Legibility as Marketing: The “To-Via” Question

From Portland’s newly rebuilt transit mall, here’s a great example of the idea that clear information is the best marketing.

Every transit  line goes TO some endpoint VIA some street or intermediate destination.  But which matters more, the TO or the VIA?  Which should be emphasized in the naming of a route and the signage on buses and stops?  Both, if you can do it succinctly.  But if you have to choose, think about where on the route you are and what information is most likely to be useful there.

Many agencies still make these decisions largely out of habit, missing chances to make their service legible.  For example, consider Line 12, a major Frequent Bus line in Portland, Oregon.  (Download sharper PDF here: Download 012.)

12 map

If you see the bus on 6th Avenue in downtown Portland, the electric sign on the front and sides of the bus will present a nirvana of legibility:


If you know Portland, you know where Sandy Boulevard and Gresham are.  That brief sign tells you a lot about what this bus is going to do.  You may not know that TC stands for transit center, but even if you don’t, this sign tells you that there’s a bus going out Sandy Blvd. as far as Gresham.  The sign does more than identify which bus this is; it also provides a subliminal marketing function, by informing everyone who sees the bus that there is a bus out Sandy Blvd. to Gresham from right here.

The simplicity of the sign depends, of course, on the simplicity of the route.  Portland is fortunate to be a relatively gridded city with long arterials that carry a single name.  The transit agency, Tri-Met, consciously tries to design routes that follow single a arterial and name them after that arterial, so that people get the idea that the service is an intrinsic part of the street.  (Many other transit agencies do this, but there are many that could but don’t.)
The sign “12 SANDY BLVD / to GRESHAM TC” the simplest and briefest way to describe both the VIA and the TO.  Some agencies would habitually do it in the other order; their sign would say “12 GRESHAM / Via Sandy Blvd.”  That’s not wrong, but it feels more roundabout.  Especially in an urban grid like Portland, I would argue that the VIA information is more important than the TO; more people are going to points on Sandy Blvd. than are going to Gresham.  For these people, “Gresham” really means “eastward along the route.”
What matters most is that both pieces of information are there, because both are important.  If you’re going to Gresham, you still need to know that this bus goes via Sandy Blvd. because that may not be the most direct route to Gresham from where you are.  If you’re already out on Sandy Blvd. somewhere, the “to Gresham” is still helpful as confirmation of which way on the route this bus is going.
Good wayfinding has a bit of redundancy to send confirming signals that a person is going the right way or choosing the right service.
(The only time you don’t need the VIA is when the line you’re describing is always the fastest route between all points on the route, including its endpoints.  For example, a sign on Portland’s rapid transit system, the MAX light rail, can just say “GRESHAM” because from all points on the line light rail IS the fastest way to get to Gresham.  The light rail system is simple enough that there’s no question about what route it will follow to get there.  Even so, VIA information never hurts, as redundancy.  Signage on New York subway trains, for example, often mention which Manhattan avenue the line follows.)
All the same considerations apply to the information on a transit stop.
Now consider this very prominent sign, from Portland’s newly rebuilt transit mall along 5th and 6th Avenues in the heart of downtown.  (In case you’re wondering, this one’s at 6th & Oak!)


It says “12 To Gresham TC.”   No mention of Sandy Blvd.  That doesn’t make sense.  At major centers with lots of services to choose from, the VIA is even more important than the TO. If you’re in downtown Portland and you want to go to Gresham, you don’t want Line 12, you want light rail.  But if you’re in downtown Portland and you want to go anywhere on Sandy Blvd., you do want Line 12, in this direction at this stop.  Tri-Met missed an obvious opportunity to convey that information in a place where it would have served well as marketing — a place where lots of people walk by.

To be fair, this isn’t specifically a transit mall problem; Tri-Met’s stop signs fail to give the VIA information anywhere, even at other transit centers where it’s the more important than the TO.  San Francisco MTA, for example, always gives you both.


On this typical San Francisco sign, the all-caps text is a streetname (i.e. the VIA information) while the TO information is just below it.

