email of the week: marketing a “bowl of tangled noodles”

Why do so many transit agencies not provide clear maps highlighting basic user-critical features such as frequency?  From a major transit authority located between the Arctic and Antarctic Circles, a planner proposes this explanation (links mine):

The current method [of designing marketing and information materials] is based on showing things to focus groups, and whatever wins the opinion poll seems to [get done].  Focus groups can kill good ideas.  [For example] if you show the Los Angeles 12-minute map [now a 15-minute map], it will probably be considered way too complicated.  However since the public’s image of buses [in my city] varies between zero and a bowl of tangled noodles, surely an effort like the 12 min map would be an improvement, despite the criticism re complexity.
Our marketing people are marketing people who work in transport, not transport people who work in marketing. So their knowledge of customers is probably better than mine, but their knowledge of the network (including its frequent service strength areas) would be inferior.
In contrast I take the view (influenced by the familiar themes on HT) that passengers worldwide pretty much have the same wants and needs.  So you can look at what works elsewhere, and apply it to relevant parts of the network here – no need to reinvent the wheel. You’d still have focus groups, but they would help with refining rather than saying yes or no.  I may grit my teeth at their lack of network knowledge; they’d probably think the same if I talk about marketing.

By “bowl of tangled noodles,” I’m guessing he means something like this (although this is not his city):
My experience is that good marketers and good transit planners have the same reaction to a bowl of tangled noodles — confusing piles of overlapping routes.  They hate them.  Both professions strive to reduce complexity, but often they don’t have the same notion of which fundamentals are most important. 

For example, as a planner I’d rather see a map that uses a strong color like red to highlight frequency, whereas many published maps use red to highlight speed — even fast services that run for only a few hours and are thus useful only to a narrow market.  San Jose’s VTA map, for example, uses red to mean “express, but maybe not all day, and maybe not in both directions.”  To me as a planner, this gives a misleading impression that the red lines are the underlying structure on which the network is built.  In fact, that structure lies more in the green and blue lines.

Others, as in this 2009 Portland map, prefer to use colors to differentiate the lines from each other, leaving little information bandwidth to convey other distinctions.  Portland’s 2009 map “highlights” Frequent Network lines by making the number bullet background yellow rather than white.  See?  Me neither.


Also, on this Portland map, if you look at 39th Avenue (north-south a bit to the left of the center of the image) you’ll see a route 66 running for a little distance, clearly an exception to the overall all-day grid pattern.  This route is one-way and peak-only, just a few trips designed to handle commutes to the medical center.  To me, drawing it as such a solid line gives a misleading impression that it’s more important than it is, and partly obscures the grid structure of frequent all-day lines that’s most people are likely to find useful.  So my instinct is usually to render peak-only services as dotted lines, showing them but not letting them distract from the big picture.


UPDATE:  Fortunately, Portland’s map has been revised, effective September 2010, exactly along the lines that I’d have suggested!  (Thanks to Nathan Banks for the update.)
Portland 10
The near-invisible yellow dots are still there, but Frequent Network lines are now drawn slightly wider.  See the difference?

Thanks to years of diligent planning, and a high tolerance for connections, Portland’s network is not a bowl of tangled noodles, though the 66 is a step down that slippery slope.  Still, even in Portland, these differences arise between the planning perspective and a marketing perspective on what’s important to show on a map.

I would especially love to get comments from transit marketing professionals on this.  Confidentiality policy is here.  Feel free to use email, via the link under my photo –>

21 Responses to email of the week: marketing a “bowl of tangled noodles”

  1. mattwigway December 20, 2010 at 11:31 pm #

    Good points. I like you point about how we need to use bandwidth wisely, and think it really applies to the VTA map, where 90% of the system (the blue lines) are confined to one color, line thickness and general style. I think that characteristics such as color and line thickness should signify not only speed, but also frequency. On the VTA map, some of the blue lines run weekdays only, every hour, while others run 24/7 and usually at frequencies of 15 minutes or better. We need to use our map bandwidth more wisely. Color and thickness are the highest-bandwidth, easiest-to-see characteristics, so should be used to display the most important information – usually frequency (full disclosure: I’m a frequent VTA user).
    I think that we also need to simplify the systems some. Many of the systems look like bowls of tangled noodles because they are – for instance, what does Line 55 on the VTA map do just left of the center of the map, near Fair Oaks light rail station? If the map isn’t a grid, it can also be very hard to trace lines through congested areas – for instance, Line 60 on the VTA map. I suspect this is why they use different colors for different lines on the Portland map.
    One last point: color blindness is common, especially red-green color blindness in men. So we need to be careful with our use of color.

