Portland: New Transit Map Underscores Frequent Network

By Evan Landman

Evan Landman is an associate at my firm, Jarrett Walker & Associates, and serves as a research assistant and ghostwriter on this blog. He tweets on transit and other Portland topics at @evanlandman

For years on this blog and in our projects, we've stressed the importance of highlighting and emphasizing transit agencies' Frequent Networks on customer information of all kinds.  Portland's agency TriMet has traditionally been a best practice example here, given their extensive Frequent Network branding down to the individual stop level, but curiously, their system map has not embraced this idea so wholeheartedly. Today, TriMet's new system map changes that, introducing a cleaner, more readable map, which does a much better job of highlighting the agency's premier bus services. 

Let's compare the two, starting with the old map that has just been retired:

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 3.57.57 PM

Portland Central Eastside, TriMet map (early 2015)

This Southeast Portland shows the core of the city's Frequent Network. The Frequent Network is symbolized with a thicker line weight, but every line still has its own individual color, presumably to make it easier to trace each individual line across the network. However, the effect of this choice distracts from the important information contained in the line weight property, because the wide diversity of bright colors climbs to the top of the visual hierarchy, though the colors communicate nothing about the nature of the service on each line. 

The legibility of the map is not aided by the large number of points of interest shown, with both text and symbols frequent overlapping the most important features (the transit routes). TriMet's old map was certainly not a bad transit map by any means, and deserves enormous credit for being one of the first to explicitly show frequency at all, but in the years since, many of TriMet's peer agencies around the country have focused even more heavily on frequency to produce truly useful and innovative maps.

Now compare the image above with the same area of the new map:

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 3.57.38 PM

Portland Central Eastside, TriMet map (late 2015)
 
This is a map that truly focuses on communicating the usefulness of the transit routes. The most important factor for usefulness is frequency, which is obscured when every line on the map is the same color, or a different color, or colored by a less important attribute, like which corner of the city it serves. 
 
Here, weight and color are both deployed to differentiate the Frequent Network (heavy, dark blue) from other less frequent routes, but without the riot of color of the older map. When we compare the legends of each, the difference is subtle, but the when deployed on the map, the difference is dramatic.
TriMet Map ComparisonThis new map makes one thing very apparent: anywhere near a thick, dark blue line, a bus is always coming soon.
 
It is also a clearer, more traceable map! Where the old version employed the common convention of using color to distinguish routes and make it easy to tell where they travel across the city, the new map uses line displacement and simplification in a much more sophisticated manner to accomplish the same task.
 
For example, examine the path of the 10-Harold: on the old map, its line appears to end at Hawthorne and 12th, where it joins the 14-Hawthorne to head into downtown (it's actually beneath the 14's line, if you look closely). With the new map, it is much clearer that this route overlaps with the 14 in this segment, just by the way in which the two lines have been separated from one another. Now that color is now longer necessary to distinguish each route, it can be used for a more important purpose: showing frequency.
 
Apart from the increased focus on frequency, this map also succeeds by reducing the amount of non-transit information, with fewer points of interest labeled. Those that are present have symbols and labels drawn with a brown color much closer to that of the map's background, reducing the effect of collisions with transit features, and diminishing the level of visual "noise" competing with the transit network structure for the reader's attention.
 
It's fantastic to see an agency like TriMet continuing to work to improve its customer information. Even in the age of real-time data and mobile trip planning, a transit agency's map is often the only place where the entire system is documented in a way that an average person can understand. City transit networks are complex, and the best maps, like TriMet's, are designed to reduce that complexity, focusing on the most important aspects of the service for the people who ride it. 
 

17 Responses to Portland: New Transit Map Underscores Frequent Network

  1. Alyourpalster October 1, 2015 at 1:23 pm #

    I’m not sure why you folks think that 15 minute service is “frequent” cause its not.
    FREQUENT SERVICE is in reality every 8 minutes or less. A rider should never have to wait more than 10 minutes for service.
    Trimet definition of frequent service is 15 minute service, sorry that is not frequent service

  2. Jason McHuff October 1, 2015 at 1:35 pm #

    On some of the older maps, like the 2003 version I have, random colors are used but the Frequent Service routes have very thick lines, bigger labels and are quite prominent. The recent maps (but not the current map) were a step back from that.

