Scheduling Conundrum: Taking a scheduler’s brain off autopilot

June 8, 2021
Scheduling teams should understand what drives an agency’s programs and their results.

As veteran schedulers retire, there is a formidable task more challenging than finding someone who exhibits the necessary qualities required to becoming a scheduler and that is finding a person who is ready to do the hard work. Someone willing to put in the time to understand how to manually develop and manipulate the data with the capability of understanding the agencies’ needs from the ground up and the issues facing it.

Before an agency decides to procure the latest and greatest scheduling and data software, they should answer the following questions: Can your staff and coworkers tell you how to manually add and subtract time, or manually produce running time, headways, runcutting and rostering?

In recent years, I had to learn how to roster manually and understand the challenges and failures associated with the process. It opened new doors and understanding that I wish had been taught years ago. It was not easy at first, but it became easier and quicker over time with practice. The deeper question is, does your scheduling team understand what drives your programs and their results? There is a reason that the airlines suggest pilots fly the plane periodically instead of relying on autopilot and the same is true for the scheduling team.

Today’s software programs offer functionality that enable the creation of quick and efficient solutions along with multiple comparisons. They enable the user to look at several routes at one time, create efficiencies and pick out mistakes while making better overall decisions. Automatic Passenger Counters (APC) deliver ridership and running time data at a level that would have been impossible to acquire without a large staff. The bigger question facing today’s agencies is not only who manages the data, but who understands it.

We have all become comfortable with the software doing the grunt work; we have become a little (very) lackadaisical about understanding the information and if it is correct. You can make your own judgement on this issue and, while I am software driven, I want to present some items to consider in favor of learning why it is still important to understand the nuts-and-bolts processes and why it can only benefit the agency if the scheduler does.

I believe that a scheduler should at least understand the basics of the job so that they can properly utilize the technology. When a local department of transportation asks what is needed and an adequate answer cannot be produced, you might end up with a product that leaves you in the same position you were in before you purchased it.

How do you know what to look for if you do not know the relevant questions to ask and issues to consider? For example, if the software is not operating properly and the pay had been wrong over several signups how would you find it? Can you imagine the repercussions if something like this occurs and it is years later? There was a time when all the operators could tell you to the penny if their paycheck was correct, but that is no longer the majority of today’s workforce. We have all become too trusting of the results without verification.

If your schedulers are only data driven and do not understand the implications of their decisions, then your agency can be headed in the wrong direction.

Have you ever heard an operator ask, “Have you ever driven?” What’s really being asked is “do you understand what we go through both operating the vehicle and dealing with the passengers?” To them, all schedulers sit in an office and have no clue what goes on outside of it. While it is not a prerequisite for a scheduler to have been an operator, it is essential that they understand the operation from the ground up and not just from behind a desk. Although some managers might deem it as unproductive, the best way to understand what is needed is to get out of the office, talk to the people doing the job (operators, service supervisors and dispatchers), observe the operation and periodically take some rides. You cannot relate to their struggles and that of the agency if you do not understand it.

Many agencies who previously utilized traffic checkers to assist with making field observations have been eliminated or shrunk the position in favor of APC data. The following is an actual example where data would not have indicated a needed fix. A traffic checker reported an overloaded bus with 75 customers onboard (a majority were students) and reported that this was a daily occurrence. Upper management was skeptical and when the APC data showed an average of 40 customers, there was outrage that someone would report 75 passengers on a vehicle where 55 was pushing the limit. Upon further investigation and a field trip (this time by management), it was revealed that the problem could not be easily explained by the data. The Monday, Thursday and Friday operator only allowed 40 customers to board and shut the doors no matter who was left on the platform, leaving an average of 35 customers at the terminal to wait for the next bus 20 minutes later. The Tuesday and Wednesday operator, however, would load as many passengers as possible, which left everyone else along the route waiting for the next bus. The company managing the data saw 75 customers reported occasionally, considered them anomalies and removed the data. There were no complaints from the operators who, based on experience, expected nothing would be done, so why bother complaining.

On-time performance (OTP) is another indicator with a great deal of emphasis in today’s climate; so much so that we lose sight of other equally important issues. During a field trip a driver complained that the schedulers were making their lives miserable. The driver explained that there was too much time in the schedule and drivers were forced to drag along the line or pull over and stop along the way and refused to arrive at the timepoint early for fear of being written up. The customers onboard would angrily complain and argue with the operators to keep moving. At other agencies where departure time is observed, the drivers might operate to the timepoint and wait. Depending on the operator and how they managed the excess time, a customer might wait or see the taillights in the distance. There are other examples, but these are issues that occur all too often when we lose site and understanding of the real work we perform.

Would you want the running time data when there is trash pickup on a single lane one-way street or any street without a passing lane? Sometimes the canned reports do not provide or present the information in a useful manner. My hope is that everyone starts to inquire why these types of questions are not being raised more often. Their proposed resolve for this issue required hours of manual data analysis. Can you imagine how much real work would get done if the scheduler alone were responsible to create the needed data sets?

The scheduling team must understand their operation from a combination of available data and firsthand accounts and cannot rely on any one method. They must know what to ask and what to look for. As another tool, agencies would be wise to put some type of driver input form in place for operators to give firsthand accounts of problems they experience. The lack and loss of intuitional and technical knowledge in the scheduler position hinders many agencies from realizing cost saving measures during events like the pandemic to service upgrades when circumstances improve. No matter the situation, a good scheduler who understands the needs of their agency is invaluable not only for their scheduling ability, but the knowledge they possess, which is needed now more than ever.

About the Author

Ed Dornheim | Consultant

Ed Dornheim is expert transit scheduler with decades of experience beginning with the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) as a part-time Traffic Checker. He worked in various roles at SEPTA along with two stints in scheduling ending as a Chief Schedule Maker, as well as working as the Scheduling Manager at Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) and Scheduling and Planning Manager at Lehigh and Northampton Transit Authority (LANTA). 

He began consulting in 2015 with various transit agencies across the United States and Canada.