even with gps, we still need north

North arrowFrom a NYT article by Julia Frankenstein arguing that relying on narrative GPS for navigation ("turn left 1/4 mile") can atrophy your ability to remember maps of your city:

In one experiment, I had 26 residents of Tübingen, Germany, navigate a three-dimensional model of their hometown by wearing head-mounted displays. My team and I asked them to point to well-known locations around town not visible from their current perceived position.

Varying their viewing direction — facing north, facing east — we then assessed their pointing error. All participants performed best when facing one particular direction, north, and the pointing error increased with increasing deviation from north. In other words, by using knowledge gained from navigation to link their perceived position to the corresponding position on a city map, participants could easily retrieve the locations from their memory of city maps — which, after all, are typically oriented north.

To a spatial navigator like me, this is obvious.  But the sample must have included at least a few narrative navigators, people who prefer to navigate with directions rather than maps, and even these people have a sense of north that organizes their understanding of the city.

A great deal of navigational technology is designed and focus-grouped with people who don't like to think with maps.  Hertz's Neverlost GPS, for example, no longer allows me to pin north to the top of a map, as earlier versions did.  Instead the map rotates crazily every time I turn, which helps orient to my line of sight but undermines my ability to relate the map to any larger understanding of the city.  I understand that many people prefer the map to be oriented to their point of view, but in fact, we still seem to need the map with north at the top, because as Ms.Frankenstein showed, people have a better sense of what's where when facing that way.

All this comes back, as it often does, to transit maps.  Often it seems like transit maps are designed by people who don't like maps as information, though they may appreciate them as design. But maps are still important.  Spatial navigators like me can't navigate without them, and even narrative navigators have them in their brains, with a north-arrow.

do line numbers matter at all?

Does anyone care how the lines or routes of a transit system are numbered?  Commenters Chris and Paul Jewel, the latter a former colleague of mine, say no.   They're responding to this line numbering scheme proposed by LANTA in Allentown-Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which even makes a line numbering distinction based solely on whether a route runs on Saturday. Chris's example-rich comment boils down to this:

Route design is what makes the transit system easy to understand, not what you number the routes.

Paul Jewel piles on:

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.

If I may update my earlier post on this topic (which is considerably funnier than this one):  Line numbering is really a dialogue between four impulses:

  1. Big-picture Visionaries, who imagine schemes where each number will not just refer to a line, but reveal its position and role in the network.  They want the customer to be able to identify her service amid the complexity of the offerings, but also to find it easy to grasp the whole network and how its parts fit together, so that it's less threatening to use transit for something other than a single rigid commute.   For example, these people may think up schemes that recall the patterns of numbered streets and avenues in many North American cities, or the similar numbering of the US Interstate system.  Visionaries, in their extreme form, can sometimes become …
  2. Perfectionists, who believe that a line number, properly chosen, can encode all the richness and complexity of a service, so that to those in the know, the number 834 will tell you where the bus runs, what node it feeds into, how frequent it is, what color the bus is, whether it runs on Saturday, and whether you can expect the driver to be courteous.
  3. Anarchists, who need a number for a new line, don't care about the vision, and pick whatever number comes to mind. 
  4. Conservatives, who believe that once a line number is assigned it should never be changed, no matter how offensive it may be to the Visionaries, let alone the Perfectionists.  Conservatives are responsible for the permanence of various reckless numberings made by Anarchists over the years.

Paul and Chris have spoken for the Anarchists, but we've heard from a few Visionaries and Perfectionists on the last post as well.  Conservatives on this score don't tend to read transit blogs.

I agree that when perfectionists run wild, you get overly specific line numbering systems.   When I hear of a scheme where, say, the first digit of a three-digit number signifies subarea, the second signifies type, and the third signifies the node served, my first thought is :"You're going to run out of numbers. In fact, you already have."

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 9
  • Any route numbered in the 30s
  • Route 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 or Anarchist pattern of numbers is ideal. It's also clearly true that lower numbers 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 that the suburbs require.

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.  The letters cause the Rapid Ride to "stand out" as a backbone, just as the agency intends, much the way the lettered rail lines do in San Francisco against the background of numbered bus lines.

Here's the bottom line:  Numbers, like words, never just refer.  They also connote.  You can refer to a particular bus route as F, 9, J2, 76, or 239K, but those numberings will inevitably convey subliminal messages about those services, especially in relation to the other numbers around them.  "239K" for example, connotes that "this is a really complicated network, where you deal with details even to remember a line number, let alone figure out the service."  Likewise, if you see a long segment served by lines 121, 123, 124, and 127, the connotation is that the 120s represent some kind of pattern that might be useful in understanding the service.  It's almost impossible not to refer to this segment as "the 120s".

