bus signage: a literary view

3 JACKSON Market Sansome A great exterior sign on a transit vehicle conveys empowering information with just a few words.  In the last post, I suggested we could learn a lot from the way San Francisco does it. 

Among the many excellent comments, Matt Johnson shared an example of a Prince George's County (Maryland) sign that's typical of what many other transit agencies do.  To me, it overflows the bounds of wayfinding and can only really be appreciated as poetry, so on a rainy Saturday morning, I'm going to let myself riff on it a bit.  The text:


That's six pages of one-line text.  Matt says each line displays for 10 seconds.  That would mean it takes a minute to see the whole sign, which must be an exaggeration.  Matt probably means "each line displays for what feels like forever," and usually 2-3 seconds are enough to create that effect. 

Obviously this is a limited sign, apparently not able to hold more than 12 characters, but as we all know, formal constraints like length limits are often liberating.  Much of the joy of art lies in watching creativity press against some kind of limitation.  If you didn't learn this from reading sonnets or writing haiku, you've probably learned it from Twitter.

In the literature world, it's common to see great poetry published with some kind of annotation that helps pry the piece open for the reader.  So just for fun, I thought I'd do one on this.  As literary critics like to say, there's a lot here.


The poem begins with a burst of masculine energy, ambitious, thrusting upward, perhaps with a tinge of hope?


In one line, the poem explodes into many dimensions of significance.  Indeed, we could say that this is the line where the sign reveals itself as a poem.

First of all, the artificial separation of "Mount Rainier" into two lines, technically called enjambment, recalls some of the great suspenseful line-breaks of modernist poetry.  William Carlos Williams, say:

So much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

In "RAINIER/IKEA" the slash (/) could be a meta-poetic reference.  When we quote poems in the middle of a paragraph, we use the slash to indicate the line breaks ("So much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow …")  So the slash used mid-line in poetry signals a winking inversion of that convention.  As in many arts, postmodern consumers know they're looking at an artifice, so the artwork gains credibility by saying "I know I'm just a poem," or whatever.  The mid-line slash could be a clever way of doing that.

Has any punctuation mark become as meaningless as the slash?  In signage it can mean 'or' (as when it separates two alternative destinations served by branches), or it can separate two descriptions of the same thing, or it can mean "between" as in "from one of these to the other."  Here, the poem doesn't let on what it means.   Only patient contextual research has established that the relevant meaning here is "between."  This bus runs from Mount Rainier to Ikea, or from Ikea to Mount Rainier.

Still, the ambivalence invites us to imagine other possible relationships between Rainier and Ikea. For example, we can notice the strangeness of conjoining a permanent-sounding placename with the name of a business.  What would happen to this sign, and this route, if the Ikea moved or merged?  Mountains don't move, we note, which is why we name neighborhoods after them. 

As if that all weren't enough, "RAINIER" in all caps can't signal that it's a proper name, as "Rainier" would do.  Is the bus promising to take us somewhere where it rains more than it does here?


Parentheses are unusual on electric bus signs, and they're not too common in poetry either.  Literally, parentheses mean "this might be interesting but don't let it distract you."  So to use a parenthesis on an entire line of text, which forces itself on your attention for a few seconds, contradicts the basic meaning of a parenthesis.  As always, that's how we know to look beyond the basic meaning, to look at the sign as a poem.

Yet the visual look of parentheses also suggests a kind of protective enclosure, like two hands cupping a fragile little idea.  Is this bus insecure about being northbound?  Is it afraid that "northbound" is not what everyone wants to hear? 

Compass directions are tricky, of course, because not everyone knows them.  I'm told that on the North American prairies, where all roads are north-south or east-west, some people develop such a compass-based sense of space that they'll refer to the southeast burner on their stove.  This bus isn't in such a place, though; suburban Maryland has lots of diagonal and curving roads at various angles, so perhaps the parentheses are apologetic in the sense of "we're actually going north, but if you can't think about that, it's ok.  We're not trying to seem that we're smarter than you.  Like Mister Rogers, we like you just the way you are."

All this nuance and richness would have been lost if the sign had tried to tell people what the bus does.  In that case, it would say either MOUNT RAINIER or IKEA, but not both, depending on which way it's going.  That would be Zen in its transparency, but this poet has already signaled that Zen is not his genre. 


