Photos: Nathan Lindstrom
Everything’s bigger in Texas, so the saying goes. Nowhere is that more true than in Houston, which is only getting bigger. Over the past decade, the population of the metro area of the Lone Star State’s largest city has grown at a breakneck pace, adding nearly 80,000 people between 2010 and 2013 alone, thanks in part to its booming oil and technology industries. Among the fastest-growing sections are outlying areas like Pearland, a formerly desolate prairie village 20 miles south of downtown that now boasts more than 100,000 residents.
“This all used to be the country,” says driver Tony Ned, cruising southbound down the 288 corridor that connects Pearland to Greater Houston. Outside the window of his IC Bus, pockets of newly built master-planned communities appear out of nowhere among the rolling flatlands and cattle-grazed prairies. Ned points to the side of the dusty single-lane road. “Sometimes, when you pick up kids out here, you wonder where they came from,” he says.
A 14-year veteran with Houston Independent School District (HISD), Ned is taking us on a whirlwind tour of the diverse terrain he and his fellow drivers encounter every day. From crowded interstates to isolated country roads and idyllic suburban streets, there’s no such thing as a typical route for HISD, the largest school system in Texas and the seventh largest in the U.S.
The district’s buses cover more than 80,000 miles every day, transporting 31,000 students to and from school. As the local population continues to expand, so do the district’s routes, which have risen by 10 percent in the last year. It takes an incredible amount of fuel to serve this vast area, which spans the majority of Houston proper and portions of nine additional municipalities. To help squeeze more miles from every fill-up—plus enhance its already stellar safety record—the district embarked on an ambitious driver-training initiative beginning with the 2009–2010 school year.
“With such a large fleet, we were looking for ways we could improve our overall efficiency,” explains Byron Williams, training support manager, as he sits behind the wheel of one of the buses in the seemingly never-ending line in HISD’s massive central yard. “In a district as big as ours, it goes without saying that getting the most from our fuel is very important.”
Arizona-based Ecodriving Solutions provided the curriculum, and in-house trainers oversaw blended learning that took place both in the classroom and behind the wheel. The Ecodriving philosophy is deceptively simple, breaking down the myriad subtle ways in which everything, from how you stop at traffic lights to how you maintain momentum, can help enhance fuel efficiency. Its primary message: Stay aware of your surroundings, and take advantage of what the road conditions give you.
With a fleet the size of HISD’s, those little things can add up. For example, for a vehicle that travels 400 miles a week, cutting fuel use by 5 percent can save 90 gallons a year. Apply that math to HISD’s more than 1,100 school buses, and you’re talking about serious savings.
Learning New Tricks
Ned, an energetic 71-year-old who discovered his second calling as a school bus driver after a long career as a supervisor for an area gas company, gladly demonstrates his training-enhanced driving techniques. As we cruise back north along the east loop of Interstate 610, we cross an overpass above the Houston Ship Channel, a conduit between the busy Port of Houston and the Gulf of Mexico.
Once we hit the top, Ned keeps his foot off the throttle and instead uses the 20,000-pound bus’s momentum to coast downhill at 55 mph. “When you shift nice and easy, you use less fuel,” he says.
According to Williams, the training has definitely improved the district’s fuel efficiency. “In some cases, instead of filling up every day, our drivers are filling up two or three times a week,” he says. “There’s been a noticeable difference.
“The training gives drivers a sense of urgency to contribute to a cleaner environment, and also to help save the district money,” he continues. “The district is growing daily. We always need to add more buses. And if we can save money on fuel, it gives us the funds to invest in new equipment.”
The collective efforts of drivers, coupled with the district’s investment in clean diesel and alternative fuel solutions, have also resulted in an impressive collection of industry accolades. Last fall, HISD was one of only two school districts nationwide to receive a 2014 Green Fleet Award, which recognizes achievements in environmentally conscious transportation. For three years running, HISD has also made Government Fleet magazine’s “100 Best Fleets” list.
“All of us know that we’re big contributors [to winning those awards],” Ned says, tipping the bill of his cap. “We take a lot of pride in our driving.”
Best Seat in the Fleet
Another major contributor, according to fleet manager Andres Montes, is the high percentage of IC Bus products in the fleet. “We’ve been buying IC Bus products since 2003,” he says. “Close to 40% of my buses are IC right now. Their buses are quieter and easier to operate. They keep our drivers really comfortable.”
The inherent durability of the buses also makes them a perfect fit for the challenges of a diverse region like Houston. “The routes utilized by these vehicles can be pretty tough,” says Jack Connell, general manager of Longhorn Bus Sales, the district’s longtime partner. “The IC Bus has proven to be a very rugged product. The uptime has been phenomenal.”
“I think our great dealer support, and the fact that IC Bus products are the best buses out there, are great assets,” Montes adds. “That’s the key to keeping us on top. We have the recipe for success.”
Back behind the wheel, we cruise around the Heights, an affluent suburban neighborhood lined with majestic oaks. As we crisscross the idyllic streets, Ned explains that it’s no coincidence that he and his fellow drivers are flourishing behind the wheel of the IC buses in their fleet.
“This bus is really easy to drive,” he says. “You can see that the gauges are very close and everything is within arm’s reach, so they don’t cause a strain. And the chair is comfortable. The way this bus was built, it takes the distractions away so I can focus on the road.”
Finally, we head toward Houston’s bustling urban center along Memorial Parkway, crossing over Buffalo Bayou, the lazy river that flows through downtown. We turn onto Bagby Street and pass the 1939 Art Deco City Hall before circling back toward the bus yard. It’s mid afternoon, and as the highway grows more congested with rush-hour traffic, Ned admits that driving a bus can be a high-stress job for some—but not for him.
“I find it relaxing,” he says, calmly checking his mirrors. “You have to have a good attitude. But the most important thing is, you have to have a good bus. And this is definitely a good bus.”