sports.

Another model is combination bus driver / school custodian jobs.

Good article on long school bus rides: https://www.mprnews.org/story/2010/10/04/long-bus-ride-cook-...


In Somerville, it's hard to be more than a mile from the school. Cambridge, on the other hand, does run busses. It is true that the tech companies for the most part don't run private shuttles, MIT and Harvard do, though less for commuting than just connecting separated parts of their campuses.

> in places where public transit is good (NYC, Chicago, Boston)

The Boston one is a real giggle. At best, public transit in Boston is no better than the Bay Area, and on average is much worse.

The real reason for not running shuttles in these locations is office size. The Bay Area offices where shuttles are run have 10-100x the employees these other locations have.


I work at Google in Cambridge, in Kendall sq. Most of my coworkers take public transit, most commonly the Red Line. If you look at https://www.mapnificent.net/boston/#11/42.3729/-71.0760/2700... you can see there's a large area within reasonable public transit commuting distance.

The tech company shuttles in the Bay Area mostly run to the South Bay, where Google etc are, and the public transit options there are minimal.


Many schools have a bus service because the general public transport is that poor. In some areas you have no other public transport. So either someone drives the kid to school or they don't go because they can't walk there.

School buses pick up at trivial distances from children's homes, where they can be visually supervised between the door and the bus either by their own parents or by a trusted neighbor. The bus driver passes a background check, and no other adults are allowed. The bus drops off right on school property, not on the other side of a fast road. If a school bus does not come, takes a long detour, or quits mid-route it is national news [0].

For people who can afford alternatives, riding public transit is something you do as an adventurous young adult, and maybe get turned off of even then (sexual harassment, aggressive panhandling, long delays and breakdowns). In the culture I grew up in, sending your 7 year old to navigate that unsupervised every day is bonkers.

[0] https://www.nbcmiami.com/news/local/Bus-Driver-Detour-Fort-L...


The school district is usually a distinct entity with direct taxpayer support. The buses typically only serve students.

Here, due to decreased enrollment and building closures, they pick up students at their front door.

The drivers are mostly paid for just the hours they are driving, the buses sit idle except for things like out of town athletic events (where they transport the participants).


Interesting - so is it "a thing" in the US that the city runs a dedicated bus service for all schools/students? Quite a surprise for me considering how poor people say public transport is in general in the US?

It's actually a thing because our public transport is so poor. Plus there are special laws for school buses to protect children. When a school bus picks up a child it is illegal to pass it on either side of the road.

However in some places students do take public transportation. For example here is the pricing for school districts to use SEPTA, which is the public transportation in and around Philadelphia

https://www.septa.org/fares/discount/students.html


Generally speaking, US school systems consist of separate elementary, middle school/junior high, and (senior) high schools with staggered start and end times for the school day to accommodate buses. For example, back in high school I think the actual school day started around 7am or maybe 7:15am or so. I'd catch the bus at around ~6:30am as I lived towards the end of my bus route; some kids would be up earlier. The buses would drop off their charges with a bit of time to spare and head out again for the next schools (in order: high school, middle school(s), and elementary school(s)). At the end of the day, the buses would line up around the school (again, for my district, maybe 15-20 minutes before the final bell and with two 'flights' of buses, IIRC), load up the kids, and head out on their route in reverse before repeating at the next schools.

It's not really an example of a functioning public transport system; it certainly works, but only in a very limited and specific context and without any flexibility. If a kid misses the bus either in the morning or after school (which can happen often), they're going to be waiting for a ride home from a family member. After-school programs required the same. And if you're in a rural community? The bus rides are longer, and you're waking up even earlier. But for a lot of suburban communities, there's no real alternative. If they have a bus system, it's probably for commuters and goes from specified stops (often from large "Park and Ride" lots) to the nearest city.

In that sense, there often isn't a public bus to put kids on in much of the US. Assuming, of course, that parents would be willing to do so. Back in 2008, a writer wrote about letting her 9-year-old ride the bus and subway to school alone.[0] There was a ton of public outcry, and she was labeled "America's worst mom" and suggested it was equivalent to child abuse. But that's a different issue altogether.