3 JACKSON Market Sansome

If you like legibility as much as I do, watching buses on the Portland transit mall can be a real pleasure, because most of them display prominent electric signs that tell you as much as they can, in just a few words, about where this bus is going.  Their cumulative effect is a sensation that a lot of the city is easy to reach from right where you are.  To anyone who knows Portland, there’s very little mystery about signs such as:

4 DIVISION / to 122nd Avenue

9 POWELL / to 98th Avenue

19 GLISAN / to Gateway

58 CANYON RD / To Beaverton

Because these signs flash so prominently in a place where most of Portland will walk by at one time or another, I suspect they do a lot of good subliminal marketing.  You would have to be pretty self-absorbed to walk down 5th Avenue every day and not learn that there’s a bus from here going out Division Street.  If someday that fact turns out to be useful in your life, there’s a chance you’ll remember.

Transit services, including bus services, can be pretty legible, if your transit agency cares enough to get it right.  How is your city doing?

25 Responses to Legibility as Marketing: The “To-Via” Question

  1. EngineerScotty July 30, 2009 at 10:22 am #

    Excellent article.
    One more (bad) example in the above picture, which you missed.
    The 94 bus is advertised as “to Portland”; this from a sign in the middle of–you guessed it–downtown Portland.
    If you’re not familiar with Portland–and even I had to go look it up, you wouldn’t know that the 94 route comes into town from the southwest, and terminates downtown, and that the 6th and Oak stop–on the northbound transit mall–is only a few blocks short of the end of the line.
    (And here is a silly question that someone more knowledgeable than me can answer; if I were to board this bus at this point and head north; would I be kicked off at Burnside Street, where the bus turns around and starts its return journey; or if I wanted to go to Sherwood and didn’t want to walk an extra block to SW 5th–the southbound mall–could I board here?)
    At any rate, in either case, a better endpoint indication than “Portland” seems appropriate

  2. Des July 30, 2009 at 10:46 am #

    Logical route numbers are also useful for legibility. Vancouver’s bus system more-or-less kept the legacy of the pre-existing streetcar system which used the numbered avenues for route numbers. For instance, route 4 follows 4th Avenue, route 41 goes along 41st Avenue, etc. This practice is far from ubiquitous, but it’s another hint as to the logic of the system. Any city with a numbered grid should probably take that into account, too.

  3. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org July 30, 2009 at 4:53 pm #

    Scotty — 94 is a ONE WAY Peak Express line. It doesn’t turn around at Burnside, it just goes in and out of service there.
    So no, you couldn’t do that.

  4. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org July 30, 2009 at 6:10 pm #

    I agree, though it’s not always the case that picking up the number of a numbered street is the best way to confer legibility. It would not, for example, be a good idea to do this out in Surrey, (e.g. 108-108th Ave) because it would confound the larger geographic order in which Surrey route numbers are all in the 300s.

  5. Wad July 30, 2009 at 7:46 pm #

    Phoenix follows something of a route number-to-street number scheme. It can’t do it in all cases, though, because there’s a case where both 7th Avenue and 7th Street have a bus line.
    Phoenix also has a rarity in a “0” line number.

  6. calwatch July 30, 2009 at 8:45 pm #

    The other thing is what you do on routes that go via wandering routes. For that, destination is the only way to go.

  7. Multimodal Man July 30, 2009 at 9:44 pm #

    I would hesitate to call them wandering routes, but there are routes that inevitably have to follow several main arterials in order to be useful, fairly direct routes. My conclusion to this issue is that the bus numbers should have some rationale to them that speaks to the service first, followed by some geographical reference. LA Metro’s Rapid are all 600s and Sound Transit’s Regional Express are all 500s. In which case you may not be able to provide a subtle marketing ploy that lets people know the major corridor of travel but if people get the idea that 600s are frequent fast and reliable they will begin to look for routes beginning with 6.
    Naming a route by the predominant street also is problematic for interlining; it discourages it. While a city such as Seattle where interlines are fairly common, you consequently lose the opportunity to market the service as one-seat ride from areas on either end of a central business district.