  3. Jeff Wegerson October 1, 2015 at 8:02 pm #

    It is a strong step towards clarity and simplicity yet sophisticated. It is easy to read. If I can choose between 15 and 20 I would lean towards 20. Likewise between 71 and 75 I would lean towards 75.
    I do get lost in trying to understand how 6, 15 and 4 resolve on the west center part of the shown map. I assume that the detailed map of the City Center includes that area where I am confused.

  4. Martin October 2, 2015 at 4:43 am #

    I am designing a map for a network where most frequent routes are frequent only for the centre part of the route. Is it still a good idea to use different colors for frequent and infrequent routes, or is it better to use individual colors for each line, like the old map (with only line thickness to distinguish between frequent and infrequent routes). I guess it might be hard to follow routes that change colors along the route?
    Also, is it really a good idea to draw all routes that are less frequent than 15 minutes the same way? Should a 20 minute route be drawn in the same way as a 120 minute route?

  5. Cyndi October 2, 2015 at 8:28 am #

    Metro Transit in Minneapolis/St. Paul made similar changes on its system map in mid-2014. Instead of every route having a unique color, routes are categorized into one of four categories and mapped accordingly: frequent local buses, all day local buses, all day express routes and rush hour buses. Routes meeting the hi-frequency network standards are highlighted. Check it out at http://www.metrotransit.org

  6. Chris, Public Transport October 2, 2015 at 9:24 am #

    A major problem I had with the old map was that a lot of the streets buses went down were not named, so it was impossible to know what street to go to catch a bus without consulting a timetable. A good example was the never-ending squiggly marks on Route 51. Has this been fixed?

  7. Wells October 4, 2015 at 8:52 am #

    Portland’s transit mall IMO could be more intuitive by changing the ABCD/WXYZ arrangement. Drop the WXYZ entirely and designate ABCD to the same blocks, ie, Blocks ABCD on both 5th & 6th Aves, etc. Patrons would then exit and reboard buses on the same block the same way MAX stations are on the same block. I’d arrange AB, ABC, ABCD blocks in a northbound configuration, then a Block ‘E’ at ‘Big Pink’ on Burnside, a Block ‘F’ at Everett, and a Block ‘G’ near Union Station.

  8. Alon Levy October 4, 2015 at 5:14 pm #

    Like Jeff, I’m confused by the 4, 6, 14, and 15. When buses run on the same streets for a few blocks, distinguishing different routes by color becomes precious.

  9. Jarrett October 4, 2015 at 8:34 pm #

    Alyourpalster. Adequate frequency varies by trip distance so 15 has always been a rule of thumb. But if I insisted on 8 we wouldn’t have a frequent network, because TriMet is far too poor to afford that.
    Martin. There’s some justification for the notion that the strongest differentiations on a map should be frequent vs infrequent and all day vs peak only. These are very nonlinear break points in quality that imply a qualitative difference in the customer experience.
    Wells. Do not get me started on the ABCD WXYZ system on the mall.
    Alon. Note that Portland’s grid network is so clean that there are few places with that kind of overlap, mostly approaching the bridgeheads. One might have argued for extending the downtown inset east to handle this area. Or not.

  10. Thomas K Ohlsson October 5, 2015 at 4:10 am #

    Re Jarret: “Adequate” frequency may vary by trip distance, but if you want the perception of the frequent network to be “just wait and soon a bus/train/whatever will come” then the frequency can not be to low. Even for a bus trip that takes an hour I don´t want to stand waiting for nearly 15 minutes because I´ve just missed the bus – in that case I would rather consult the timetable before leaving home.
    My personal wiew is that the maximum intervall is about 10 minutes, maybe stretched to 12 minutes, in a frequent network.
    But the tolerance of course varies – my son is always consulting the online timetable before going to school, even though the bus runs every 4-5 minutes… he just don´t like waiting at the bus stop!

  11. calwatch October 5, 2015 at 10:21 am #

    Frequent networks need to be based on the system involved. In Portland, I think 15 would be adequate, but in cities like New York or Chicago I would prefer using 10-12 as a cutoff. You could also have a different color for super-frequent service, routes that operate every 10 minutes or less during the base period. Right now the Portland map looks kind of drab with all the color voided from it, although there is the benefit of looking better when printed out in black and white.

  12. Fbfree October 5, 2015 at 8:46 pm #

    @calwatch
    True. Pretty much every route in Chicago or New York runs every 20 minutes all day every day (except for peak only routes that are already reasonably well labeled on maps.) There is more variation in span of service in Chicago, thus the route-by-route list of service spans on the back of the map and at every bus stop.