0. http://nysun.com/opinion/why-i-let-my-9-year-old-ride-subway...


How silly, I rode the city bus alone around 9, and this was before cell phones.

The school bussing (at least in my area of the States) is provided by a bus company which contracts with the school district. The bus company in turn maintains busses, and hires drivers (presumably?) part-time. They also provide bussing services for field trips, sporting events, etc. in addition to daily bussing to the school itself.

I think quite a lot of rural schools in the UK would have some sort of specialised bus service. US suburban areas are generally much less dense than UK ones and often have much worse public transport, if any, so the rural routes are probably a better comparison.

They're usually part-timers or neighborhood parents volunteering.

I have never heard of a bus driver being a volunteer position, is that something that happens near you? And, if so, is it a public school district?

This has been my experience as well. It's either retirees or stay at home moms/dads that drive the buses part time. They may not be purely volunteer (no pay), but it's definitely a part time job. Couple of hours in the morning and afternoon.

Also, it seems to be mostly in rural areas. Some drivers keep the buses at home during the school year. And, these are large, full size buses. If you live in a medium sized or large city, it's probably different.


The government benefits package has been a major selling point in the past; If you want a pension (or second one as a retiree) it can really help the ends meet. Pay in the 2000s was about $24k a year.

It was in a school district that had two high schools, and my high school had 2,000 students. There were something like 15 elementary schools at the time. Yes, it is a public school district. Is that not normal?

never heard of that. At least in California there are strict requirements and qualifications to be able to transport children on a school bus

Driving a school bus requires a CDL in every state.

If they enforced it, then it must not be that hard to get. It looks like you just need to take a test to get one.

The test is a bit more involved than a normal driving test. A normal test just involves reading street signs and how to handle things like right of way, don't pass on the right, use your blinker, basic important topics. CDL tests ask questions about maintenance (how often to inspect tires?), about how big trucks move on the road compared to little cars (which kind of truck could get stuck on a RR crossing?), and misc stuff like hazmat diamonds. It's not the hardest test in the world but it's more studying than a normal DL test.

It also carries stricter enforcement of traffic violations, and mandatory drug testing.

I got a ticket for an improper lane change and the judge asked if I had a CDL which seemed to imply it would have been revoked.


Yes it is very ingrained in society and featured in many movies.

In Germany we're assigned to the nearest school.

I remember walking to school in elementary school, later taking the bike for 20 min or public transportation. I don't live in a particularly dense area.

Is Boston too sparsely populated to have schools in walking or biking distance?

Seems that we accept distances of 1-2 km for elementary school walks. (0.6 to 1.2 miles)


Boston is different from this in a whole variety of ways.

1) Americans just in general tend to drive their kids to school dues to fear of child abductions and related ever-present paranoia.

2) Boston's transportation system is broken on just about every levels. The street organization is irrational, derived haphazardly from ad-hoc pre-auto paths. The public transit system was also built in an ad-hoc and is at level where full transit lines stop for days at a time. So all that's left is driving, though Boston drivers have a terrible reputation too!

3) Boston's weather is also miserable - the place is at just latitude so that wet, 30 degree weather prevails in winter, giving freezing rain, frozen rain, slush and all manner of nastiness. Plus horrible hot, humid summers. So you have to avoid walking a lot.

4) Boston experienced court-order busing to end segregation in the 1970s, so it's often true that students aren't in schools closest to them geographically.


> 1) Americans just in general tend to drive their kids to school dues to fear of child abductions and related ever-present paranoia.

Is it true that in some places this paranoia has gotten so far that you’ll get reported to child services if you let your kids walk to school?

> 3) Boston's weather is also miserable - the place is at just latitude so that wet, 30 degree weather prevails in winter, giving freezing rain, frozen rain, slush and all manner of nastiness. Plus horrible hot, humid summers. So you have to avoid walking a lot.

In Slovenia, same latitude as Montreal, I walked to school and back every day for 16 years. Yes even college.

What’s the problem with walking a kilometer or two in ... weather? Sometimes it rains, sometimes it snows, slush in spring, hot in summer ... so what? Just dress appropriately.

I have fond memories of early spring where you walk to school in a winter jacket and back from school in a t-shirt jacket in hand.