 So do line numbers matter?  What do you think?

what maps should be at stops and stations?

Yesterday I linked to a fine polemic by Kerwin Datu of the Global Urbanist, regarding London's much-imitated wayfinding system.  Datu reserved particular scorn for the "spider maps" presented at certain stops and stations, which show you only the bus lines that emanate from there.  Maps like this one.  (This is actually the west half of a map showing bus routes from the bright yellow area where the map would be posted.)

Buses from Farringdon (West End)


Datu's quip again:

These maps, which TfL call 'spider maps', fail at the very first task: helping you identify your destination. Normally, once you've found where you're going on a map, you work backwards to where you are. But not here. On these spider maps, you are only shown where the closest bus routes want to take you, not where you want to go. It's like the old joke they tell beyond the Pale: when asking a local for directions one is told, 'well, if that's where you want to go, I wouldn't start from here!'

The maps have many defenders, however, so I should expand on why Datu's polemic resonates with me.

First of all, of course, the London maps only make sense at all in a network where all bus lines can be assumed to be frequent.  That's true in inner London but not in many of the systems that imitate it.   If we show the customer a big, bright line direct from their location to their destination, we're conveying an impression of physical existence.  The bright line looks like a physical thing, like a road, not just the site of an occasional service event.  The whole point of Frequent Network mapping, of frequent buses and rapid transit, is that we want people to make exactly that association, to see frequent services as always there ready for them to use.

But when we use such a bright line to refer to an hourly or peak-only or nighttime-only service, we undermine that message and give a misleading impression.  Strong lines on the map suggest continuous existence on analogy with rapid transit lines, but these infrequent and short-span lines don't exist most of the time. They are probably not there when you need them.

All that, of course, is part of the case for transit maps that reflect frequency/span categories, both emphasising frequent and long-span services and specifically de-emphasising ephemeral ones like peak-only or night-only services.

But there's a more specific issue with spider maps or "buses from here" maps.  They promote single-seat rides while concealing connection opportunities.  More generally, they discourage people from discovering how to navigate the complete network.

There are contexts where this is fine.  At an outer suburban station where the only bus services are local circulators and links to a few nearby suburbs, the "spider map" allows the customer to see the complete local network without having to find it in a massive map of the whole system.

But there's a different way to organize mapping at stops/stations that might be both more truthful and would help people see more clearly (a) the structure of frequent services that are easy to use even with connections and (b) the necessary detail for all services in a local area.  That would be to provide two maps:

  • A Frequent Network map for the entire city (or if the city is as big as London, maybe a large subarea of the city).   This map would have a prominent "you are here" mark, but its function would to say "here's everywhere you can go from here, on service that's available right now."  (You could simplify this map by deleting some Frequent services that would not conceivably be useful on any possible trip from "here," but if you think broadly there usually aren't many of those.)  This map would also convey a very useful subliminal message: "here is where you are in your city, and in your network."   At least for spatial navigators, this map has a useful long-term value in helping people internalize the network so that they can navigate it more freely and spontaneously in the future. 
  • A local area map, showing all routes emanating from "here" (or perhaps all routes with those from "here" highlighted) but just out to a radius of several km.  The ideal radius is the distance beyond which you should usually be looking for rapid line, possibly with a connection, rather than a local bus line from "here."  The local area map should be strongly coded to highlight Frequent services and downplay peak-only and other short-span services. 

In both cases, lines exiting the map area should be labelled at the edge with any more distant destinations that you would logically use that line, from "here," to reach.  (That may not be all the places the line goes.)

This approach would not lead the customer as precisely as a spider map or "buses from here" map does, but nor would it mislead the customer as much as those maps can sometimes do.  Sometimes, the fastest way to get from here to there involves making a connection, but the connection may be very easy and very frequent, and we should resist mapping styles that conceal those opportunities. 

That's my instinct, but maybe it's just my prejudice.  What do you think?



london: questioning sacred maps

Buses from Farringdon (West End)

Are you tired of hearing that London does everything right when it comes to transit?  Do you wonder if the mapping styles widely copied from London are always the best?   Are you even open to the heresy that London's famous Underground map, despite its global reach as an image, may be less than perfect?  Then you'll enjoy Kerwin Datu's affectionate take-down of London's information system, at the Global Urbanist.  My favorite bit, about the image above:

These maps, which TfL call 'spider maps', fail at the very first task: helping you identify your destination. Normally, once you've found where you're going on a map, you work backwards to where you are. But not here. On these spider maps, you are only shown where the closest bus routes want to take you, not where you want to go. It's like the old joke they tell beyond the Pale: when asking a local for directions one is told, 'well, if that's where you want to go, I wouldn't start from here!'