  13. Ross Bleakney October 6, 2015 at 8:59 am #

    I think the new map is quite good. The little snippet doesn’t do it justice. Most of the color on the map is reserved for the rail service, a reasonable choice. This leaves very little color available for the buses; the designers chose one (blue). Given that, they broke it down into three levels: frequent, standard and rush hour.
    My biggest problem is that I have no idea what frequent means. Maybe that is explained on the other side. It is also somewhat arbitrary. What if a bus barely misses the “frequent” cutoff, while another bus travels half as often. Having only two levels is not that helpful.
    Consider this map based on a restructure proposal — http://tinyurl.com/q6gxnr7. NOTE: This is a fictional maps, based on a proposed restructure (http://seattletransitblog.com/2013/08/19/your-bus-much-more-often-no-more-money-really/) — if you go to Seattle and expect to take a bus based on this map, you will be disappointed. There are several things I like about the map:
    1) There are several levels of frequency (five if you count light rail).
    2) It is clear what that frequency is.
    3) The map uses a standard street map as a background, allowing you to zoom in and out.
    My problem with this map is that it lacks the following item:
    4) Each color should progress in an intuitive manner. The color progression (from frequent to infrequent) is grey, yellow, red, green, blue. This reminds me of weather maps, where they switch from grey scale to color, yet have no obvious meaning to the color. To be fair to the author, the lines also vary by thickness (which is intuitive).
    There are a few ways that this can be fixed. One would be to stick with a single hue, and then vary the intensity (darker means more frequent). This could be problematic with a busy background. There has to be enough contrast with the street layout. Another option is a divergent palette (e. g. red to blue). There are issues with color blindness of course, but that could easily work. Another option if you only have three or four different values is to use green, yellow, red and black. Traffic maps are often shown this way. It is very intuitive, since it corresponds to traffic signals. Unfortunately, I don’t think it works that well with buses (is green most frequent, or least frequent?). But at least you would assume that yellow is in between.
    Regardless, if bus routes are shown with color, I suggest that the colors be as bright as possible. An example of this is Green Trails Maps, which makes a series of hiking maps in the Northwest. These maps have become quite popular in part because they emphasize the trails. Despite picking the color green, the trails “pop out” because they are so bright. Most of the background is green (the background is a USGS map, where green represents forest) yet the trails are so bright that you can see them easily even if you are of a certain age and forgot your reading glasses.
    Balancing these different ideas are tricky. Varying hues (one suggestion) could easily lead to a very faded, muted map. But if you are only showing three or four levels of surface (and I would only show that) then it should be possible to come up with a color pattern that works.
    Reference (I’m sure there are plenty of others out there): http://www.perceptualedge.com/articles/visual_business_intelligence/rules_for_using_color.pdf

  14. Michael October 9, 2015 at 4:55 pm #

    Concerning the comments about the 15 minute frequency not being good enough.
    London Transport actually did survey’s into this, and found that people will “turn-up-and-go” without looking at a schedule, is a bus service operates every 12 minutes or better.
    London Transport aims to have as many bus routes as possible operate every 12 minutes or better.
    15 tends to be the frequency most cities use, including some cities in Europe. Toronto and Montreal seems to be two cities which hold the standard much higher, with a 10 minute service.

  15. Eric October 11, 2015 at 1:27 am #

    If you look REALLY closely (at the PDF), you can see that the 4, 6, 14, and 15 meet using curves rather than 90-degree corners. Based on how these curves merge, you can figure out which way each of the routes runs.
    However, the radius of the curves is so small that it looks like a 90 degree angle. So in this part of the map, the curve radius should be increased.
    Alternatively, the multiple fat lines could be drawn parallel to each other rather than merging.

  16. yvrlutyens October 17, 2015 at 11:04 am #

    Good that they put out these maps in image files as well as pdf. For most people, the pdf is just a nuisance. But the bus routes downtown are still pretty opaque even on the inset. You can nearly figure out the route of the 15 by looking at the stops on the transit mall inset, but they really make you work for that. And the orange for the orange line is too burnt for my eyes. Could have picked an orange equidistant from both the yellow and the red.

  17. calwatch October 26, 2015 at 10:31 am #

    The benefit of PDF is its ability to be archived and zoomable on tablets and phones. I store my local agency’s bus books and schedules on PDF on my phone and it is a lot handier to access than web based schedules, like what you might find on the Trimet and King County Metro web sites. I know a lot of people dog on PDF but I prefer it.

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