> Is it true that in some places this paranoia has gotten so far that you’ll get reported to child services if you let your kids walk to school?

Not really. There have been cases of this (well, with young children walking with older siblings to a neighborhood playground), but they are rare and sensationalized.


> What’s the problem with walking a kilometer or two

Where I grew up in New Jersey I lived 2 miles (3.2 KM) from school and I was considered close to the school. Those who lived within a 10-20 minute walk would walk. Many of us who lived further away would rely on the bus.

Edit: And this was for elementary and middle school (up to age 13). From ages 14-18 everyone was significantly further away.


Assuming you were in a city rather than a rural area, is it because US school are larger & fewer? Nowhere in my hometown (250k mid-sized city) is more than 10-15 minutes walk from a school.

> is it because US school are larger & fewer

I don't know because I know very little about schools outside the US. My best guess would be that they vary everywhere and this isn't US specific.

> Assuming you were in a city rather than a rural area

Before I was born and when I was younger there were quite a few farms, but I didn't grow up with them. So I suppose it used to be rural and now is a suburb (in-between rural and a city). My town has about ~30k people.

There are a lot of sprawling cities (and I _think_ Boston may be one of those) where it would also be greater distances to walk to a school. ..so I'm not sure being a city is correlated to short walking distances to school.


New Jersey doesn't have cities that large.

I was curious so I checked. According to Wikipedia we've two over 250k and 7 over 100k!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_cities_b...


3.2km isn’t that much, I had from age 10 on a 4.5km way to school, and we all would just cycle there, even during storms or with snow, or in 41°C heat, all year.

Isn't Boston's climate very similar to most of Germany's?

One thing I have learned from reading (and occasionally taking part in) these discussions is that no, it is not. The US is different. It is too big, too small, too densely populated, too sparsely populated, too hot, too cold, too dry and too humid for anything to work. It does not matter if something appears to work most everywhere else. It will not work anywhere in the US.

Ironically, it is actually hotter, it is actually colder, it's all of those things you sarcastically point out. Except being too small or dense, who told you that?

I'm from the American Midwest and I'm currently in Northern Europe. The difference is huge. The density issue of American suburbs is real, and the phenomenon is relatively rare globally. Go check out Google Earth. How do you not see it?

The weather is also more extreme in most places of the US than Europe. When Europeans tell people in Wisconsin to "just take an electric scooter to the metro station" they understandably laugh it off as ridiculous.


That's true for the Midwest but not necessarily for Boston. The temperature range is a bit larger in Boston but German cities can also have >100F weeks in summer and several weeks of snow in winter.

Snow is fine, but Boston will get 3 feet of snow, then an hour of freezing rain, and the next day it will be 45F. Winter is chaos

And that situation would literally just be business as usual in somewhere like Bangor or Buffalo. In Boston it's an excuse for half the city to call out of work and the MBTA to run trains "whenever we get around to it".

In Bangor or Buffalo there is very little "business as usual". Boston is far more dense and optimized with less slack in the system.

I bet that the activity in Boston when it is "shut down" due to weather is still busier than an average day in Bangor or Buffalo.


It's probably not much of a factor any longer but, for many years after the "Blizzard of '78", everyone knew someone who had to be evacuated from Route 128 or who got stuck at work for a week. A decade or so later I remember a friend who had moved to Boston recently remarking to me that they had never seen a northern city where people were so paranoid when the first snowflake fell.

It definitely created a mindset of really wanting to get home (or just staying there in the first place) if any amount of snow was forecast. Of course, it doesn't help that traffic is pretty bad even in nominal conditions. Every few years you still end up with a 6 hour commute home situation for many people.


Both those towns are small fries compared to Boston. Why not compare it to the Arctic?

Boston in particular is full of people who think the weather is super extreme in the winter. It's mostly a cultural identity thing with a side of massholes being pansies. It's probably easier to pander to them than to tell them they're wrong.

Source: masshole who has has lived in places with harsher climates


A bit cynical, but not unfair. Many people in the US persistently cling to the idea that solution implemented and working (albeit imperfectly) in other parts of the world will not work in the US due to XYZ.

