Editor’s note: Nelson’s “In it for the Money” column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month. Sometimes it’s later, like this month.
Over the last couple years school busing has been drastically altered in most Michigan districts. As a consequence most schools – including my son’s school, Bryant Elementary, which is only K-2nd grade – expanded their “walking zone” (kids that get no busing) to 1.5 miles. Do you know how long it takes a five-year-old to walk 1.5 miles? 
If you live at the far edge of the “walking zone,” you aren’t going to be walking – especially once our autumn rains arrive – you’ll be driving your kid to school.
Spoiler alert: Bryant Elementary was built in 1972 and renovated in 1983. So it’s not designed to have dozens of cars drop off individual children each morning – it’s designed for all of the kids to arrive at once in four big buses. An efficient set of buses has been converted to a frustrating, time-gobbling traffic jam.
The Ghost Of Busing Schemes Yet To Come
In other districts (Southgate jumps to mind), busing was effectively eliminated in 2011-2012 . Back in October of last year I talked to a dental hygienist who spent three hours per day ferrying her three kids to their respective schools.
If you’re wondering why there is such a crazy drag on Michigan’s economy, maybe part of the problem is that we make 40 able-bodied adults do, at no pay, the work that we once paid one dude a basically fair salary to do with a big yellow bus. Those are hours spent not making anything anyone can buy, not earning any money to buy anything from anyone else, not creating jobs for another person, not rendering or using services, not being useful to the community.
In other words, reducing bus service shrinks the entire local economy. But whatever shrinkage the economy undergoes, it’s is treated as pretty innocuous, or at least not the school district’s purview. Board of education secretary Andy Thomas went so far as to point out during a 2011 debate that the schools were not in the transportation business .
But by offloading these very modest communally amortized expenses to individuals with school-age children, we both reduce the community’s capacity to maintain (let alone expand) all services, and also those individuals’ abilities to spend money locally. This shrinks the community’s tolerance for taxation, which leads to more services being cut, which leads to more citizen hours inefficiently boondoggled . . . ad nauseam.
It’s a negative feedback loop.
If you’re looking to so weaken a society that you can drown it in a bathtub, I suppose you have two options: You can hammer on it with artillery and air raids until it is too shattered and skittish to get out of bed and get anything done, or you can slowly bleed it dry with a million little, seemingly insignificant mosquito bites.
No one flees their homeland over mosquitoes. No one takes up arms against a sea of mosquitoes. We just slap and scratch and kvetch and toss and turn and keep on keeping on.
Until one day we collapse, probably while carrying our kindergartners to school.
The Economics Of Austerity
Maybe you’re basically OK with all this. Maybe you personally don’t need the damn busing anyway; maybe you can afford to spend that extra quality time waiting in a parking lot traffic jam. Maybe you have the good fortune to make your daily bread in a business that’s less responsive to local economic fluctuations.
Hell, maybe you feel a bit heartened, sacrificing your hours and bloating your carbon-footprint in the service of your children’s education – and thus, their futures! Yes, your hours are still squandered, but you have the cold comfort of knowing that these fallow hours are squandered in selfless devotion: It’s for the kids!
But, by the same token, this is a pretty selfish kind of selflessness, isn’t it? ‘cause it isn’t for the kids; it’s for your kids.
Put simply: We each look out for our own at the expense of all looking out for each other.
Are We Getting Busing Wrong?
Here in Washtenaw County we have yet to deploy the Southgate Nuclear Option, but we seem to be sliding that direction: Walking zones were expanded last year, and this year three high school bus lines were eliminated. (Students will instead be issued AATA bus passes – which is actually a pretty good deal, in my humble opinion; those things cost $30 per month!) And bus routes for Bryant (a K-2nd school) and Pattengill (the corresponding 3rd-5th) have been combined, requiring changes to the schoolday schedule. (Pattengill adopting a later start and end time. Ypsi high schools also changed their start times. Because Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor, and Willow Run share buses, all that has translated to something around a half-million dollars in savings).
