what if route numbers signified service level?

From the new line numbering scheme (and service plan) in Allentown-Bethlehem, Pennsylvania:

All routes will be designated with a three-digit number which will provide an indication of the level of service

100’s routes act as the core routes – they will provide service Monday through Saturday throughout the day and into the evening.  These routes will also operate on Sunday;

200’s routes provide service along key urban corridors Monday through Saturday during day hours;

300’s routes provide service on the more suburban corridors in the region and operate Monday through Friday during day hours;

400’s routes continue to act as special routes to provide added capacity to meet demand from Allentown School District students;

500’s routes are LANta Flex routes – new flexible, reservation based feeder services designed for more suburban areas; and

600’s routes are circulator and crosstown routes designed to address specific markets.

So the whole numbering system is about service quantity.  Clearly, too, the higher numbers mean "don't less this distract you from the more versatile lower-numbered routes," which is exactly the principle of good frequency branding or a good network map such as Portland's (which distinguishes four tiers: light rail, frequent bus, infrequent bus, and peak-only).

Obviously, most agencies would resist the Allentown-style numbering because it means that if you change a service level you need to renumber the route.  But if followed through, it would be a step toward branding a core network (presumably also the most frequent) with route numbers, yet another way for that most versatile network to be most visible to customers. 

Personally I wouldn't recommend this if it were exclusively about service duration, as the summary states.  I'd do it only if it were also about a frequency distinction, or at least an intended one.  But it's interesting that while Frequent Networks are intended to be lasting top priorities of an agency, and usually represent permanent strong markets, no agency (in either North America or Australasia) has "locked in" the commitment to a Frequent Network by numbering the frequent lines differently.

26 Responses to what if route numbers signified service level?

  1. Allan August 15, 2011 at 5:04 pm #

    are they planning to have < 100 routes so that they’ll be able to promote/demote routes between service levels as conditions arise?

  2. Ncbarnard August 15, 2011 at 5:07 pm #

    I like route numbers that clearly communicate something, so I like this in theory. Not being from that area, I’m unsure if it’d help or hurt.
    I was going to say that the Puget Sound kindof has this, with 5xx routes being regional interconnector routes, but thats more a function of the fact that they’re ran by Sound Transit, who has that as their mission. It doesn’t appear to be the same thing though.

  3. gt August 15, 2011 at 5:12 pm #

    Brisbane stepped away from this style of route numbering in the late 1990s.
    The seperately branded CityXpress routes were numbered in the 500 series with dedicated branding that extended to the vehicles, bus stops and timetables. Given that they operated at regular intervals 7 days per week and were faster than ordinary buses they made the core network very legible.
    1 to 199 were normal routes with varying levels of service, with the 1xx series mostly being tram replacement trunk routes. The network and the route numbering system for these services was not very legible.
    On top of these two networks were peak hour extras in the 200 or 400 series depending on service type and 3xx community buses.
    Their new system has replaced all this with one that groups route numbers together geographically but doesn’t provide much clue about service levels.

  4. Carter R August 15, 2011 at 5:34 pm #

    LA County Metro does this to some extent, with all of its rapid lines featuring 700 numbers and the limited stop lines featuring 300 numbers.

  5. Alex... August 15, 2011 at 6:40 pm #

    The two cites where I had the opportunity to renumber bus routes as part of service reviews I have tried to reserve the big round important sounding numbers for the frequent network and use other numbers for less important routes.
    In Christchurch (only partly implemented to date) 0-9 was reserved for the frequent Network. Communication wise there is something inherently important sounding about a single digit route 1, 2, etc. compared with other 2 and 3 digit numbers.
    Using these single digit numbers ensured these routes always came top of the list on any publicity materials, on web drop downs and timetable display racks.
    Zero (0) was used for the high frequency circular Orbiter route more as a play on a zero also being the letter “O” for Orbiter, the brand name of the route.
    In Wellington’s Hutt Valley where single digit numbers weren’t an option we kept the round numbers for the frequent network (110, 120, 130) and used related numbers for the complementary low frequency services such as 120 for the main route to Stokes Valley and 121 for a weekday only community service to the same area.
    In Wellington city the former route 12 was renumbered to to 3 for marketing reasons making the three most important and frequent routes 1, 2 and 3 (making PT as easy as…)
    But as Jarret has seen first hand it is a network with a lot of legacy still in it. So we still have peak only routes 4 and 5 which sound more important than the frequent route 11.