  8. Jason McHuff July 30, 2009 at 11:45 pm #

    Denver also does that, including a Route 0 up and down the central street.

  9. Jason McHuff July 31, 2009 at 1:10 am #

    Nice article and dissecting of Portland. While the transit mall stop signs don’t give all the information, there are adjacent information signs which do have simplified maps of all the routes, albeit at the very bottom. In addition, there will be Transit Tracker signs which may give both the line name and destination.
    But TriMet bus stop signs DO give via information, even listing many of the streets the route takes. However, the stickers for the Frequent Service lines just say “Frequent Service to X”.
    Also, I should note that in other cities such as Salem, routes are named after destination neighborhoods, and require a map from a schedule to figure out where exactly they go. But as you point out, many TriMet routes are named after the major street(s) they serve; the big exception is express routes, which often just give a destination.

  10. Peter Parker July 31, 2009 at 2:44 am #

    The first exampe of the Barbur – Sandy would be OK for the local, but got me thinking as someone who doesn’t know Portland.
    My first question was ‘does it go downtown’? This might be almost a given for a smaller city’s bus network (eg Adelaide or Hobart) but not for somewhere like Melbourne where 80%+ of routes don’t.
    Plus there’s that blank space above the map that I think could be better used with a more descriptive description.
    Hence for a through-routed ‘pendulum’ route, I’d describe it
    Barbur Bvd – Downtown* – Sandy Bvd and there’d be plenty of room on the map to do this. Also the Downtown bit makes it easier to visualise this as an interchange point.
    (*) or local equivalent, eg City, Civic, Central etc.
    As well as the above there are other considerations, eg do we use streets, suburbs or landmarks as descriptions?
    Then there’s the matter of notation: A – B – C instead of A – C via B. I lean towards the former. This is worth an item in its own right, which will appear soon.

  11. anonymouse July 31, 2009 at 10:29 am #

    In Moscow (and probably most cities of the former USSR), signs on buses were not digital in any way, rather they were boards with the information hand-lettered on. The format would have the route number on the left taking up the full height, then the destination in medium size letters at the top, followed by about 3 lines’ worth of intermediate points of importance. If the route passed by a subway station, it would almost certainly be mentioned there. Signs at the stops were also hand-lettered, and I believe just had route number and destination, but also frequency information (or a timetable if the bus ran less frequently than every 30 minutes or so). Interestingly, tram, trolleybus, and bus routes had entirely separate numbering systems, so there could be a Tram #5, Bus #5, and Trolleybus #5, and they’d have absolutely nothing in common.

  12. Alon Levy July 31, 2009 at 12:58 pm #

    Hey, be thankful that you have any TO or VIA information to begin with. In Tel Aviv, buses brandish the route number, and that’s it. Stations have TO but not VIA data, because even arterials are pretty short, so each route runs on many streets. In Singapore buses and stations display TO data only, which is as a rule far beyond where you want to go.

  13. EngineerScotty July 31, 2009 at 2:23 pm #

    Since we’re singing the praises of Tri-Met, and criticizing them as well, it is useful to mention this article on http:/.portlandtransport.com, praising the agency for “open-sourcing” its route data and making it available for third-party applications.
    After all, what’s cheaper–putting electronic readerboards on thousands of bus stops, or letting people use their cell phones to figure out when the next bus is coming?

  14. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org August 1, 2009 at 4:09 am #

    Yes, the old style bus stop signs have VIA information as secondary to the TO information. But San Francisco, by contrast, is very clear that the “one or two main arterials” constitute a “route name,” which they use consistently. In a relatively gridded city such as Portland, this is optimal for legibility.