  2. J.A. Duffhues December 21, 2010 at 1:00 am #

    Are you familiar with the RET of Rotterdam?
    They publish both a map of only the ‘frequent network’ ( and a map in which the ‘frequent’ lines have a different color from normal lines (busses, that is. trams and metros have a different color altogether):
    I love them both, the ‘frequent map’ differentiates in color, the ‘normal’ map in frequency, both combined you can’t go wrong.
    ‘frequent’ here is: from 07:00 until 19:00 at least 4 times an hour (in my opinion it’s a pity they don’t use 6 times an hour as the minimum, but ok).
    As a professional in the field of transit I always use this example in the rest of the Netherlands, where the ‘bowl of spaghetti’ still is very popular. To worsen this, when more frequent services are introduced, a separate marketing campaign often accompanies it (so you do not take the ‘bus’ anymore, but the ‘Zuidtangent’, the ‘Veluwelijn’ or ‘RijnwaalSprinter’, which are all basically busses that run 6 x an hour).

  3. Eric December 21, 2010 at 5:43 am #

    Face it Jarrett, transit mapping is age old conundrum and it’s time to move on …to digital space. There the challenge is two fold, how to make maps readable on an iphone screen and how make the elements shift to your area of inquiry seamlessly. Dynamic elements will help a lot.
    Here the possibilities are endless. You can use moving beads, for example, traveling along the route to communicate both relative speed and frequency in a way that is immediately intuitive to the viewer. In very speedy routes you can use visual “snapping” effects (or sudden quick but subtle shifts) and subtle color tone shifting on the route’s line to help communicate faster movement. Who says that the lines have to be static? We’ll call them the “dancing lines”. They can literally be jiggling on the screen. (As an example of what I mean, next time you are a passenger in a car, focus your gaze on the guard rails you travel by on the highway.)
    I’m surprised that in our age of handheld media we still haven’t seen many mapmakers breaking the mold of possibilities here…

  4. Alon Levy December 21, 2010 at 5:59 am #

    The London Underground map marks stations that get 15-minute midday service versus stations that don’t, but it’s not immediately easy to see on the map.

  5. Nathan Banks December 21, 2010 at 9:31 am #

    Your TriMet example is out of date. The current system map (September 2010) shows peak-only bus lines as dashed lines. Also, the “Frequent” bus lines are slightly wider than in the past. Small changes, I know, but they do help to somewhat illustrate TriMet’s service hierarchy amidst the technicolor spaghetti.
    The current map is here:

  6. Zoltán December 21, 2010 at 10:38 am #

    Multiple colours to distinguish routes, I always feel, are a bit unnecessary in grid networks, where routes rarely touch, only cross over each other at a clear 90 degrees. Where routes do touch, a few subtle variations should make those places clear.
    So using colours to signify other things is my preference in grids.
    In cities like Leeds, medium-sized old world cities that focus on radial routes, and have frequent corridors outnumbering less frequent, more complex routes, a different approach is needed. Here, routes frequently overlap and branch, particularly in the inner city.
    For that situation, I like the approach pursued by the dominant private bus operator in Leeds, which is to provide frequent routes with line colours that are emphasised in publicity, and show less frequent routes in grey on maps.

