From Portland’s newly rebuilt transit mall, here’s a great example of the idea that clear information is the best marketing.
Every transit line goes TO some endpoint VIA some street or intermediate destination. But which matters more, the TO or the VIA? Which should be emphasized in the naming of a route and the signage on buses and stops? Both, if you can do it succinctly. But if you have to choose, think about where on the route you are and what information is most likely to be useful there.
Many agencies still make these decisions largely out of habit, missing chances to make their service legible. For example, consider Line 12, a major Frequent Bus line in Portland, Oregon. (Download sharper PDF here: Download 012.)
If you see the bus on 6th Avenue in downtown Portland, the electric sign on the front and sides of the bus will present a nirvana of legibility:
If you know Portland, you know where Sandy Boulevard and Gresham are. That brief sign tells you a lot about what this bus is going to do. You may not know that TC stands for transit center, but even if you don’t, this sign tells you that there’s a bus going out Sandy Blvd. as far as Gresham. The sign does more than identify which bus this is; it also provides a subliminal marketing function, by informing everyone who sees the bus that there is a bus out Sandy Blvd. to Gresham from right here.
It says “12 To Gresham TC.” No mention of Sandy Blvd. That doesn’t make sense. At major centers with lots of services to choose from, the VIA is even more important than the TO. If you’re in downtown Portland and you want to go to Gresham, you don’t want Line 12, you want light rail. But if you’re in downtown Portland and you want to go anywhere on Sandy Blvd., you do want Line 12, in this direction at this stop. Tri-Met missed an obvious opportunity to convey that information in a place where it would have served well as marketing — a place where lots of people walk by.
To be fair, this isn’t specifically a transit mall problem; Tri-Met’s stop signs fail to give the VIA information anywhere, even at other transit centers where it’s the more important than the TO. San Francisco MTA, for example, always gives you both.
On this typical San Francisco sign, the all-caps text is a streetname (i.e. the VIA information) while the TO information is just below it.
If you like legibility as much as I do, watching buses on the Portland transit mall can be a real pleasure, because most of them display prominent electric signs that tell you as much as they can, in just a few words, about where this bus is going. Their cumulative effect is a sensation that a lot of the city is easy to reach from right where you are. To anyone who knows Portland, there’s very little mystery about signs such as:
4 DIVISION / to 122nd Avenue
9 POWELL / to 98th Avenue
19 GLISAN / to Gateway
58 CANYON RD / To Beaverton
Because these signs flash so prominently in a place where most of Portland will walk by at one time or another, I suspect they do a lot of good subliminal marketing. You would have to be pretty self-absorbed to walk down 5th Avenue every day and not learn that there’s a bus from here going out Division Street. If someday that fact turns out to be useful in your life, there’s a chance you’ll remember.
Transit services, including bus services, can be pretty legible, if your transit agency cares enough to get it right. How is your city doing?