UPDATE:  Excellent arguments in London's defense, in the comments.  More responsible followup by me here.

chicago: living the grid

If you visit Chicago, and a local friend tells you to meet her at the Western "L" station, then either (a) she's not really your friend or (b) she isn't as local as she claims.  There are five stations called Western in the Chicago rapid transit network:

Five westerns

These duplicate names arise from naming stations solely after a cross street, without reference to the street or path the rail line is following.

But the secret language of Chicago transit desires is even more subtle.  If your friend tells you to meet her at Western Brown Line station, she's probably a local, but if she directs you to Western Blue Line station, you're still in trouble.  As you can see above, there are two.  This one is the more scenic, but note the absence of any signage that might distinguish it from the other one:


Although there are a small handful of duplicate station names in other New World gridded cities (one pair in Buenos Aires, four pairs in Cleveland, two pairs in Philadelphia), New York City is the only system I know of where you'll see the same naming style used in force. 

Nyc 23 st

Few agencies, however, would give the same name to two stations on the same line, as Chicago does.  Toronto, one of the few big cities that's as relentlessly gridded as Chicago, is obviously at pains to avoid it.  Their U-shaped north-south subway line crosses many main streets twice, and in each case they append "West" to the name of the more westerly of the two. 

Los Angeles, like Chicago, has a long Western Avenue that has two stations where different branches of a rail line cross it.  But they didn't call both stations "Western."  They used the full co-ordinates:  "Wilshire/Western" as opposed to "Hollywood/Western."

How do Chicagoans cope with all these duplicate names, even on the same line? No big deal, says Jeff Busby, a Chicago-sourced transit planner now at Vancouver's TransLink:

In partial answer to your question, I would observe that the grid is an overriding organizing element for Chicagoans.  Everyone knows that State and Madison is 0N/S & 0E/W and coordinates are powerful for knowing where you are and how to get somewhere else.  Station platform signs give the N/S & E/W coordinates.  Station names that reinforce their location in the grid are valuable.  I know that Ashland is 1600W and Western is 2400W so that new restaurant I’ve never been to at 2200W is probably closer to the Western station.

To minimize clutter on the system map, stations are generally named for the arterial that crosses perpendicular to the rail line, but in the local language (and the on-board announcements) they are known by both cross streets. For example, the Loop stations are known as State/Lake, Clark/Lake, Randolph/Wabash, Library-State/Van Buren, etc even though they are abbreviated on maps as State, Clark, Randolph and Library.

In this sense, having five "Western" stations is not as confusing at it might seem.  First, it immediately orients you to where they are — on Western Avenue, accessible by the 49-Western bus that travels from Berwyn (5300N) south to 79th (7900S), and a local suggesting that you meet at the “Western L station” would probably use a different term (from North to South):

  • Western (Brown Line) – Lincoln Square (after the neighborhood)
  • Western (O’Hare Blue Line) – Western/Milwaukee
  • Western (Forest Park Blue Line) – Western/Congress (or Eisenhower)
  • Western (Pink Line) – Western/Cermak
  • Western (Orange Line) – Probably Western – Orange Line as it’s not on a major E/W arterial

Indeed, the near universal repetition of grid number coordinates is a striking thing in Chicago.  You'll find them on every streetsign and every platform station name sign.


So it really is possible to ignore all the street names and navigate a city of co-ordinates, much as you would do in Utah cities where you'll encounter street names like "7200 South Street". 

Unique features of a transit system are often keys to the spirit of the city.  Grids were fundamental to the rapid settlement of the midwest and west, so for Chicago — a city built on commerce to and from those regions — the strong grid is an expression of the city's economic might.  All cities have street networks, but few cities attach such strong symbolic value to the nature of their street network, or celebrate it so explicitly. 

And its certainly true that if you ignore the street names and embrace Chicago's numerical grid, there's never any doubt where you are, but of course that implies a sense of "where" that is itself grid-defined.  I'm sure Parisians take pride in the complete gridlessness of their city, and would say that "Place de la Bastille" is a much more satisfying answer to the question "where?" than any grid coordinates would be.  But then, Paris wasn't built to conquer a frontier.


washington: what makes a great subway map?

Washington metro What should Washington Metro's next subway map look like?  Greater Greater Washington is running a map contest where you can compare a number of designs, and choose your favorite.  Can you improve on the existing one, pictured here?

Even if you're nowhere near Washington, perusing these maps will help you articulate your own views.  For example:

  • Should a subway map be largely to scale, so that you can see the distances invovled, or distorted so that complex areas are easy to see?
  • How much detail about the surrounding geography should be shown?
  • Should it show non-subway services that also provide important links between stations?  In Washington, for example, all the subway lines go downtown, so many other services (bus, future light rail) are useful for connecting between outer parts of different lines.  Should the whole web of those possibilities be shown?

