Vehicle Route Optimization

More than just software, it is a way of thinking

Route Optimization is simple put, finding the most efficient route. In this economy where fuel costs keep rising it is harder than ever to remain in the black. For private companies, this is all about making a profit and for public organizations this is all about staying afloat. Basic business rules provide two basic options for improving profit margins; increase revenue or decrease expenses. There have been plenty of articles written on vehicle route optimization and the use of software. In this article I will try to take it a step further and show proof that route optimization software’s work in addition to providing other ideas and or suggestions to create optimized routes.


Am I an expert?

Would I consider myself a route optimization expert? It depends on how you would define an expert. I guess at this point I would consider myself maybe not an expert but pretty darned close. I have been in transportation for many years now and I once drove a garbage truck. I was trained on my route by being shown which way to go. Oh there were archaic maps done in pencil from a few years earlier but that was it. Every day I went home and created map printouts and then highlighted the streets that I was responsible for. I was told that if I did nothing but right turns and turnarounds I would eventually come back to my starting point.


Right turns

Interestingly enough right turns and turnarounds seemed to work. What I didn’t know at the time was that this is actually a successful technique in route optimization. Businessweek had an article on March 5, 2007 entitled “How Technology Delivers for UPS.” I think that an excerpt says it all:

“Not so long ago, UPS drivers worked off maps, 3-x-5 note cards, and their own memory to figure out the best way to run their routes. That changed in 2005 when UPS began to implement a $600 million route optimization system–think MapQuest on steroids–that each evening maps out the next day’s schedule for the majority of its 56,000 drivers. So sophisticated is the software that it designs each route to minimize the number of left turns, thus reducing the time and gas that drivers waste idling at stoplights.

UPSs innovation is an example of how technology can help companies capture institutional knowledge about their customers. Before, when a truck loader or driver walked out the door, the package- loading techniques or route tips they’d developed over the years usually walked out with them. Now that knowledge is accessible in a central system. That eases the burden on substitute drivers and shortens the training time for new ones, lessening the chances of a lapse in customer service. There’s no question the new system has enabled UPS to run its routes more efficiently. In November alone the company’s drivers logged 3 million fewer miles than they did the year before.”

If that isn’t enough proof about right hand turns then just search for “Mythbusters- Right Turn Only MiniMyth” and see where the folks at Mythbusters actually tested this and confirmed that even with more miles driven (as was the case in their test) making right turns resulted in using less fuel.

Right turns not only increase efficiency by reducing fuel consumption, but they also increase safety for the driver and other vehicles on the road, given that the driver no longer has to face oncoming traffic.


Is there a faster way?

There were many times that I wondered if there was a faster/shorter way to run the route but always being up against the time clock I seldom ventured out to try a different way. Most all of us drivers had nothing even close to resembling a route book or route map. We all knew our routes like the back of our hands but when somebody was sick and we had to fill in on another route that was a whole different story. Some guys were lucky with a shorter route or fewer stops and some were not. I went through 2 route changes while I was a driver where the route manager decided to shake things up a bit and split up a couple of routes. I didn’t mind the old routes seeing as I was getting about 20 hours per week overtime. Then the boss quit.


Manager time

After I was promoted to be a manager, one of my many tasks was route planning. I knew how to find my way around pretty good but fixing our routes and our ongoing issue of overtime was a whole different story. Wall maps and markers became my new friends. I would have the drivers come in after their shift and “try” to make portions of their existing routes into smaller pieces so that they could tell me how long it took to run. The thought was to put these smaller pieces together to create new even routes. After a couple of weeks it was quite obvious that my idea wasn’t going anywhere.

The internet had all of my answers just waiting me to search for them. A couple of demo’s later I had learned new words like “high-density”, “GIS“, and “geocoding.” After the whole procurement process, I had hired the company that I now work for to fix my routing issues. Granted using the software worked there were a lot of issues that needed to be fixed prior to letting it do its thing. It seemed like every customer service representative spelled all the streets differently in the database. Why can’t databases have a built in spell checker? To assist in the whole route optimization process, I cleaned up the database. I hated it at the time but now a few years later I have found that many databases are a mess and there are plenty that are worse off than mine was.

Putting the customers on the map was the next thing that needed to get fixed prior to letting the route optimization software perform its magic. I lived in a very rural area that part of which hadn’t even heard of the new 9/11 laws for addressing. In fact part of our customers used postal rural route addresses. If you know anything about geocoding, look to see how well it works to geocode a postal rural route address. Ultimately, a good GPS device and a lot of patience was all I needed to get those customers on the map.


Magic Software

Now that we had a clean database and I had a “dot on the map” for all of my customers, we were ready to see the magic of the route optimization software. I must say that I was impressed with the parameters that were used, some of which I hadn’t even thought of. I had to answer all sorts of questions:

  • How long does it take to dump at the landfill?
  • What breaks do you drivers get?
  • What about pre and post trip inspections?
  • How many tons do your trucks hold?
  • How many pounds of trash do your customers set-out?
  • How long does it take at each stop?
  • Etc…

All of the questions answered, I waited as they created my new routes. I used the service bureau option where they did all of the work and it was at least for us cheaper as we did not need to purchase a license for the software.