A what?  Again, the line break creates suspense.  Am I going to like this?  Should I be hopeful or scared?


Comforting, unpretentious closure to the suspense.  Yet even here, we can wonder.  "NICE DAY" displays all by itself for a few seconds, so if you see the sign then, it seems to say "It's a nice day!"  If the bus says "NICE DAY" as it comes at you through a blizzard, you might get a deeply spiritual message: "Whatever's happening, this is a nice day, because it's the present and that's the only thing we have."  (The saccharine level in this sentiment is easily turned up or down to suit your taste; that's the liberating quality of the simple "NICE DAY.")   


Here we thought the sign was just for us transit customers!  In fact, it's talking to motorists!  Poems often take dramatic turns by suddenly enlarging or shifting the audience.  It's as though we thought we were in an intimate space walled with warm curtains, listening to a poetry reading, when suddenly the curtains drop and we're in the middle of a stadium.  T. S. Eliot was a master at keeping us wondering where we are and who's watching, and playing with our desire to be sure about that.  Who is the audience, really?  How big and diverse is it?  For that matter, is anyone paying attention?  Great postmodern questions, all, and in the poem's climactic moment, we finally confront them.

The sentiment is finely tuned.  Like "HAVE A / NICE DAY," "DRIVE SAFELY" is strategically commonplace, as though the bus company is trying to assure us that it shares our values.  Still, "DRIVE SAFELY" refers to the possibility of danger.  You can read it as plaintive ("Please don't run into us or our customers!") or as confident, maybe even with the necessary toughness of the policeman ("We've looked danger and tragedy in the eye, and we're trying to protect you from it, so don't mess with us.") 

This, of course, is the basic ambivalence of every bus's stance in the modern city, especially the noisy diesel bus.  As a bus operator, you know that your mass, noise, and vibration aren't entirely welcome on most streets, yet you're trying to perform an essential service.  Firefighters are in that situation too, but you can't command the deference that fire trucks do, because it's your job to be routine and predictable even though that almost implies being unappreciated.  How can you get some appreciation?  Say what people on the street want to hear.  "HAVE A / NICE DAY / DRIVE SAFELY."  Who can argue with that? 

And who cares if, while that message is playing, nobody can tell which bus this is?  That's how you know this is poetry.

21 Responses to bus signage: a literary view

  1. Zoltán May 7, 2011 at 5:36 pm #

    Or, why not to hire literature students… 😉

  2. dale May 7, 2011 at 5:42 pm #

    Oh God, I laughed all through this. And yet you’re completely right, your critical judgment is sound as a bell.

  3. Carter R May 7, 2011 at 5:47 pm #

    Here’s a question: Why don’t transit agencies insist that bus manufacturers build larger electronic signs on buses?
    Obviously there are *some* constraints, but it seems like being able to read a bus’ number and destination from great distance are important components of visibility/legibility.

  4. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org May 7, 2011 at 5:55 pm #

    Carter.  Many sizes of sign are available.  But in most agencies that procurement decision is often not connected to marketing or wayfinding thought, as it obviously should be. 

  5. Carl May 7, 2011 at 6:59 pm #

    I hate the destination signs on Seattle’s LINK Light Rail Line.
    The text scrolls continuously. That means you cannot just glance and read the destination. You have to concentrate to read the scrolling text.
    And every destination includes the unnecessary word “Station”. There are really only about 4 destinations a train can have. Most trains are going either to “Airport” or “Seatac” or to “Westlake” or “Seattle”. A few that will go to the yard stay in service to “Mt. Baker” or “SODO”. Every one of these words can be the single word that should be displayed constantly, without scrolling, on the destination sign.
    The interior signs are just as bad or worse, scrolling through “Next Stop: Stadium Station” etc. How about constant “Next: Stadium”.

  6. ant6n May 7, 2011 at 7:43 pm #

    I understand that you prefer that the signs show the roads they go on, rather than the destination. Yet Sometimes it is really useful to know which direction a bus goes. In unknown areas of Montreal, or when coming out of the metro, I have, at times, taken a bus in the wrong directions. Then I would really know some cue as to where it goes, and a compass is good because it corresponds to the map one might’ve checked before.
    But, don’t do
    Just do
    if your direction is diagonal.