  6. Ryan G August 15, 2011 at 6:44 pm #

    They could take this a small step further, and use route numbers under 100 for high frequency routes. They could also go one more step further and (assuming there’s less than 100 routes overall) assign no two routes the same two-digit number. In other words, if there’s a route 103, there will be no 203, 303, 403, etc. Then, if service changes dictate new frequencies for the route, it can change. Then in theory it becomes “route 3”, with the “hundreds” level indicating something else about the route. I would assume routes would rarely go from 100 or 200 level to 300, 400, +, or vice versa, but what was a 500-level service could reach demand levels requiring a 300-level fixed service.

  7. Jeffrey Bridgman August 15, 2011 at 6:45 pm #

    Capital Metro in Austin, TX does this as well, where numbering is different types of service (not merely service span).

  8. Daniel August 15, 2011 at 6:59 pm #

    In Melbourne, trams are numbered 1 to 200, and generally provide a higher level of service than buses.
    The handful of Smartbus services are numbered 900 and up, and have more services than most other bus services.
    The two frequent university shuttle services are numbered 401 and 601, though other far less frequent x01 bus services (such as 701) remain.

  9. Leigh August 15, 2011 at 7:55 pm #

    Has started happening here in Melbourne, with the SmartBus services numbered 900-908. Would like to see them re-number existing routes 920-929 so that people associate the higher, “newer” routes as having higher service levels.
    First thoughts were how many tiers would work best? Three for 15, 30 and 60 min headways? Definitely like the idea of providing more, quick ways to gauge service quality.
    I’ve also found the “X” express and “T” T-way numbering in Sydney to be useful, which leads me to suspect that a uniform numbering system most benefits new and infrequent users, which again comes back to how complex you make it to balance between providing enough detail, or potentially confusing people less familiar with the system.

  10. ant6n August 15, 2011 at 9:38 pm #

    I think these are too many service categories. And of course rush hour service and night services are missing. Why not something simple, like Berlin does:
    – M: frequent service network (5min), both buses and trams
    – N
    : night buses, some are numbered the same as subway lines and go along the same corridor
    – any number: ‘normal’ bus line, basically all run every day, but you might wanna check a schedule.
    A lot of the above categories are not useful in the sense that basically for all of them you are going to have to check a schedule, anyway. So the categories don’t make things much simpler. And having service categories that differentiate what weekend day they run on just seems kinda of annoying.

  11. Moaz Yusuf Ahmad August 15, 2011 at 9:43 pm #

    In Toronto, subway trains were traditionally given the prefix of “6” (601, 602 for the two main lines, 603 for the Scarborough LRT short line). Then they added a 4th line and instead of calling it 604, they decided to renumber the system, so now route 1-4 are subway trains.
    Of course the public doesnt see this, but the buses that had those corresponding route numbers had to change.
    What else is happening in Toronto…let’s see, the 5xx-series of routes are streetcars. The “19x” series are the “rocket” limited stop buses, and there are also 14x “premium” services and others.
    And just to add some confusion, Toronto is also served by the “400-series” highway system.
    What else? In Mississauga the system had the “8x” series denote express buses, with “7x” for special routes. Now there are two types of express buses, the “regular” peak hour “2xx” series express buses, and the “1xx” MiExpress daytime express buses.
    And just northwest of Toronto is Brampton, who decided to number their Zum express bus service in the 500 series as well.
    Confusion reigns in the Greater Toronto Area.
    Regards, Moaz

