Howard County, Zum, and Industry Disruption being Disruptive

Last week was the first week of school in Howard County, Maryland. It was a chaotic week for transportation and, I think it was caused in large part by contractor issues. In the USA we tend to believe that privatizing everything makes it better. But, in fact, all it does is create an extra layer of remove from key employees and create inefficiencies. As an example, from this news story:

“My husband is a bus driver for Howard County with a different contractor, and I know that there are companies like his where the drivers don’t have enough routes,” said Andrews, “Instead of us having to drive our kids to school, they need to use some of the existing contracts to fill these routes.”

Cherisa Andrews – Fox Baltimore News story

So we have multiple contractor companies and because different companies own different routes, we cannot take the surplus from one company and provide it to another. If it was all run by the county, it would just be one pool of bus drivers.

But I think the bigger issue in this case is Zum, a Silicon Valley company trying to turn bus rides to school into Uber rides. From this news story, posted before things went FUBAR last week:

And parents will actually be able to rate every ride through the Zum 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 Zum 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.

Of course, the article can’t predict the future and so this paragraph (a couple paragraphs lower) comes across as pretty ironic:

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.

On time? Over 20 buses never showed up on the first day of school and continued to be canceled throughout the first week of school. It was so bad that the earlier article I cited, the Fox Baltimore article, mentioned that there was now a petition circulating to fire the Superintendent.

As students continue to be left stranded at the bus stop and parents frustrations continue to grow, overnight, an online petition surfaced demanding Superintendent Michael Martirano’s immediate resignation. The petition has already gathered more than 250 signatures. It reads in part, “Our students deserve better than the chaos and uncertainty they experienced on the first day of school. We believe that new leadership is necessary to restore confidence in the administration and ensure the well-being of our children’s education.”

I think the real problem here is that Zum most likely bid for the contract without already having enough bus drivers. We were told on the first day of school (in which buses didn’t show up) that a bunch of bus drivers called in sick. And yet, the superintendent’s remarks reveal the truth:

So while we could manage in the past with a high number of vacancies, we can no longer do that which is why the 20 last-minute vacancies this week has led to the temporary – and I do say temporary – suspension of those bus routes. One of our contractors, Zum, has indicated they have many candidates in the pipeline who are going through training to obtain their commercial driver’s license or CDL.

Additionally, to recruit and retain drivers, Zum has informed us they are providing an additional $500 a week bonus for drivers who go four weeks without an absence as well as an $8,000 incentive for candidates that apply and already have their CDL certification.*

If you take that, plus what the Baltimore Banner said:

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 clearly it’s not wages that are the answer here. The superintendent’s remarks included:

  • Many errors in the data and routes provided to contractors causing drivers to become lost during their student pick-ups and drop-offs.
  • Contractor technology issues with the technology provided to some drivers for routing assistance.
  • Bus route information provided to some drivers was inconsistent with what was provided to families and schools.
  • Many families were not provided with accurate bus numbers that matched the numbers on the side of the buses which caused great confusion for our students and families.

And this shows that they didn’t have the drivers to practice – because we’d been assured in emails before the school year that the bus drivers had been practicing the routes so that we would have minimal issues now that the school start times were compressed. Also, we have this from the Fox Baltimore story:

It comes as widespread delays were reported on Monday due to the school system’s new bus contractor bringing in drivers from out-of-state who aren’t familiar with the area and didn’t practice their routes ahead of time.

“The bus driver was very confused. She was very discombobulated. You can tell she’s rifling papers,” said another Howard County Parent, Curt Francisco, “She said, ‘I’m sorry. We just got in from Spokane, Washington.’”

“Finding out that the bus drivers did not practice the route, that is not a good representation of what we’re dealing with,” said another parent, Robin Miliner.

OK, wait… so Zum is transplanting folks to work the bus routes from across the country? These are either temporary folks, meaning we’ll go through people being lost on the routes again when they go back home, or they further reveal that Zum bid based on expected hires, not an actual proven number of hires.

In the end, it comes back to the usual problem with these disruptive tech companies. They think they somehow know better than everyone else. That all you need are apps and then everything will work better. Frankly, I would rather have our county’s kids actually being picked up and dropped off at school than have new buses, apps, or any other tech. And the biggest bit of tech missing – GPS. There really shouldn’t have been any flustered drivers who didn’t know where they were going and needed both paper and electronic routing (as mentioned in the Superintendent’s remarks). These supposedly technological buses should have had GPS guidance to get to our children and get them to school.

The county signed a 3 year contract – time will tell if that was a horrible decision.