I can’t speak for how things are working in Ypsi or at the high schools in Ann Arbor, but I can say that (predictably) not everyone is happy at Bryant and Pattengill. By the fourth day of school room parents at Bryant had forwarded the rest of us an email under the subject line “Combined Busing/Staggered Start Time Chaos” – which tends to imply that the new routes aren’t super popular in some quarters. The email encouraged us to forward our concerns and testimonials to pretty much everyone in the Bryant/Pattengill administrative universe (i.e., both principals, the board of education, the school superintendent, the assistant superintendent for elementary education, the deputy superintendent of operations, the director of communications, and the PTO).
Four days later the schools’ administrators scheduled a “Town Hall” meeting for Sept. 20 to “discuss the emergent issues that have arisen due to the new staggered school start time and combined busing.”  A follow-up email from the PTO, sent a few hours before the meeting, indicated that “The majority of our community has been negatively impacted by the implementation of the staggered start and new bus system” and forebodingly closed, noting that the PTO “can guarantee that at some point in the future you will feel the negative effect.”
Email inquiries as to the source and veracity of these claims went unanswered. The first is especially suspect: Even if they just mean a majority of the families at Bryant and Pattengill, that’s hundreds of families. To my knowledge, there was never any effort to poll families impartially about their perception of the new system. Hundreds of folks independently contacted the PTO to complain about this within the first several days of school? Pardon me for being a little incredulous.
Far be it from me to indulge in a tangent, but just to add my two cents: I think AAPS and transportation are doing well, or certainly well enough, considering the conditions under which they must function.
From what I’ve seen, this new busing arrangement had a few hitches over the first few days, but has since smoothed out admirably (and quickly). Considering the complexity of any school busing system (a point I’ll return to shortly), compounded by the statutory requirements placed on a public school busing system, and the budget limitations under which our system must now function, AAPS/transportation seems to have made some compromises and come out with a system that is different – and clearly not ideal – but functional. 
That said, I see a simply monstrous line of cars queued up outside Pattengill at 3:50 every afternoon, and this waste of human hours and fossil fuels still breaks my heart.
The Travails Of The Traveling Salesman
Casual observation: We all think that school transportation is a pretty damned straightforward problem. I base this on two phenomena: (1) Every time board-of-education elections roll around, at least one newcomer’s platform includes his or her “common sense” plan to save a pile of money by “streamlining” the school bus system; (2) Every time our local “news” “paper” blogthing runs an article that mentions school budgets and AAPS transportation, the comment threads are choked with anonymous locals more than happy to step forward and tell us how simple and obvious it is to solve this whole busing thing.
But the simple truth is this: Plotting bus routes is hard. In fact, mathematically speaking, plotting bus routes is among the hardest possible problems. I know that sounds stupid, because the problem is so easy to formulate – it’s even easy to take a stab at solving it via guess-and-check. The challenge arises when you take all your guesses and try to sort out which is the best route.
This is a real-world example of one of computational science’s most vexing problems, the Traveling Salesman Problem.  The Traveling Salesman Problem can be described like so: “Given a list of cities he must visit, and knowing the distance between any of these points, can the salesman plot a path that hits each city only once while traveling the minimum roundtrip distance?”
The obvious answer is “Well, duh, yeah; there must be a shortest route!” And, in fact, it’s super-easy to check a proposed route and see if it’s shorter than some other route. But, it’s super hard to check all possible routes, because every time you add a new stop that must be visited, the time it takes to calculate and evaluate all possible routes takes a big jump – even with the best-known software implementations of the best-known algorithms for tackling this task, that time doubles for every individual additional stop.
For example, if you have four points to visit and it takes you 10 seconds to figure out the shortest route , then if you bump it up to five stops , it will take you 20 seconds to run the same calculation. Six stops ? You’ll need 40 seconds. Ten stops ? You’ll need more than 10 minutes. Twenty stops ? You’ll need 182 hours to calculate the most efficient route. That’s for one bus .