Which in a way, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Solutions implemented in the rest of the world will not work in the US because most people don't believe they will, or that the US is not capable of radical change (that is, radical change not driven by an individual or a corporate desire for profit)


Well I mean comparing US to individual European countries usually ignores the fact that most of the countries quoted have homogenous population with numbers closer to large US cities like New York than the entire US. If you compare US to EU you see that EU is less rosy with it's own underdeveloped regions that and the difference between richest and poorest country in EU is probably worse than the difference between states in US, relocating between states in US is simpler, etc. etc. Also decision making at EU level Europe is waay harder than the US. So instead of talking US in aggregate why not do those changes state level where it makes sense - just like they are done in the Europe.

Europe is warmed by certain climate processes in the ocean, its indeed possible that a more northerly latitude like England or Iceland can in fact have less bad winter weather due to ocean currents. The Boston area does have more consistent solar illumination due to its southerly position, FWIW, so USA isn't all bad.

in other words those associated with the automobile industry and/or are anti middle class don’t want people to build a pedestrian friendly city.


And maybe the street layout?

Nothing special to see from an European point of view...

Huh? Is Boston not the classic car-oriented USA city?

Yes and no. It's famously congested and challenging to drive in--one of the most expensive road infrastructure projects in the US ever (the "Big Dig") notwithstanding. But the downtown core as well as large parts of the adjacent Cambridge are actually pretty walkable and the public transit, subway in particular, is pretty decent. (Regular users rightly complain a lot about it, especially in winter, but then thats true of most cities including in Europe.)

I live about an hour outside of Boston and have to go in for a few days later this week and I'll be taking public transit.


Thank you, I was sure I heard about these massive congestion. I'm happy that the situation there is different than in the rest of US.

No, it's not. Most of the city, and close in suburbs like Cambridge and Somerville, were built before cars. This is one of the few places in the US where I'm happy living without a car.

No... I've never took my car into Boston when I've visited, I've always dumped the car at the train station.

no, too old for that (at least central boston).

When I visited I found transport to be very european compared to other US cities I have visited.


Boston is at 42.3601 N longitude, which is actually pretty far south-ish compared to Germany.

For comparison, Munich, Germany is 48.1351° N, Barcelona, Spain is 41.3851° N


Longitude in itself doesn't dictate weather. Labrador is the same longitude as London but we don't have similar climates.

Köppen climate classification is probably the best indicator of where else is similar; which comes out as the same as most of northern Europe [1].

1. https://www.weatherbase.com/weather/weather-summary.php3?s=9...


Latitude doesn't, you're right, though the map on the site you linked shows broad-strokes correlation, and I've found it helpful if I guess imprecise in illustrating general temperature differences.

The difference in summers - cool summer vs hot summer - is a big one, and I'd suggest that it makes Boston's climate not really the same as most of northern Europe. We haven't traditionally needed air conditioning in Germany, for example, while I understand Boston and New England (the upper mid-Atlantic and New York, surely, when I lived and visited there) come to rely on it during the summer months to not just live in puddles of sweat.


You mean latitude.

You're absolutely right (we both meant that)

That makes no sense. I’m in Atlanta but I’m pretty close to Saudi Arabia if you put the US over Europe. I can tell you I don’t live in a desert.

Chicago is comparable to Rome yet Rome rarely sees snow or the very cold windy weather Chicago is known for. You’re ignoring the whole jet stream.


Due to the ocean currents, i.e. cold water coming from the North on the US East coast, and hot water coming back from the South on the European West coast, it does not make much sense to compare latitude on the 2 sides of the Atlantic.

Famously(?) New York is at the same latitude that Naples, they definitely don't have the same climate.


Yes, as a European, I’m always amazed at how far south the northern US and even southern Canada really is.

With that said, those are latitudes, not longitudes.


>>With that said, those are latitudes, not longitudes.

Someone once told be a simple way to remember the difference. Longitude and latitude was first used be Greeks to travel the Mediterranean ocean (not sure if that is true, but helps with remembering); The Mediterranean ocean is long from East to West, so moving in the long direction changes the longitude.