  7. anonymouse December 21, 2010 at 10:40 am #

    Eric: because everybody obviously has an iPhone…
    And I think one underlying issue in the bowl of spaghetti, at least in the VTA case, is that the street grid and development pattern is not designed for transit. Line 55 makes that confusing detour because that residential area is basically only accessible from Lawrence Expressway, and because there’s no other way to serve it. Also, the map doesn’t tell you that Line 55 is also in part a school bus, connecting Fremont High School with its catchment area to the north, which includes that residential neighborhood with the bus looping through it.
    Anyway, I’ll reiterate my approval of the original MBTA bus map from Boston: the subway lines were marked with thick colored lines in their color, the frequent bus lines were a medium-weght light brown, and the regular buses a dark brown, with each bus route having a distinct line (not merging the lines when different routes share a road). I think there may have also been a category for infrequent/commute-only lines, with very thin black lines. It was very clear what service you could count on, and which ones you needed a schedule for.

  8. Matt T December 21, 2010 at 12:45 pm #

    No maps could be worse for clarity than Adelaide Metro’s, with a psychedelic tangled noodle bus network that doesn’t acknowledge the existence of the parallel train and tram network. Heaven forbid a transfer. But the timetabling and mapping takes it to a whole new level of WTF e.g.
    Small maps of uselessness instead of a whole route map:
    or utter, utter confusion:
    Are there any worse?

  9. Matt T December 21, 2010 at 1:08 pm #

    Or how about this one with the upside-down map with north at the bottom, but no indication of it being so:

  10. Zoltán December 21, 2010 at 1:37 pm #

    Using excessive amounts of effects, animation, etc. went out in the nineties, when the internet stopped being new and amazing, and started needing to actually be functional.
    I don’t like my computer, smartphone or anything else to be have its memory and hard drive taken up with things that require more resources than I need them to, and I’m not alone in this.
    That’s why a static network map that is clear and easy to read will almost certainly continue to be important, even when it’s being read as an image/.pdf on a screen more often than on paper.

  11. jack horner December 21, 2010 at 6:06 pm #

    ‘No [bus map] could be worse than Adelaide’s’.
    In Sydney (population 4 million) you come close – for example see the bowl of spaghetti which is the ‘southern region guide’ at
    ‘Sydney Buses’, incidentally, does not mean ‘Sydney buses’. It means the buses operated by the major state-owned operator called ‘Sydney Buses’, which covers roughly half the metropolitan area. Other companies operate in territories that overlap Sydney Buses. Their lines are not shown on Sydney Buses maps, and their existence is not mentioned on Sydney Buses’ website (there is a separate ‘transport info’ trip planner that includes the other companies – but it doesn’t tell you that it does). There is no network map that shows *all* Sydney buses.
    In Sydney Buses’ territory, overlaid on the main network there is another, sparser network of supposedly premium services, called ‘Metrobus’. On the main network maps the references to Metrobus lines are visually insignificant and give no adequate picture of the Metrobus network. A separate Metrobus network map at shows the Metrobus lines only, at a small scale on an almost featureless background – making it practically impossible, without going to individual timetables, to work out what roads they travel on.
    The Metrobus map has no information about interchange with other services. I suppose for that you would have to get both maps and lay them on top of each other – a nice challenge for transit geeks.
    Metrobus lines are supposedly so frequent that we don’t need to be given a timetable. ‘Timetable-free’ frequency, for Sydney Buses, means ‘approximately’ every 10 minutes peak, 15 minutes daytime, 20 minutes nights and weekends (!). Metrobus timetable information brochures give no information on what span of hours ‘peak’ or ‘night’ refers to. They give no information on how long the bus takes to get from A to B.
    There’s a sort of voodoo here: ‘If we don’t publish a timetable, that means it must be frequent.’ Clearly it’s absurd to imagine that long distance regional routes, which are likely to involve a high proportion of transfer trips, can be timetable free. For a trip that might be over 20km long, with unknown wait time *and* unknown travel time, what am I looking at – 40 minutes? 60 minutes? 80 minutes? What if I then want to connect with a lower frequency regional train service? Hopeless. It would be interesting to do a survey to estimate how much revenue is being forgone because of this idiocy.
    Don’t get me started on Melbourne’s public transport maps. All in all Australian transit authorities seem to be remarkably incompetent at the ‘information’ side of things. Why is this so?