  15. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org August 1, 2009 at 4:12 am #

    Actually Portland’s agency recently revised their signage to optimise legibility in this regard, advertising both whether the bus goes downtown AND what it does beyond that. In the new scheme, a bus inbound on Barbur (and hence outbound on Sandy) has a sign that says something like
    12 BARBUR SANDY / To Gresham / Via Portland City Center
    Where “/” indicates a new page of the scrolling sign.
    As it approaches downtown, the sign changes to
    12 SANDY BLVD / To Gresham
    Note too that the newest buses have GPS-driven signage, so there are no longer problems with drivers forgetting to change the sign. In theory this could be used to modify signs even more frequently to be most useful for each segment of the route.

  16. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org August 1, 2009 at 4:16 am #

    Alon. Yes. I assume Tel Aviv and Singapore are both dealing with dual alphabets as well? This reduces the possibilities dramatically.
    In New Delhi, the new modern buses have electric signage in both Hindi and English, but unfortunately not both. If your bus comes displaying a sign in the wrong alphabet for you, you’re out of luck.

  17. SpyOne August 2, 2009 at 12:13 am #

    I guess what I can offer is an example of the negative extreme, as our regional transit guys seem to be phoning it in. (www.hrtransit.org for Hampton Roads Transit, which serves Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk, Hampton, and Newport News).
    The routes are numbered. The stops are marked by signs with a logo and the letters “HRT” and, in some instances, a route number. Some of the major transfer points have shelters, and one of those sometimes has an outdated system map.
    The electronic signs indicate the route number and a vague description of the endpoint, which is actually quite useful as the stops with shelters are arranged so both directions approach from the same direction to the same point, so the sign does help passengers avoid getting on the wrong bus. Things like “Downtown”. At least one uses on the sign not the endpoint (which is a local college campus and major transfer point), but a mall 15 minutes away.
    The newest buses have signs that allow the message to scroll, so the route number and endpoint can alternate with “via” and a major waypoint or road name.
    Also, many of the buses seem to change number somewhat randomly. At some transfer points, Bus A meets bus B and both then reverse direction on their original route, whereas at others when bus A meets bus B they swap numbers, and each proceeds back along the other’s route. One bus changes numbers 3 times along its route. Another changes number to make a quick run to an industrial park, then changes number back at the same point an hour later. The drivers are not consistent about whether a number change requires everybody get off and pay the fare again, and official policy is not just unclear but actually obscure.
    Before the most recent change in the fare structure, a fare was good on any bus for 2 hours from when it was purchased. This replaced a product called an “extend-a-ride” which was $0.75 and did the same thing, and also replaced the Transfer which was free. The problem was that, while the website and literature said the extend-a-ride (or 2 hour fare card) was good on “any bus”, in practice if you tried to use it to board a bus with the same route number bound in the opposite direction, the payment machine would reject it. The driver would then explain that the policy was you could get on any bus except for the same route in the opposite direction. Emails asking for clarification of the official policy went unanswered.
    Every system could be doing better with signage and marketing, but I’d love to live where some of the problems you’ve mentioned were the big problems with the system.

  18. Alon Levy August 2, 2009 at 10:22 pm #

    No, they both mostly use single alphabets – Tel Aviv uses Hebrew (with a bit of English on the line maps), and Singapore uses English (with announcements in Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil on the subway, but not on buses). At any rate, the language issue does not prevent Singapore from signing buses something like “14 to Bedok” and “7 to Bedok via Orchard,” where Orchard is only one segment in the middle of the 7’s route.
    In the end, I’d chalk the lack of good VIA data to the lack of US-style grids. Tel Aviv’s streets are short – even the major streets are only about 3-4 km long. Singapore has longer streets, but even so its street map is very irregular, and to top it off its streets wind.

  19. Dan Wentzel August 3, 2009 at 10:22 am #

    San Francisco is incredibly user friendly. Not only are the signs informative, but every bus shelter had a system wide map at it.
    London rocks for this too. The buses have great signage with maps as well. Also, at every tube stop there is a neighborhood map where the nearby bus stops are noted with a letter. If you see a bus stop lettered “H” on the map, you will see a pole at the bus stop with a letter “H” at the top of it. Very user-friendly.