  12. Chris, Public Transport August 15, 2011 at 9:45 pm #

    I hate to say it, but I believe the only people who would understand these ways of numbering routes and who are interested in numbering routes in this manner are public transit enthusiasts. Consider the following 2 examples, one anecdotal and one not:
    1) Over the years I have had the pleasure of knowing a large number of people who frequently rode the buses of the Detroit Department of Transportation. When I asked them if they rode the “21 Grand River”, they told me that they did not know it was route 21. They always just called it the Grand River bus.
    2) One of the reasons for the recent Pittsburgh route reorganization was the the route numbers were too complicated to be understood by the general public. If the route ended in 1, it was a major route serving downtown (and 6 to a lesser extent; routes ending in 4 were crosstowns; routes ending in 9 went to the university district; and routes ending in 2, 3, 5, 7, or 8 were generally limited stop or express routes, and usually operated only during the peak period with the exception of routes ending in 7. The first number of the route corresponded to what part of the city it went to.
    Now, although the general sense remains, the city has “normal” bus route numbers, partially to remove the confusion apparent when having bus routes like 61A, 61B, 61C, and 61D.
    Toronto’s transit system, with the exception of the streetcar lines, has seemingly random route numbers, although you can see how at one time they kind of went in alphabetical order. Despite this “irrational” route numbering, I’m going to go out on a limb and estimate the most people would find the TTC easier to navigate than LANTA (on a side note, it’s sad that we’re losing another agency that uses letters without numbers for its routes).
    Anyway, my point is that route design is what makes the transit system easy to understand, not what you number the routes.
    On another point, isn’t branding certain routes as good and frequent kind of a slap in the face to other routes? Why not just develop a minimum service level so that all routes can have good service?
    As for Portland, service reductions necessary to operate the new light rail lines has made the “frequent” bus routes perilously close to the “infrequent” ones. According to the website, both Route 15 and 20 operate about every 20 minutes during the mid-day – but 15 is a “frequent” route and 20 is not. What’s that about?

  13. Morgan Wick August 16, 2011 at 3:55 am #

    Spitballing an idea for a fictional system:
    1- and 2-digit routes are the frequent grid and operate 15-minute frequencies or less for most of the day.
    1xx-routes are a step down and operate at least 30-minute frequencies for at least part of 6 days a week.
    2xx-routes provide lesser all-day service.
    3xx-routes are rush hour services, and 4xx routes are gap fillers and night-specific routes.

  14. Paul Jewel August 16, 2011 at 8:50 am #

    Hi Jarrett – I have to agree with Chris’ comment…”the only people who would understand or care about this type of numbering system are public transit enthusiasts.” I think many transit planners tend to overthink the issue of what passengers want and more importantly, what they have the capacity to understand. After 20 years of planning I have yet to come across more than a handful of transit patrons who really care about the numbering scheme of their bus system or for that matter…the system they are visiting. Visual cues (i.e. good maps) and simple number systems (perhaps variations of the NYMTA’s bus lines (M=Manhattan, Q = Queens, etc) are…IMHO…far more effective than complicated numbering systems that try to organize lines into neat and clean systems.

  15. Chris, Public Transport August 16, 2011 at 10:01 am #

    Now that I’ve thought more about it, I feel that this route numbering scheme would benefit employees of the transit agency for two reasons:
    1) For the people of the transit agency who do not know much about what service their agency offers, a “rational” route numbering scheme would give them a clue.
    2) The scheme, by organizing routes into categories with other similar routes, could assist in filing paperwork required by the Federal Transit Administration.
    One other caveat – if employing such a scheme would mean that each route number could only be used once in a geographic region, then it would be worthwhile. For example, Long Beach, CA used to have 2 route 60s going into the city – Metro 60 and OCTA 60, and Long Beach Transit has a Route 61. I don’t know if that actually caused confusion, but it could have.

  16. Ben Allen August 16, 2011 at 11:11 am #

    It’s a good idea to clearly mark different service levels, but numbers are the most opaque tool we have to do that. Colors, names, almost anything but numbers would be better.

  17. Alon Levy August 16, 2011 at 11:47 am #

    In New York, the crosstown Manhattan buses are numbered after the streets they run on; this is much more useful than a frequency distinction, since most crosstown buses are fairly frequent.
    As a counterpoint to what Chris is saying, in both Tel Aviv and Singapore, you can sometimes think of low numbers as representing frequent trunk routes. It’s not really true – e.g. Tel Aviv’s Lines 1, 2, 4, and 5 are frequent but Line 6 comes every hour (at least, this was true in 2000) – but it’s more true than false. It’s more like a language with many irregular verbs and nouns than like a language with completely arbitrary inflections.