Soon, I was in possession of our new routes and route maps. It took the drivers a couple of weeks to get used to the new routes but after that just like magic our overtime woes were gone.


Men’s Hair Club

Much in the way that the Men’s Hair Club slogan used to be “I’m not only the Hair Club president, I’m also a Client” my slogan is “I’m not only a … employee, I’m a client.” After implementing the routes we literally eliminated our entire overtime issue. I had done what was to be done and still sane afterwards. I decided to move back west and I offered my services to the company that was my savior and had ended my routing troubles. They were happy to have me.


Other side of the computer screen

It has been a couple of years now and I really wish I could add up the money that my company and I have saved our clients. I know that I could have retired on the money that just one of them saved in the first year or implementation! It is great to have a product that I use that I know works.

When you look to route optimization, think of the intangibles that the company you select can provide to you. Are you dealing with fast tongued sale people or people that actually use the software? Will the software salesman know what it is like to actually take the output maps and have to go out on a route to use them?

There are other ways to save money and optimize your whole operation. I am a huge advocate of the four day per week collection schedule. Just look at the non-collecting time spent by employees. There are required by law to perform a pre and post trip every day. That is a minimum of 30 minutes for each route each day. Switch from a five day per week collection to a four day per week collection and there are 30 minutes saved for each route. There are still cities in this country that collect trash twice per week. You will never prove to me that this isn’t a waste. General industry thumb rules show that 60% of the customers will set-out for the first collection of the week and only 40% will set-out for the second collection of the week. What does all of this mean? Simply put, your trucks drive by 40% of the customers the first collection and 60% the second. That is a lot of driving to just collect 40% of your customers. I have heard every rational for twice per week collection but it just comes down to politics.

Route optimization software that can optimize the number of times or at what point in a route the truck geos to the landfill to dump can save you additional time. As an ex garbage truck driver, I always went to the landfill when I could no longer pack any more trash into my truck. Was that the optimal point in the route for me to go? I would have had no clue but the software does.

When I was trying to figure out my old routes they were for rear-loaders. Trying to mentally figure out the routes out when they require a pass for each side of the street with the new automated side-loaders is even more difficult. Granted I can do it in my head now, but it still is easier to let the software figure that out.

Times have changed and the so has technology. That being said, Route Optimization isn’t just using software; although that is the biggest piece of it. Management plays an essential role in how they set policies and make decisions. Day changes are generally a taboo subject when dealing with route optimization, but must of the time the current collection days are not optimized and they require more trucks to run on some days and less on others. This is sometimes hard to sell to a city council or a board of directors but a strong commitment by management can prove that it is worth the trouble.


Like I said, Route Optimization is more than software; it is a way of thinking.


©Bob Roberts 2010

9 comments on “Vehicle Route Optimization

  1. Very interesting notes… I am just curious, which garbage collecting company did you work for? I know a little about them, and there are only two, Waste Manachment and Republic, that probably would pay big money to have such system… And which software company was building the solution?

    • You would be surprised then to know that the small company that I worked for only serviced ~ 13,000 customers. Also, many of the clients where I worked at were relatively small cities up to very large cities.

      Waste Management and Republic, as far as I know, both use in house routing software.

      • Well, I assume 13k customers are spread among different cities or split amond different sites because otherwise it is a large number… 🙂

        Many comercial applications I have seen do ok with small sites with small number of stops… But when it comes to handle more than 1000 stops, many of them get stuck running long time or do not provide a really good solution with all business requirements… Sometimes some smart RMs even by loocking at the solution can make few changes and get it a little better in terms of cost… Can you tell me some details about size of the problem, running time and solution quality?

        I know Waste Management builds now in house… 2 years now… But I wander if you know whether Republic does the same and how… I believe I noticed somewhere that you live in Arizona, so I thout you did some biseness with Republic since I believe there are in Phoenix….

      • I think that we are confusing the difference between commercial customers and residential trash collection. For the 13k customers I was talking about residential trash collection which is considered high-density. These would be routes with 600 – 1200 or more stops per day.

        For commercial front loader routing you are talking about low-density point to point routing. These would be routes with 30 – 80 stops per day.

  2. Gday Bob, Im in Domestic garbage collection with sideloaders and we have used hard copy maps with ‘runs’ or routes coloured in with highlighters for donkeys years. Our collection weeks might be as many as 70000 services in a particular area and our run system appears to work ok. We mark start and finish points for loads and by way of tweaking bin numbers and hours seem to get a fairly even and efficient collection process between drivers. BUT… the drivers choose their particular route. Usually we’d expect they may do main roads and schools early to avoide the traffic or parked cars and only make left turns but there are different approaches to how a block of houses is collected.
    We are investigating the use of in cab software for route optimization (touch screen map with GPS ‘navman’ type directions) and would be keen to understand the solution you have used and are advocating.

  3. […] Route planning software / route optimization […]

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