I was taught that latitude lines resemble the rungs of a ladder ("lat"-er, I suppose), or alternatively that longitude lines are all equally long.

My middle school geography teacher had a more memorable (to me) approach: lat = fat, so if you think of a fat person, their belt is the equator and latitude lines run parallel to it. Long = long hair, so if the Earth is positioned north-up, the hair (longitude lines) runs from top to bottom.

I was taught think "longitude = long hair."

>The street organization is irrational, derived haphazardly from ad-hoc pre-auto paths.

Isn't thus true of any European city?


Not any, many were rebuilt after bombings in WW2. Even so, Germany is known for splendid trains, meanwhile Bostons trains are notoriously bad. My old company was off the red line and numerous employees were delayed at least once a week due to the red line sucking.

You'll find people who regularly use public transit in many European cities complaining about their transit systems too. Boston isn't great, especially in the winter. (I used to have to use it on a regular basis.) But if I'm being fair Boston isn't "notoriously bad" unless you're setting the bar at the level of a relative handful of world cities.

While many European cities were substantially rebuilt after WW2, the existing layout was usually retained.

Boston and metro Boston also have a pretty high population density, so it doesn't help that early roads were laid out by cud chewing surveyors.

>Americans just in general tend to drive their kids to school dues to fear of child abductions and related ever-present paranoia.

This is really just an upper middle class thing.

>The street organization is irrational, derived haphazardly from ad-hoc pre-auto paths. The public transit system was also built in an ad-hoc and is at level where full transit lines stop for days at a time. So all that's left is driving, though Boston drivers have a terrible reputation too!

The smallest streets are haphazard. The big stuff was all planned out to make the overall system function well, got 80% done then some special interests kicked money to the right politicians and they stopped progress at 85%. Ditto for the subway. Every couple decades they come up with a grand plan to make it not suck then special interests compromise it out of existence. Boston drivers are fine once you've been there long enough to understand the unwritten rules. If you're naive and think you can follow the letter of the law you will have a bad time.

>Boston's weather is also miserable - the place is at just latitude so that wet, 30 degree weather prevails in winter, giving freezing rain, frozen rain, slush and all manner of nastiness. Plus horrible hot, humid summers. So you have to avoid walking a lot.

The weather is fine. Kids are much more tolerant of weather extremes than their white collar parents (the ones who dominate the debate over this kind of thing) who's days are spent in three different climate controlled boxes (house/apartment, car, office). If you do it every day it's really not a big deal.


> Is Boston too sparsely populated to have schools in walking or biking distance?

Boston is reasonably dense, but it's also defacto segregated, with parts of the city having different racial and class makeup. If we went back to neighborhood schools that people walked to that would mean effectively resegregating the schools.

See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boston_desegregation_busing_cr...


So Boston combats segregation by making children commute for longer ?

Does that also apply to privileged families ? (I assume those would send children to private schools, avoiding such a system).


> So Boston combats segregation by making children commute for longer ?

Yes, and not just Boston: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desegregation_busing

> Does that also apply to privileged families?

Sometimes. Other times places close the schools in poor/non-white areas.


Lower grade kids in America are too. But once you reach middle school they can be bussed to larger central schools. And demographics shift rapidly here. New developments have lots of new families, but 20 years later there are almost no families. So schools that were built in new neighborhoods become empty. So bussing to even things out.

Our state places elementary schools so young kids don't have to cross a major street, when possible.


idk about Boston, but in Florida, I walked ~1km to elementary school, 15 minute bus to middle school (11-13 yrs old), and then had a 40 km drive/bus to high school.

While if I had stayed and lived in michigan, I would have been 1km walk from elementary, middle, and high school. With a university 5km away.

It all depends on the US city and state and how that community developed/organized.


The end of the article notes the whole plan was scrapped based on parental feedback.

More background:

https://www.media.mit.edu/articles/what-the-boston-school-bu...


So, from reading the article, it seems like this policy researcher helped torpedo a positive change that he spent insufficient time researching and attempting to understand. He did this, unknowingly, but nonetheless in service rich people defend their advantages over the needs of poor people. His initial accusations of failure to engage with parents was actually false, by his own admission. The researchers followed an exemplary engagement process that attempted to balance the needs of all stakeholders. But reflexive hand-wringing, marshaled effectively by those who stood to lose a little of their existing advantages, destroyed the work, along with the political capital that would otherwise have made it happen.