Now, I’m not claiming that a school bus system is a pure instance of the Traveling Salesman Problem – because some routes are no-brainers, others are hairy tangles of one-way streets and construction. But even as a savagely reduced instance of the Traveling Salesman Problem, this is a brain-buster. Math – which is to say, the universe itself – is against us when it comes to streamlining a bus system. I want to surface this, because one of the special intellectual hazards of the post-Google age is the pernicious sense that if we can clearly formulate a problem, then we can just as easily track down the answer in a negligible amount of time.
Some problems are very hard – not because they are morally ambiguous, or because we have to balance this need and that cost, but just simply computationally difficult, even in our Age of the Ubiquitous Hive-mind Pocket Supercomputer.
When honest, intelligent, well-intentioned public servants fail to find the perfect, optimal solution, it isn’t necessarily because of a nefarious conspiracy, or because they lacked the smarts or will, or because government is a nanny-state scam to steal money from the hardworking makers-of-stuff and captains of industry. Possibly, it’s just because it would take 1.5 years of 12-hour work days (with no vacations) to find that perfect solution, and by then we’d need a new answer, because conditions will have changed.
Greasing The Squeaky Wheel
But, you know what, I’m not really worried about the math – even though the math is interesting, and helps illustrate how fundamentally difficult resource management is, even in a purely theoretical model.
What I’m worried about is the wheels. We grease the squeaky ones, because when I’m hearing creaking or groaning in my bike’s drivetrain, it means metal is rubbing metal. That’s sub-optimal, and needs to be addressed. But, all too often, in systems composed of humans, the wheel that squeaks is the one that can afford to squeak.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but I was alerted to the purported catastrophic folly of the new busing system via email – although I know that not all the families at my son’s school can necessarily afford regular email access in the home.
Those emails were sent in English; I know for a fact that English is not the home language for many of my son’s peers. That Town Hall meeting ran from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on a school night. Those can be hard hours depending on your work (my wife couldn’t attend because, as a teacher in a different district, she was at her school’s curriculum night that evening, holding our newborn so that the boy and I could pass out in a chair in the basement with X-MEN cartoons on Netflix). How the hell could a parent conceivably show up and squeak at that meeting without a partner to watch the kid or kids on whose behalf he or she is squeaking?
It’s a bummer that the budget for everything is shrinking, and that belts need to be tightened. And, you know what, I don’t discard the possibility that the new busing system really is a catastrophe, that 300+ families really have independently emailed the PTO in English and Spanish and French and Hindi to register their alarm. That might be the case and, dammit, then it means that out of the quadrillions of solutions to this version of the Traveling Salesman Problem, we landed at one of the bottom-half solutions. We need to roll the dice again and aim for the top half, ASAP. I support that.
But, on the other hand, as a dude who has a firm handle on written and spoken English, a flexible schedule, and solidly middle-class levels of income, wealth, and security, I wouldn’t be OK with looking my boy in the eye and saying “Don’t worry, son; when they fucked with the busing system I went to bat and made sure that someone other than you got the short end of the stick.”
We each tend to look out for our own at the expense of all looking out for each other. So I’d like this to be the takeaway:
It isn’t that my kid is in this system with your kid.
Our kids are in it together.
 I don’t live in Bryant’s walking zone, but I’ve hiked with my son since he was still in his baby carriage. He’s lean and long-legged, and the summer before he started kindergarten it was not unusual for it to take him nearly two hours to hike a 1.5 mile trail.
