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An experimental tap card system on Boston Public Schools (BPS) buses.

The goal was to explore new ways to engage parents about their children's bus rides. Superintendent Tommy Chang wanted to ensure the City was providing safe and efficient transportation.

Why we did this

The tap card program is part of a series of interventions in collaboration with the BPS Department of Transportation. We were working to increase transparency between families and the Department. We also wanted to make the Department’s services more responsive to families’ needs.

We looked at real-time ridership data, as opposed to roster data (who is supposed to be on the bus). We hoped to create a positive dialogue that would build stronger relationships between families and the district. We also wanted to allow the district to make data-driven decisions about their service.

Other interventions in this space included:

  • a proactive opt-out campaign
  • streamlining customer service intake processes, and
  • facilitating collaboration among researchers, industry professionals, and the BPS Department of Transportation.

The experiment

Our hypothesis? Students would feel a sense of ownership for their cards and would be excited to use them. Why? They would have cards just like their older siblings or friends who use MBTA Charlie Cards.

Because students would reliably use their cards, a number of outcomes would likely occur:

  • We would have a good sense of which rostered students aren’t actually riding. All rostered riders were given a tap card, so unused cards might be an indicator of a rostered-non-rider.
  • We could experiment with different communication tools, like notifications from an app or SMS texts, to message the tap card scan information back to parents.
  • School leaders would have near real-time data about their students’ riding histories.
  • The district would begin to develop aggregate data to inform future service delivery.

The lessons learned

We ran an initial test experiment at four schools from May to June 2016, to see if the technology was usable by students as young as 5. During the 2016-2017 school year, we scaled to 12 schools for further testing.

What we found out:
  • Parents loved the short texts alerting them to their child’s on and off bus activity.
  • Administrators who used the real-time database found it helpful in answering parent questions about buses.
  • Students did not lose cards as much as we had planned (planned: 50%; actual: 5-7%).
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