  7. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org May 7, 2011 at 8:16 pm #

    No, signs need to have both street and destination, but visually
    distinguished as on the SF examples. I don't like 17N because
    personally I find letter-number jumbles to be harder to remember than
    either letters or numbers. Perhaps it's different for Canadians who
    learned those infernal postal codes (e.g. V5H 4N2) in the cradle?

  8. Peter May 7, 2011 at 9:27 pm #

    Your recent post on your other blog brought me here. I didn’t know this place existed!
    These buses, like the flashing message boards highway crews put up, don’t seem to understand that I have to take in an entire message at a glance, often. I always want to read an entire cycle, but I can’t.
    Wouldn’t it be fun to program one of those buses to dispense Williams’s poem over a minute? Magic bus! Zooming by and reading “a red wheel” or “chickens” would have pleased Williams, I think.

  9. Colin Stewart May 8, 2011 at 7:51 am #

    Jarrett — alas, your Transit-ist reading of this poem blinds you to its true meaning: that of mass suicide, particularly as a form of protest against Swedish corporate practices.
    The opening line, “17 MOUNT”, doesn’t refer to a bus route; it refers to a number of people — 17 of them, in fact — who are climbing something (as indicated by the present-tense, third-person-plural form of the verb “to mount”).
    The second line reveals what the group is climbing: “RANIER/IKEA”. This is to say, they’re getting up on the roof of an Ikea store. “Rainer” suggests that Ikea is somehow worse than other stores — in the sense of “raining on one’s parade.”
    (The slash is an unfortunate typo, which can be attributed to the rarity of good editors at publishing houses these days.)
    The third line, “(NORTHBOUND)”, has two meanings. “North” is often equated with “up,” as it does on most maps, and it is thus that we should read it here. Hence, “northbound” is synonymous with “upward,” which is where the group of 17 are heading — both in the sense of “up the building,” and, more crucially, “up to heaven.”
    The next two lines, “HAVE A / NICE DAY”, are, given the context, morbidly ironic. They also recall one of the standard lines of an Ikea greeter, which strongly suggests that the 17 are disgruntled former employees.
    The final line, “DRIVE SAFELY”, continues the ironic tone of the previous two lines, but it is specifically directed at the Ikea customers in the parking lot below — those who will doubtlessly rubberneck at the gruesome scene to come.
    More importantly though, is that “DRIVE SAFELY” was once the slogan of the auto maker Volvo. Thus, with this one line, the poem associates Ikea with Volvo, conflating the two Swedish companies in a miasma of corporate hypocrisy, and excoriating their use of banal, feel-good expressions to fatten their bottom line.

  10. Alon Levy May 8, 2011 at 1:40 pm #

    In New York, I believe NB and SB are common enough acronyms that people would understand. But omitting the B would make it incomprehensible. Is the 17N the northern branch of the 17, a bus that runs on North 17th Street, or what?
    Tel Aviv uses unadorned directions on the Ayalon freeway, whose two directions are called Ayalon North and Ayalon South, and it’s always confused the hell out of me.

  11. Jarrett May 8, 2011 at 2:33 pm #

    Colin Stewart’s comment, which reads the sign as a warning of imminent bloodbath due to employee grievances against a well-oiled Swedish profit machine, raises some useful contrasts. The frame of labor-management conflict will certainly draw Marxist admirers, but most literary theorists, I’m afraid, would sniff at the pre-postmodernity. (I left academia after my PhD, in part, because the obligation to sniff so frequently was making my allergies worse.)
    Colin’s determination to interpret every nuance of the poem as part of a single narrative, driving toward a single conclusion, would today be dismissed as patriarchal, even phallic. Feminism and deconstruction have shattered the singular narrative, calling on us to see the diversity of possibilities as the only conclusion worth celebrating. Thus, while Colin’s reading turns every line into evidence for a single conclusion, mine exfoliates* or “opens out” the poem by observing multiple ways that the text could mean, or do. My reading seeks not to impose a single truth but rather to create a space in which the reader can find herself.
    * The verb to exfoliate is probably the single piece of critical jargon that I miss most from my academic days. In the image of a plant energetically leafing out, it captures the forceful, multidirectional, unpredictable and yet unstoppable quality of great idea. Perhaps when the Greens are done covering our cities with photosynthetic surfaces, they’ll get back to the urgent business of requiring that we only communicate via metaphors that refer to natural processes, preferably those of (reliably pacifist) plants. Ideas already sprout, blossom and wither, so I’m not sure why we’re not allowed to say they exfoliate.