  12. Jarrett at December 21, 2010 at 7:32 pm #

    Jack. Because they don't read HT? Jarrett

  13. EngineerScotty December 22, 2010 at 12:08 am #

    I’ve often wondered what the purpose of TriMet’s 66 line was, anyway. The routing is not direct between the endpoints, which is what you’d expect of redundant peak-hour service, and the line doesn’t go ANYWHERE that other bus lines don’t also go). And the lines it is redundant with–8, 9, and 75, are all frequent service lines.
    Are there a significant number of OHSU workers (OHSU’s Marquam Hill campus is one of the anchors of the 66) living along Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard (what 39th Avenue is now called, after a controversial recent renaming)? That’s really the only explanation I can think of… otherwise, I could think of far better uses for the service hours.

  14. Jarrett at December 22, 2010 at 12:17 am #

    Scotty.  I recall the advent of the 66.  I created along with the other mid-60 lines a decade or two ago, as part of some kind of agreement between TriMet and the lords of Marquam Hill, presumably OHSU and the VA.  All of these lines are designed to speed commuters to the hill sparing them transfers.   Earlier, a similar deal with Lloyd Center created the 74, which used to provide a direct shot to Lloyd Center.  It was also silly, and finally abolished in a recent service cut.
    These things looked good on a map because they seemed to spread out across the city from Marquam Hill, but as you observe, they were only really advantageous if you lived right along them, and wherever you put them, most people won't.  So they're a symbolic service rather than a useful one.
    As for Chavez, I continue to call it 39th Avenue for the same reason some New Yorkers still refer to 6th Avenue.  It's shorter, and it tells you where you are.

  15. Chris December 22, 2010 at 9:21 am #

    I like Sydney’s bus maps. I believe they show an incredibly complicated assortment of routes as cleanly as possible. Compare with Melbourne, where the bus routes appear so complicated it made me not want to use one when I visited there last month. Two keys to it’s success is that the routes are overlaid on an actual street map rather than a schematic, and the relatively large scale afforded by the fact that the Sydney government bus area is shown on four separate maps.
    The problem is they don’t show other transit providers. But the problem is not unique to Sydney. Los Angeles municipal transit providers do not show other agency routes on their maps despite the fact that their riders would benefit from knowing about them. Only the main Metro map shows them, but as dashed black lines obscured underneath the “real” Metro bus routes.
    This problem argues for a centralized marketing department for places such as Sydney and Los Angeles. Individual bus systems could make decisions about routes and schedules but all maps and other information would be designed and created by a central source.

  16. Scott December 22, 2010 at 11:45 am #

    @Jarrett, writing, “As for Chavez, I continue to call it 39th Avenue for the same reason some New Yorkers still refer to 6th Avenue. It’s shorter, and it tells you where you are.”
    I’m glad YOU brought this up, as I was thinking it would be off topic. I see it as wonderful and appropriate that streets are being renamed after Chavez, King, Parks… And I will certainly use the new names. (Just like the two streets between 6th and 9th in downtown Portland are called Broadway and Park, not 7th and 8th! Is it a bit confusing? Oh well, that’s culture.) What gets me, tho’, is that if they just named it “Chavez Boulevard,” it would be short and sweet, respectful and in line with naming traditions. We don’t have streets named George (No Middle Name) Washington Street, Francis William Pettygrove Street, or James Walker Madison Street…it’s just Washington, Pettygrove, and Madison. Using full names becomes clunky and precious, and seems to assume that Chavez, Parks and others aren’t well known enough for their names to stand on their own.

  17. Beta Magellan December 22, 2010 at 1:17 pm #

    In Chicago we typically get around this putting up little signs underneath the main street sign declaring little stretches of street things like “Abraham Lincoln Marovitz Circuit”—it doesn’t have any actual consequences with regards to the street name, but still allows for honorary street names. By the way, I think Chicago’s MLK Drive actually is just King Drive (and it was definitely renamed in the sixties or seventies, previously being South Park)—I’m not near a street sign so I can’t tell you for sure, but it’s universally referred to as such, even in bus route and rail station names (which can get pretty long here).
    There are a few named streets in Chicago’s south side street-numbering scheme, but they’re pretty rare. One renaming that bothers me, though, is that a short stretch of 51st Street is Hyde Park Boulevard. While they’re mostly interchangeable for residents—and Metra does refer to its station, technically on Hyde Park Boulevard, as “51st-53rd Street”—the first time I tried to use CTA’s bus tracker app I couldn’t find my stop, mainly because I didn’t realize that I was officially standing on Hyde Park Boulevard, not 51st Street.

