How Smart Rostering Can Help – During and After the Coronavirus Crisis

April 23, 2020
The principles of smart rostering can help with the service reductions and driver shortages that are among the implications of the pandemic.

With transit agencies across the country requesting federal assistance as ridership plummets amid efforts to minimize COVID-19 transmission, building optimized rosters that foster driver satisfaction may not be at the top of the agenda for most transit providers at the moment.

But though the future may be murky right now, the principles of smart rostering can help with the service reductions and driver shortages that are among the implications of the pandemic, as drivers call in sick or care for family members and passengers are urged to stay home.

As each city and country begins to come out of the crisis, life may not return to normal right away, but it’s important to think about how to gradually get back on the road the day after. As with preparing for crisis mode, preparing for business continuity requires the ability to react quickly and make informed decisions about how to ramp service – and driver shifts – back up.

Driver satisfaction

Roster optimization isn’t just about ensuring savings on overtime and guaranteed time. Rosters are an incomparable opportunity to improve drivers’ work-life balance and create working conditions that are beneficial to drivers. This can be anything from route familiarity, similar beginning and end times, and rosters that are designed for specific groups, such as retirees with a part-time job or single parents.

Think of this as a way of aggregating driver preferences (morning shift/late shift, start times, routes, etc.) and taking them into consideration to create as many quality roster packages as required. This can help deal with driver shortages, prevent burnout and offer good conditions for new drivers. Before you begin rostering, make sure to check with drivers what they consider to be a good roster.

The ability to spread duties in a way that will provide good outcomes for all drivers, instead of the lucky few that got overtime or a full 40-hour-a-week roster, provides a fairer outcome for drivers. Fairness is an important source of emotional satisfaction at work and can help retain drivers and even provide hiring incentives.

One factor that can affect roster fairness is the type of rostering process being used – whether the rosters are built by schedulers, whether the roster is optimized, or is based on driver picks in cafeteria-style rostering. Since the latter is often based on drivers’ seniority and does not factor in roster efficiency, it can create a duty allocation that is neither equitable nor efficient.

By contrast, as bus operators in the UK and Europe already know, rotating rosters (or rotas) allow drivers to rotate through each roster line, allowing each driver to have the same workweek at different times. This can make duty allocation more equitable, since all drivers in the same roster group get the same duties at some point.

Driver safety and well-being

In the coronavirus era, driver safety has come to refer to the protection of drivers from contamination, through measures such as wearing masks (where available) and keeping passengers from entering or existing at the front door or transferring payment to the driver.

These are extremely important factors, but are not reflected in rostering practices. In the pre- and post-corona era, however, there’s another element to driver safety that is closely tied to rostering: minimizing fatigue by making sure there is adequate rest time between duties. Other elements of driver well-being relate to issues such as duration of duties, break times and days off.

Roster optimization makes it easy to comply with the labor laws, union agreements and safety requirements that govern rest time and breaks. Advanced optimization platforms offer schedulers the benefits of automatic roster validation to make sure they comply with all necessary labor agreements or alert the scheduler about any violations that need to be fixed.

Increased efficiency

Building roster can often be a balancing act between competing objectives, such as reducing overtime while ensuring there are enough drivers to cover all the duties. To better understand how this tension plays out, it’s best to create several roster scenarios and optimize for different objectives – and compare the scenarios by looking at metrics such as overtime, guaranteed time, pay hours and number of roster lines.

In some cases, optimized rostering can reduce the roster count, meaning that fewer drivers are needed to cover the same routes. This can be helpful in times of driver shortages and can save costs. For instance, schedulers can constrain roster counts as part of a what-if scenario to see whether they are better off with more rosters and less overtime, or whether overtime with a reduced roster count is better.

(Of course, while optimizing schedules and rosters can compensate for a less severe driver shortage by creating a more efficient transit service, the kind of ridership free fall we’ve been seeing during the coronavirus crisis requires service cuts that come in addition to schedule and roster optimization. With fewer vehicles on the roads due to service cuts, it then becomes more feasible to assign drivers to the remaining vehicles.)

Another way to use roster optimization to increase efficiency is by controlling overtime. While overtime may be necessary in some cases, if it is used excessively it can decrease morale (if the overtime is unwanted) and make it harder to meet break and rest time regulations, as well as lower efficiency and increase costs.

Overtime can represent two percent to five percent of labor-related costs for transit providers, so reducing the ratio of overtime to total paid time can offer significant savings. Similarly, when drivers are guaranteed pay if they work less than a minimum number of hours, roster optimization can be used to ensure they work these hours rather than be paid for guaranteed time.

Roster optimization evens out duties into packages that will contain the right amount of weekly hours for all drivers, without having a lot of drivers who get too many hours or too.

Roster optimization has many benefits, for drivers as well as transit providers. These include driver satisfaction and more equitable distribution of high-quality duties, in addition to compliance with regulations governing driver safety and well-being and increased scheduling efficiency.

For transit providers in the midst of dealing with the fallout of COVID-19, roster optimization may seem less relevant than issues like sanitizing vehicles or regaining ridership and fiscal stability. And many are simply not used to optimizing their rosters, with 71 percent of U.S. agencies surveyed by Optibus saying they don’t use optimization during the rostering stage. But as we look toward a post-pandemic future, it will become clearer than ever that improving the satisfaction and well-being of drivers while increasing operational efficiency is a win for all concerned.


Amos Haggiag is the CEO and co-founder of high-tech mobility startup Optibus, whose SaaS platform helps power the planning and scheduling of complex transit operations in hundreds of cities around the world.