Is there an expression of remorse anywhere in the article? I didn't see it. Suggestions for how things could be done better are all well and good. But I don't think I'm unreasonable in expecting some contrition from someone who participated in a screw up this gargantuan.


Thats not quite right - they did optimize bus routing and did save $5M. But when "the algorithm" suggested further improvements that required changing school start times (presumably so that the same bus and driver could work multiple routes to multiple schools), there was pushback and those changes weren't implemented.

That's really sad, there's so much to be gained by staggering school start and end times. Even in places where school buses aren't used - for instance, burden can be reduced on public transport among other things.

But school start and end times need to fit somewhat with the parents worklife and out of school activities, they do not exist in a vacuum.

My read suggests that the recently proposed changes to school start times was scrapped, but that the bus scheduling is still in place.

I hope the configuration switch in the software for that is called "preserve inequitable school start times".

This is hardly new. Back in 2001 I almost ended up working for an Italian company, based in Florence, which successfully implemented a different routing for public buses in Rimini (another Italian city) using linear programming and genetic algorithms.

The field has been explored, and a number of solutions have existed for at least ~25 years.

What's impressive in this article, instead, is the amount of savings; $5M is not small change.


Having done some work in truck route optimization in the retail / wholesale petroleum delivery space I'm a little shocked that their inefficiency was so bad to begin with. (There are some really fun problems in this space. Traveling salesman meets bin packing, just for starters.)

These are often done by hand, I'm really not surprised.

You can also see this effect in Google and Apple maps:

There may be three ways to get from one neighborhood to another, and the locals know that one is faster, safer, or both at certain times of day.

I have this argument with a couple of friends who don't understand why I use different routes at different times of day and specifically why I don't use their route, when they've never been in that part of town during rush hour.


I lived in this city for many years. I was born here. The problem is, there are now so many other people who live here that what was once great shortcuts aren't any longer. It's been a shift to "light traffic = unusual" from "avoid rush hour and you'll be OK".

I am getting used to checking Google Maps before going anywhere near a freeway. Just a few days ago, I noticed that traffic heading south seemed bad as I was going north to drop off my daughters. I checked Google Maps and it said that going south on the freeway was fastest. I dithered and then got on the freeway. The choke point that was there 25 minutes ago was gone and I saved a bunch of time staying off surfaced roads.

The state highway department has cameras and road reports and announcements of construction. 20 years ago, I would have been on their website. Now I don't have to. I just use Google Maps.

I'm an iPhone user and I do try to use Apple Maps more often because of privacy concerns.


Waze helps a lot here, time of day and realtime user data is pretty critical.

Could've used this 30 years ago when I was forcibly-bused across town to a "magnet" school 1.5 hours in each direction (3 hours of busing total). Getting up a 4:45 am and not getting home until after 6 pm as a pre-teen sucked. The big thing is the route they took was very circuitous and served both many stops and schools.

The automation of this is great and saves time and money.

But this highlights the exact problem that Andrew Yang, the Democratic Candidate is highlighting which is: what do we do with people whose jobs are lost to automation and algorithms?

His proposal of universal basic income helps these people who have lost their jobs attempt a soft landing because at least they will have some income.

I used to be against UBI but now I fully understand why we need it, because too many jobs are going to be eliminated, and what do we do with these people who have lost their jobs? They are likely older with lower skills, and retraining programs are statistically an abject failure.


We could start by not underestimating human capacity to invent new jobs. Long before algorithms were a thing, automation largely eliminated agricultural and domestic servant jobs that used to employ the vast majority of people

And the welfare state wasn't invented by Andrew Yang: only difference is his variant assumes people who are desperate to find work and people that have absolutely no need to or intention of doing anything other than live off their savings or family wealth have exactly the same need for subsidies...


Here's something that UPS is doing [1] and something FedEx is doing [2]

(these two should know a few things about route optimization :-)

"Another proprietary tool UPS uses to manage its fleet system is ORION (On-road Integrated Optimization and Navigation)...The cost and time savings and emission reduction based on this optimization alone is extraordinary—UPS expects to reduce delivery miles by 100 million"

[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2018/06/15/the-bril...