  18. jack horner December 22, 2010 at 4:10 pm #

    PS re my post above on Sydney buses: I wasn’t aiming to be too mean to the good folk at Sydney Buses, who no doubt do their best. [note 1] Their basic problem is that Sydney is a big city (about 50x50km) with a dense and complicated bus network. How to map that?
    I would be thinking of a greater variety of products aimed with more thought at particular market segments, eg
    A. short trips around the neighbourhood
    B. trips to the nearest regional centre
    C. longer cross regional trips probably including transfers.
    For A and B: a larger number of smaller area, larger scale regional maps based around the major centres like slices of a pie (or in some cases a whole, small pie). Preferably with geographically rational boundaries, generous overlaps, and generous cues about what lies beyond the boundary.
    These maps are based on the premise ‘most residents of the region do most of their trips within the region’ (you would want proper research to establish the best boundaries). I could think of 20 such regions for Sydney. They would not coincide closely with the present regional maps at which are based on operators’ territories.
    For C: a smaller scale, whole of metropolis map a bit like Sydney Buses ‘Metrobus’ map, but with better information about interchanges and connections (including rail), perhaps the local routes shown greyed out(but there is no room for more information about them), and good links to the regional maps which people will still need for the last mile of their transfer trip.
    The bottom line is, in a big city you get past the point where you can show everything on one map.
    And, of course, part of the solution is actually making the network less complex, as many have noted.
    There is a city-wide trip planner at – but trip planners have their own drawbacks [note 2] and are not an excuse for failing to produce printed information that covers the whole network in an integrated way.
    note 1: except in relation to the boneheaded stupidity of imagining that long distance cross-regional ‘Metrobus’ lines at 3-4 per hour, serving a lot of transfer trips, can be marketed as ‘timetable free’
    note 2: principally, their tunnel vision: a trip planner teaches you nothing about the network beyond the particular itinerary you have asked for, and so does nothing to encourage you to use transit for other types of trips in future.

  19. Nicholas Barnard December 27, 2010 at 10:15 pm #

    @Eric / @anonymouse / @jack horner
    I think there is great potential for producing several maps to better serve customers. Seattle’s King County Metro system map is essentially useless. I think I might’ve tried to use this when I first moved into town, but I’m very dependent on the trip planner, and also the individual route maps. It also helps to look at the bus signs in an area, and look up the individual route map if I’ll be there again.
    I think there is a call and a need for providing maps in an electronic format with the ability to only show all day routes, or routes with a certain frequency. I think this would help people learn the transportation network. I’m a huge fan of KickMap. – (Although, I’ven’t yet had the opportunity to use it in action.) There is a great blog post at where Eddie Jabbour, the designer of KickMap discusses his process in creating He doesn’t specifically address frequency, but I’d bet he’d agree that its important in using bus system.
    I think the key here is to ensure that the new map is only available to those who can afford a smart phone. I think its reasonable to have extensive customizability only online, but several common versions should be available on paper. I love transit because it is a great equalizer, I’d hate to see this undermined with the system map.

  20. John W January 2, 2011 at 11:54 am #

    @Jarret – the link to the 12-minute map no longer seems to work. There is a 15-minute map, however. Does that mean they’ve downgraded service levels?
    @Alon (comment on 12/22) – there are only 2 or 3 stations on the whole London Underground that don’t get 15-minute or better service, and those are on short branches way at the end of the Metropolitan line. I think you might be thinking of one of the rail services maps, such as this one (showing tube, rail and tram). Stations with less than 4 trains per hour are indicated with a dagger after the name. (It’s quite a contrast to US commuter rail scheduling – there’s a fair percentage of rail stations that get at least 4tph all day).

  21. John W January 2, 2011 at 12:15 pm #

    Blast! Got confused by another post correcting a misspelling of your name – which I read as Jarret T (and wondered who that was, as hadn’t noticed a commenter with that name). So – New Year’s resolution – be more careful with spelling people’s names…