  20. Aaron Antrim September 6, 2009 at 10:39 am #

    Electronic tools for accessing system maps, trip planning, and finding real-time information can be very useful for making services more legible and visible.
    More links and articles on open data for facilitating innovation can be found here: http://www.trilliumtransit.com/blog/tag/open-data/
    Something of a tangent… This post made me think about legibility vs. visibility. The distinction is legibility promotes understanding, and visibility promotes awareness.
    I worked on a project for the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District mainly focused on increasing visibility. As part of a service improvement marketing push, the transit district signed up partner businesses along the route with increased service. They were acknowledged as partners on a campaign-specific website in exchange for putting up timetables and posters in their businesses. Anyway, here’s the site: http://www.green15.org/
    I know there have to be some good examples of community marketing partnerships out there I don’t know of. Can anyone share or brainstorm some ideas?

  21. Tom West February 19, 2010 at 6:20 am #

    In my local town, the route name is the arterial street it (generally) follows. The route numebr and name (in capitals) is displayed on the front, then the display cycles through some major waypoints. Defineatly a good way of doing it.
    My main gripe is that the same info is shown regardless of direction or where the bus is on its route. So, you could see ‘downtown’ on the display, but the bus may have passed downtown and be heading *away*! Ideally, the info should change depending on the bus’s location. (Whether by GPS or the driver pressing some button on teh control unit.)

  22. Chris April 11, 2010 at 2:43 am #

    Reading this post made me realise how frustrating it is living in a city with an entirely privatised and deregulated bus network. All big British cities with the exception of London were forced to sell off their bus systems to private concerns in the late 1980s and their networks are run in a way that makes sensible information provision impossible.
    For example in Manchester almost all the buses to the south of the city go down one major road (Oxford Road) to capture the students from the Uni and then fan out using various minor roads to reach their main arterial route. Since the private companies have complete control of the route they can and do change them to compete with other companies meaning that useful information (how they get to their main arterial route) is not stable.

  23. Mike April 28, 2010 at 2:17 pm #

    I used to live in a place that also used the bus line numbers to its advantage. Take for example the lines 5, 25, 35, 45, 65 of the following bus network:
    All the “5er lines” go from West to the Southeast, passing through the city center, and branch out at both ends of the trunk line.
    Similarly, the “7er lines” 7, 27, 37, 77 run on the North-South axis using the same trunk line.
    Advantages: When I’m on the trunk line (i.e. city center) I don’t have to think about which bus to take unless I have to go to a certain branch. Just take the next x7 for example. It automatically increases service frequency (at least for the locals in the know). An x5 bus would always get me home.
    This kind of numbering is maybe (or not?) easier to adopt in radial system than in a grid system. New world systems would have to use some prefix numbering, e.g. 141, 142, 143 …, to not run out numbers.
    Thinking about it, there could be a lot of ways to make numbering more intuitive. One could affix certain prefixes/postfixes to a certain street, avenue, or landmark. How do the professionals assign line numbers?

  24. ajedrez January 13, 2011 at 5:53 pm #

    I live on Staten Island in NYC, and the bus stop poles only say where the bus goes. For example, at all stops on the S46, the sign on the bus stop pole will say “S46: West Shore Plaza”. When the bus comes in, the sign will flash “S46: West Shore Plaza via Castleton Avenue”
    Personally, I think this system works well (then again, I know the system inside out, and a good portion of the ridership is regualr riders) because the most direct route to the destination will only involve 1 or 2 main streets.

  25. Ivy February 26, 2012 at 3:36 pm #

    In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, most newer buses in the fleet have bright amber/orange lit signage showing the route number and destination very prominently. It’s so easy to see from far down the road. Additionally, on the back of the bus a smaller LED showing just the number is present (I take this as a tease to show people they just missed their bus, as that’s the most likely time they’re seeing the route number in this fashion 😉 ). The buses don’t usually show the via info, but on a few, like the buses from King of Prussia, show both the destination intersection (13th & Market) as well as ‘Philadelphia’, in separate display cycles. The stops’ signs usually show destination only – no via.