  12. Jarrett May 8, 2011 at 2:50 pm #

    @Alon. You write: Is the 17N the northern branch of the 17, a bus that runs on North 17th Street, or what?
    Surely, the simplest answer is that a 17N is taking the nth branch of the line. This would signal that the long accretion of individually reasonable route variations (caused by the need to run a few trips past this senior center, then a few others to a social service office, and one or two to Judy’s house so that she’ll stop calling and writing letters) has finally reached the terminal condition where the number of branches is not merely infinite but has every possible value between one and infinity.
    In this condition, the transit rider confronts the deep reality of particle physics, which is that probability is not just an approximation of reality but seems to directly describe its mechanisms. To oversimplify, a particle doesn’t just have a 20% chance of bouncing to the left, rather it is bouncing 20% to the left right now, in a single event.
    So 17N isn’t any one branch of the 17, nor does it promise to go to all n branches. Rather, it’s going only to the nth branch, just as it says. Most bus operations folk are pretty straightforward and literal in their expression, after all, so we should expect no less.

  13. GD May 8, 2011 at 7:56 pm #

    Jarrett and Colin,
    I feel that you missed out on the very important dimension of interstitiality at work here, or the subaltern status of that which is not displayed. Clearly, that which is shown is not the point. We have to investigate the absent space and appreciate its subversive potential for creating different and ambiguous subject positions.
    Any full description, or rather, any route at all, sets a narrative that establishes a hegemony of meaning. My very personal experience of traveling can not be accounted for in this way, but must rather express itself in a rejection of the symbolic order, i.e. numbers and street names.
    Thus I advocate leaving entire field blank, as a projection space for our own desires and an acknowledgement of the ambiguity of our subject positioning when traveling.
    Thanks for the post and the comments. I still think maps at the bus stops are the way to go; I like their complete lack of ambiguity, I guess.

  14. John May 8, 2011 at 9:09 pm #

    Because you don’t know what these bus drivers are going to do…
    Hilarious post, Jarrett!

  15. ant6n May 9, 2011 at 11:47 am #

    may be better than cheering towards a local sports team instead of showing any bus info, for most of the display time

  16. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org May 9, 2011 at 11:52 am #

    or as I saw yesterday on Hastings St, Vancouver:
    135 SFU

  17. Ted K. May 10, 2011 at 11:38 am #

    Poss. ans. : Please don’t hit someone with your golf ball.
    Re : 135 SFU
    Puckish ? :-)
    Jarrett’s ref.:
    Alternate meanings :

  18. Art Busman May 13, 2011 at 3:01 pm #

    I find it intrusive for transit agencies to pollute their informational signs with safety advice, greetings, holiday greetings, or even worse poetry. I want information and that’s it. I can’t stand wasting even a couple seconds reading some inane, cliche, meaningless message. If I want literature or poetry, gee, guess what, are there like bookstores on this planet? Can I go online maybe? Sure, I appreciate buses that look aesthetic and are painted and pretty, but when I want information, I don’t need some bureaucrat to impose his idea of a banal greeting or poetry on my time and life.

  19. Peter May 15, 2011 at 11:31 pm #

    Even if it were great poetry, Art? I could envision a play — well, at least a musical — based on a bureaucrat who discovers his soul by writing what turns out to be extraordinary poetry used above a bus’s windshield. In turn, he himself is discovered by a team self-important literary critics only after he is found guilty for involuntary manslaughter after someone is hit by the bus after being transfixed by the poetry (deer-in-the-headlights variation). Poetry-loving governor commutes his sentence to time served. No damages awarded in closing scene’s civil wrongful death action because of persuasive defense testimony (one of the grander literary critics who, perhaps, works in the word “exfoliate”) concerning the quality of the decedent’s final moments.

  20. Peter May 15, 2011 at 11:35 pm #

    [Errata: “team of self-important literary critics” and “found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.”]

  21. Adam May 16, 2011 at 8:08 pm #

    This was one of the most wonderful things I’ve read in a long time. Comments included.