When COVID-19 stopped some vehicles from being driven, it woke fleet managers up to what was really needed to keep their operations moving.  - Photo: City of Carlsbad, California

When COVID-19 stopped some vehicles from being driven, it woke fleet managers up to what was really needed to keep their operations moving. 

Photo: City of Carlsbad, California

As the world halted with the onset of the pandemic, ensuring optimal vehicle utilization became a hot topic for fleet managers. If workers weren’t out in the field, vehicles weren’t being driven. It became vital to cut what wasn’t necessary. Bradley Northup, public works superintendent of fleet operations for the City of Carlsbad, California, was able to use the pandemic as an opportunity to continue his work building a better, leaner fleet.

“Coming into my new position with the city and inheriting a fleet without GPS or telematics to help identify underutilized vehicles has been difficult. This was exacerbated with COVID,” he explained.

He was able to overcome the challenge by:

  • Maintaining an open line of communication – Having regular and direct communication with each department person responsible for a subset of vehicles has allowed greater visibility on the effect of an underutilized vehicle, which has led to more temporary reassignments of vehicles to ensure their use is kept above a minimum threshold.
  • Get creative with what you do have – Although the City of Carlsbad’s fleet doesn’t currently have telematics, Northup didn’t let that stop the department.

    “We were able to extract mileage information from our automated fueling system and create a custom report to help us identify ‘red flag’ vehicles for immediate follow up. For example, [these include] vehicles that reported less than 100 miles travel over a one- to two-month period, or those that did not report fueling at all,” he said.
  • Providing clear expectations and consequences – Northup also drafted a revised Fleet Management Policy (which hadn’t been updated since 1994) incorporating a clear process of identifying an underutilized vehicle and what steps would be taken to change its assignment to increase its use. If use did not increase, he also added instructions for what to do when the vehicle should be removed from the city’s fleet permanently.

To make sure utilization is at an optimal level, Northup said ensuring vehicles and equipment will meet the needs of an operation is only successful if you really understand what that need is. “Drivers don’t want to operate a vehicle that doesn’t help them do their jobs, and, given the opportunity to choose one vehicle over another, they will neglect the lesser vehicle every time. So, to ensure proper utilization, it is very important to specify vehicles that meet their needs,” he explained.

In the budgeting phase of the city’s replacement planning calendar (which could be six months or two years before a vehicle is slated to be replaced depending on the type and complexity), Northup discussed what vehicle functionality and specific performance characteristics should be.

“This really helps in building performance-based specifications. This process also keeps the departments involved throughout, which helps to ensure the vehicle they end up with is exactly what they were looking for,” he said.

Using these tactics, the city was able to remove a half dozen vehicles and equipment from the fleet that were grossly underutilized and previously targeted for replacement. Additionally, the city was able to ensure vehicle utilization was increased for vehicles that were affected temporarily by COVID shutdowns, and identified three vehicles that could be shifted to new assignments.

“These vehicles were assigned for administrative use by certain employees, but these employees were telecommuting and no longer needed access to a vehicle. We re-assigned them to a more as-needed motor pool role up at our fleet garage,” he said.

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