  18. Max Wyss August 16, 2011 at 12:40 pm #

    For the public, coding frequency levels into the line number, provides no real advantage. Actually, it may just confuse more.
    Of course, it depends on the total number of lines in the region, but putting some geographical information into the line number (such as in which sector it operates) can be more useful.
    This still would allow for “privileged” numbers to be assigned to “privileged” lines. An example for that could be found in Zürich, where two of the express lines using the Uetliberg highway tunnel are numbered 200 (serving the “2xx-encoded” area) and 444 (serving the 4xx encoded area of the neighboring regional transit system).

  19. Andre Lot August 16, 2011 at 12:58 pm #

    I think numbering/coding plans interest more to enthusiasts than to regular users for most of it.
    Those “connoisseurs” will know of how the system operate regardless of any numbering plan, regular users will not care much about them. The whole controversy reminds me of the “wrongly” numbered Interstates and “severe violators” of US-road numbering plan of 1943.
    Good maps in every stop are more helpful than intricate numbering plans.
    Where a system employs branching to create heavily trafficked high-frequency uniform corridors, designations alluding to those corridors will be helpful.

  20. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org August 16, 2011 at 9:37 pm #

    @Chris, Paul.  I agree that the LANTA numbering system is attempting to capture too much detail, as is the former Pittsburgh system that Chris describes.  In the LANTA system, for example, the number of categories that are distinguished is probably too many.
    Overly prescriptive systems tend to fall apart anyway, as I noted (with more comic relief)
    But I do think there are several uses for line numbering systems that are clear and simple, and that help a customer see important information that might otherwise be unclear.  For example, in Sydney, an important frequent corridor from downtown to the university is known as the "420-series", denoting a group of routes (421, 422, 423 etc) that all run this common segment but then branch further out.  This is a clean way of conveying both the useful frequent inner segment and the individuality of the different lines.
    In a huge system, numbering by subarea helps customers just sort through what would otherwise be an enormous complex mass of line numbers. 
    Put it this way:  If, to make your trip, you can take any of five routes, which of the following would you rather have to remember:
    Route 1, 4, 7, 8, or 9Any route numbered in the 420sRoute F, 9, J2, 76, or 239K
    Few would prefer the third, I think, so I don't think it's true that a totally random pattern of numbers is ideal.  It's also clearly true that lower numbers suggest a smaller network, and thus feel simpler.  Using lower route numbers in the central city, as many big regional agencies do, helps this core area, where ridership is highest, feel more navigable without reference to the more complex networks in the suburbs.
    I do also think route numbers can help capture some basic distinctions of importance.  Using certain route number groups for specialized commuter express lines, for example, helps them not distract from the simpler all-day network.  Rapid transit lines can reasonably have simpler numbers, such as the letters used by Seattle's Rapid Ride against the background of 1-3 digit local line numbers.

  21. Tcmetro August 17, 2011 at 6:22 am #

    In the Twin Cities routes are numbered based on geography. 1-99 are central city services, 100s are central city express services, 200’s are NE metro, 300s E metro, 400s outer S metro, 500s inner S metro, 600s W/SW metro, 700s NW metro, 800’s N metro. When a route is x00-x49, that means (generally) it is a local route, if it is x50-x99 it is an express route.
    For 1 and 2 digit routes, the numbering is a little different. 1-49 are Minneapolis routes, 50-59 are limited stop routes from either city, and 60-89 are St. Paul routes. 94 was not renumbered because it is the I-94 express bus between the two cities.
    I think a geographical numbering system is more useful than the a frequency-based numbering system because the numbering can tell you more about where the bus goes. For instance, if I were to tell you (assuming you have a very general knowledge of the bus system) to take the 722 bus, you wouldn’t know it goes to Shingle Creek Pkwy, but you would know it does go to the NW metro. If you were to go to a schedule rack or look at a list of bus routes, you would immidiately know to go to the 700 section to find buses in the NW metro.