[2]https://routific.com/stories/fedex-courier/


It's not whole FedEx. It's one office.

I'm a bit curious on school bus thoughts by area. Where I'm at now, it seems like they don't want to run them at all. They put the best schools up as 'choice school' lottery, which means no bus, and if you live within two miles of a school, no bus. Even if you offer to pay. Of the 600 students in my child's school, 400 spend 45 minutes in a line twice a day, most due to the circumstances. Obviously not an effective use of time, or good for the environment, I'm a bit taken back by just how awkward bussing is in the US. In my previous city, a bus would travel 45 minutes to pick up a single kid. Neither seems practical, really.

Same. I grew up on Long Island taking the bus to school, as did every kid of sub-driving age I knew. Under New York law, even private school students got subsidized buses if the school was in some reasonable distance. We watched sitcoms and movies from Pete and Pete to Christmas stories where kids took the yellow bus to school.

Now I don't have kids, but plenty of my friends around the country do, and I'm always shocked to learn that school buses don't seem to be an option. Either they just don't exist in the district, or they require kids to cross major commercial roads to get to a stop.

The depressing thing to me is parents sort of roll their eyes when I ask, like this reasonable public amenity that everyone I grew up with relied on less than 20 years ago is the equivalent of the neighborhood milkman.


$2000 per student per year is insane for a bus service. That's like $10 a day. You could probably UberPool every kid at that price since you'd have a high utilization rate for two narrow 30 min to 1 hour windows each day.

Uhhhh, wouldn't they get surge pricing?

Plus you're talking about investor-subsidized transport. Sure, it would be nice to have investors subsidize school transport.


my city paid 6 figures annually to have a bus route for 30-40 residents average daily ridership. Bus service is expensive.

Those busses are also used for school activities such as field trips.

An hour window each day would be crazy! Parents plan their work schedule around being able to get kids out the door at the same time each day.


$200 would be more appropriate.

That's like 50 cents per ride. There's a reason mass transit isn't that cheap.

When I was a summer intern for a county computer service facility in the early 80s, they had a big IBM mainframe, and a bespoke program for school bus routing. Every summer, this program consumed a fair amount of the activity for the facility, which contained more than a dozen individual school districts.

I don't know the extent to which it was capable of optimizing the schedules, but it was considered to be a pretty big deal. There was apparently a lot of hand-coded logic for dealing with things like one-way streets and not wanting bus stops on busy streets.


This reminds me of one of my favorite startups: https://remix.com

Didnt FedEx or UPS do this same thing years back by eliminating left hand turns?

If they had taken $1M of that saved $5M and distributed it to all of the families inconvenienced by this change I wonder if that would have affected their opinion.

where was this when I was in school haha

> Running the algorithm in the summer of 2017 allowed for the system to eliminate 50 buses

Or read another way: "Running the algorithm eliminated 50 jobs due to automation".

This right here is what Yang is all about. The incredible loss of jobs due to technology.


I'm no economist, but that 5 million saved will be spent on other job creating activities. Perhaps it won't be a 1:1 replacement, but it's certainly not the elimination of 50 jobs.

Yes, 50 bus driver jobs, which require maybe a high school education, was replaced with teacher jobs, which require an education beyond bachelors. Those aren't equivalent jobs. Those bus drivers are SOL because most of them aren't interested in retraining.

> most of them aren't interested in retraining

And this is the problem. Culturally many people seem quite happy to leave high school and get a menial job. Those jobs are vanishing, just like jobs for elementary school dropouts vanished decades ago.

Society doesn't need people who are unwilling to aim higher than driving a bus for 50 years.

This doesn't mean everyone needs to have a phd -- there's plenty of jobs for trained plumbers, electricians, mechanics etc, but those all require training post high school.


> that 5 million saved will be spent on other job creating activities.

Will it? I mean, it might, but I wouldn't bet on it.


Not due to job automation.

They stopped paying people to drive in circles doing nothing.


Pour the money saved into other public works = jobs



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