Go vote!  GGW has done a great job cultivating public interest in transit details, and steering the public debate toward clearer thought about these practicalities.  Help them out!

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.

bus signage can be beautiful

… so long as you find beauty in anything that conveys a vast amount of content in the least possible space, or with the least possible complexity. 

38 GEARY V A Hosp Crop

Perhaps this is a distinctly Zen sense of beauty, but it's also close to what mathematicians and scientists often mean by elegance

If you know San Francisco, you know where Geary Blvd. is and you probably have a sense that the VA Hospital is out toward the west end of it somewhere.  So this sign tells you a surprisingly complete story about what this bus does.  This makes it useful not just as information but also as gentle passive advertising.  Anyone can notice this sign out of the corner of their eye, and pick up a bit of information about the transit system ("there's a bus heading out Geary from here … good to know …")

For decades, San Francisco and Portland have used this simple style for all of their signage.  I discussed how it works in Portland here.  Even back in transit's "age of vinyl," San Francisco used separate roller signs for name and destination, so that they could present the same information in the same pattern consistently.  (Photos were also blurrier back then!)

35 EUREKA to Market

Many other cities, including Sydney and Seattle, habitually turn it upside down, so on the 38 above they might have said "38 VA HOSPITAL via Geary."  A Sydney sign might read "380 DOVER BCH via Oxford St."  I find that less intuitive, because the path the bus follows is usually more useful than the final destination in determining if the service is useful to you.  Still, it's understandable in Sydney where street names change so frequently that it's hard to associate bus routes with them, as "38 GEARY" does.

But this post is actually an information request.  Have you seen bus exterior signs that convey a lot of information briefly in an interesting way, either examples of the above or of other ideas?  If so, please link or send them to me.  I'm collecting them for a project. 

Meanwhile, for a more literary perspective on bus signage, see here!

email of the week: should blue lines have blue buses?

From a longtime Canberra-based reader:

PB150032 In your latest post on [San Francisco] bus wrap art, you refer to your fondness for colour-coding of buses, etc for different service.  For instance in Canberra, this would see the Red Rapid using red coloured buses, the Blue Rapid using Blue coloured buses, and so on.
[JW:  The Red Rapid and Blue Rapid are the two frequent rapid corridors that connect the major dense nodes of Canberra to each other, with widely-spaced stops.  They are the top priority for bus lanes and other speed/reliability improvements.]
Which I personally think is great in promotion of the service, making the service stand out – it also helps give a rapid bus (which isn't run solely on transitways) an identity akin to a light rail line.
However, I've always found that schedulers don't like it as it limits the general number of vehicles available to run a network. It also removes the ability to use a vehicle in one service type and have it continue its run on a rapid route – thereby removing a connection for some passengers  …  And I'm sure there's a whole stack of other reasons which schedulers and operators will through up in relation to this.
So, I guess the question is, given that this is more of an aesthetic improvement … do the benefits measure up to the costs?

Seoul, South Korea went a long way with this idea, branding all their buses with four colors that indicate different functions in the network (Trunk, Branch, Rapid, or Circulator).  Paint schemes are often used to distinguished closed Bus Rapid Transit [BRT] systems (systems where buses do not flow through onto other corridors, but remain confined within the BRT infrastructure.)
DSCN2405    DSCN2519
Los Angeles Metro has painted their fleet two colors, red for Rapid and orange for Local.  Even with two colors, the "Local" is problematic.  Orange really means "everything but Rapid," including limited-stop and freeway-express services that wouldn't satisfy anyone's definition of a "local."
And even so, sometimes you see an orange bus on a Rapid line, or vice versa.  I've never seen a painted color scheme where this never occurred; sometimes the dispatcher needs a red bus and all he has are orange ones.  Sometimes an orange bus breaks down and the nearest available spare is red.  You'd rather we didn't send out a bus at all? 

I do think, however, we could be doing much more with signage to highlight color-based brands. 

online “map movies”: useful?

Can animation help people understand their transit options?  The Rotherham Metro Borough Council in the UK has done some simple "map movies" that highlight the paths followed by buses and trains.  Here's a still:

Rotherham map movie still

Watch the actual animation here.

As they stand, they're limited in usefulness, as the icons move along the routes with no indication of frequency.  They certainly do advertise complexity, which is accurate; this looks like a very complicated network.

But it's easy to imagine taking this to the next step, showing by animation the scheduled paths of all the services in a transit system.  This would be especially helpful in helping citizens understand pulse systems, where the integrated scheduling pattern is an essential part of how the network gets you where your going.  Now that I think of it, I'm pretty sure this has been done, but I've never seen it on a public information website, which is the obvious next step.