  22. Zoltán August 17, 2011 at 11:30 am #

    I have a pet project of improvements to Baltimore’s bus network, and this is the system I devised for it. It’s based upon two-digit numbers, because I find that three digit numbers make the network feel complex.
    1x-8x routes
    Routes that operate at least 15 minutes on common segments, and normally every 30 minutes on branches (this becomes the vast majority given the reorganisation I propose).
    9x routes
    Routes that operate less frequently.
    Routes with letter designations
    Less frequent routes operated by suburban agencies (because that’s what they do now).
    1xx routes
    Limited-stop buses (second two digits corresponding to the equivalent local route, e.g. 30-York, 130-York Limited).
    For routes going downtown, the numbers would be organised by the street used to cross downtown, corresponding with colour coding on the map. They would be referred to by prefix number, which would be used to publicise the downtown circulator function of the corridors.
    1-Monument (Routes 10, 11)
    2-Saratoga (Routes 20, 21, 25)
    3-Baltimore/Fayette (Routes 30, 31, 35, 36, 130, 135)
    4-Lombard/Pratt (Routes 40, 41, 45, 140)
    5-Charles/St. Paul (Routes 50, 51, 55, 56)
    6-Paca/Greene (Routes 60, 61)
    Note the gaps in numbering. That’s used to provide routes with a lot in common with notably similar numbers. For example, the 40 and 41 run together from 39th to Brooklyn, and the 45 and 46 run together from Bedford Square to Southside Marketplace.
    7x routes are routes that follow orbital routes outside of downtown.
    8x routes connect with metro or light rail stations.
    It’s not necessary that everyone understands all of this from day one for such a system to be a success. Instead, as people use a system, they’re likely to gradually work out that the numbers mean to them – a 5x bus will take me to Penn Station; a 7x bus won’t take me downtown but will eventually meet the route of my bus home, etc. And that can then improve people’s confidence in using the network, which can only be a good thing.

  23. Zoltán August 17, 2011 at 11:46 am #

    n.b. when I say “the 40 and 41/ the 45 and 46” there, I clearly (to anyone that knows Baltimore) mean 50, 51, 55, 56.

  24. david vartanoff August 18, 2011 at 10:41 am #

    agreeing with others, my experience is that average riders don’t care about ## or letters, all they care about is a clean bus showing up getting them where they want to go on time. AC Transit has changed the 72P to the 73 to the 72M with no substantive change in route. This costs money re lettering the signage at zero benefit to riders.

  25. Bert Green August 18, 2011 at 6:25 pm #

    To expand on Carter R’s comment, in Los Angeles County the numbers are all significant. 1-99 denoted lines which begin or end in Downtown Los Angeles. 100-199 are east/west routes which do not enter downtown, 200-299 are north/south routes which do not enter downtown. 300-399 are limited stop buses, 400-499 are freeway express routes into downtown, 500-599 are freeway excess routes that do not enter downtown, 600-699 are community routes (sometime somewhat circuitous), 700-799 are the Rapid Lines, 800-899 are the rail lines, and 900-999 bus rapid transit or rail emulator lines.
    it seems complex but can be very useful in such a large service region. For example, since I live downtown, I know that I can take any line numbered lower than 99 and it will take me where I need to go. Of course, for regular riders, the numbers on the lines they need to ride are less important than how the routes conform to their needs.

  26. Viz August 20, 2011 at 2:02 pm #

    Some form of organisation relative to places served is useful when you have to look at a map with many lines. In Las Palmas (Canary Islands, Spain) lines are coloured according to the main corridor served (they used to do it by number series – 9 corridors served by numbers all starting with a 1, or a 2, etc, but with time routes ended up changing so much that many numbers were no longer “truthful”, but they were kept for the benefit of the locals, and the colours were introduced to organise the network again by corridor).
    In a map like London’s, for example, finding and even following bus routes is a nigtmare because there is no distinction. Compare the maps for Las Palmas (http://www.guaguas.com/docs/general.pdf) and London (http://www.tfl.gov.uk/assets/downloads/central-london-bus-map.pdf).
    I know the two cities have a different scale, but I think the point that the colours (or some other form of organization) helps find and follow lines is still valid when comparing them.
    If you’re interested I posted a more comprehensive description in the thread http://www.humantransit.org/2011/08/do-line-numbers-matter-at-all.html