 Disclosure: I originally drafted the nut of this section a year ago, in an email to Ann Arbor Chronicle editor Dave Askins. Revising it on September 18, 2012, I was suddenly incredulous: No busing at all? That seems pretty far-fetched. Southgate isn’t a small town with a one-room schoolhouse; there’re at least a half-dozen schools there. They must have busing. So I Googled the Southgate Schools Transportation website. Check out the bus schedules for their schools (you’ll need to click through for each separate school – and I strongly urge you to take the 30 seconds to do so). Absolutely astounding. They didn’t even bother updating it from last year. I called the dispatcher’s office, just to confirm that there’d been no change. The phone rang and rang with no answer, then kicked me into an inscrutable voicemail system. On the second attempt I ended up talking to a very pleasant maintenance worker who happened to be standing near the ringing phone. She confirmed that there was no general education busing again this year in Southgate, although they still maintained (and had never interrupted) their special ed busing (which, presumably, is why they still have a dispatcher at all; he was away from his desk, because I’d called during lunch).
 Source: [link]
 Disclosure: I missed the meeting, because my son and I were both sick with something that I’m told could not conceivable be monkeypox, despite fitting the bill. I’ve yet to get any feedback on what transpired there.
 My son goes to Bryant, and most days is picked up/dropped off in front of Pattengill – the closest bus stop to our house. In other words, we’re likely the least affected by the change in busing. On the other days I drop him off for beforecare, and he rides a different bus to aftercare at the local JCC. This is clearly an off-label use of the service. Consequently, over the last year and some change, we’ve hit a snag now and again. Nonetheless, I’ve found all of the parts that AAPS plays in this process to be functional – in fact, considering the cost of our other educational options compared to the small portion of our tax bill that goes to pay for this entire system, I find this to be an astoundingly good value for all of us. It’s not perfect, but it sure is good and affordable.
 I hate to be tediously mathematical [6a], but just in case you want some Google fodder: Brainteasers like the Traveling Salesman Problem are part of a class of problems mathematicians call “NP-complete.” Briefly, this means that any given answer to the problem can be easily verified, but that the total number of possible answers that must be sorted out in order to find the best one grows exponentially. Other known NP-Complete problems include brainteaserish things like the “Knapsack Problem” and the game Minesweeper, and a lot of nitty-gritty biological, economic, and comp sci situations – about 3,000 problems have been identified as NP-Complete. Also – and this will sound weird – but any NP-Complete problem can be converted into any other NP-Complete problem, so solving one in a practical amount of time means being able to solve them all. Finding ways to efficiently crack NP-complete problems is the Holy Grail of computer science.
[6a] Disclosure: I clearly sorta delight in being tediously anything! Thank you for joining me down here in the footnotes!
 Under the stated conditions the total number of routes can be calculated as (n-1)! (which you can actually plug straight into Google – for example, this example would be “(4-1)!” – if you don’t get what the exclamation point means and just want to see some damn numbers). Since this formula gives you every route twice (once forward, once backward), folks working on Traveling Salesman Problem algorithms often choose to use (n-1)!/2 to represent the total number of paths they’ll consider. But the direction a path flows can be significant in a bus route (i.e., it can be more desirable to hit some points first or last, because of the way aftercare and enrichment programs are distributed among AAPS facilities), I’ve chosen to go with (n-1)! So, if you have a route with four points, then there are (4-1)!, or six, possible paths the bus might travel. Plot them all on a map (or, really, have a computer do so), measure the distance/travel time, consider limitations (do you have to hit a specific point earlier or later in the run?), and see which is best.
 Which means 24 possible routes.
 120 possible routes. In case it seems germane, Bus 85 (serving Bryant/Pattengill) has six stops on its route.
 362,880 possible routes (!!!).
 Oh damn: 121,645,100,000,000,000 possible routes. I am not making up this number. Bus 75 – which serves Slauson – has 19 stops. Does that mean there are six quadrillion possible paths that bus could drive? No; lots of those ideal routes are through houses and lawns and trees and what have you.
 A quick sifting of the 2012-2013 Bus Transportation Routes for AAPS makes it look like they’re running about 60 routes.
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