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. 

39 Responses to email of the week: should blue lines have blue buses?

  1. Daniel February 8, 2011 at 2:47 pm #

    While using a single livery perhaps helps advertise the existence of a network, individual liveries for particular routes or route groups helps as well… we’re seeing that emerge from the new “Smartbus” routes along Lonsdale Street in Melbourne, where the differing livery is a prompt to indicate those routes share a common route.

  2. troymccluresf February 8, 2011 at 3:03 pm #

    Before getting the electronic signs that almost all buses sue nowadays, San Francisco Muni’s mechanical signs used to have color-coded backgrounds for the types on lines. The 38 Geary had several types of lines- regular/local was black, limited was green, and the two expresses were red and white. Here’s a picture of a red express:
    It wasn’t the whole bus, but I can say the San Franciscans were well-trained in spotting those colors.

  3. anonymouse February 8, 2011 at 3:10 pm #

    In LA, there was originally supposed to also be a blue fleet, for the freeway express buses (the 4xx and 5xx routes). I think only a few were painted in that color and used on the freeway-only routes like the 450X. Anyway, you don’t need to paint the bus itself, you can just have a colorful sign, either with paint or LEDs.

  4. Dave February 8, 2011 at 3:42 pm #

    I agree with the LED numbering idea. It’s pretty easy to get displays that number in at least 3 colours, which would be enough for separating express, local and one other category (eg peak-only) routes. It would enable you to determine if the bus you were after was likely to be relevant prior to being able to visualise the actual number. And probably a lot cheaper and more versatile than painting/wrapping a whole bus.
    The alternative could be full-colour displays (basically LED TVs) providing the backlight can be made bright enough. Should be easy enough to mount where the current route information is typically displayed, and they are getting very cheap now (especially conisdered relative to the cost of new bus).
    You could easily get 10 readily distinguishable colours with that, enabling grouping of common routes under a certain colour, etc, and keep versatility.
    We worry about seat design, ride comfort – but most new buses I’ve seen are running external display technology similar to that observed a decade ago, and if you’re required to hail buses, this is as critical a part of the usability/experience as the internal aspects of design.

  5. EngineerScotty February 8, 2011 at 3:48 pm #

    Paint busses to reflect service types? Heck, TriMet (Portland) still has a good number of busses (and MAX trains) painted with the old ugly white/red/orange/brown livery, rather than the newer (and slightly less ugly) white/yellow/blue livery.
    Portland Streetcar, on the other hand, goes in the opposite direction of this post–it has several different colors for its trains (generally solids like red, blue, and yellow)–which signify utterly nothing. Even when the Eastside Loop opens next year, and the service gets more than a single line, there won’t be any attempt to use livery color to distinguish between the two lines in operation; they’ll be distinguished by signage, like everything else.
    That said, use of different livery makes more sense when the actual equipment is different–a local example would be Lane Transit District’s EmX BRT service (two-tone green and white) and the local service (mostly white, with trim in various colors). The BRT busses are a completely different model (having dual-sided doors, middle boarding, etc). and aren’t interchangeable with the local service, so the differing paint jobs aren’t a problem.

  6. In Brisbane February 8, 2011 at 3:53 pm #

    In Brisbane we do not, by and large, do this. We just use normal buses and use the destination sign at the front to say whether it is a BUZ, express, rocket, bullet or whatever.
    And I think that’s the way to go- it saves money that can be used on services. We don’t even have special “BRT” buses either. Signs at bus stops and bus stops themselves are used to brand the service.
    There are a handful of exceptions: The CityGlider, Spring Hill loop and free city loop bus are branded.
    Most other buses are plain or wrapped in all-covering advertising. Its doesn’t seem that hard to change, and on the rare occasions that a bus needs to ‘break character’ the destination sign at the front changes- so it is no big deal.

  7. JJJ February 8, 2011 at 4:38 pm #

    Geneva buses use the LED color display idea.
    Curitiba has a color for each route. Green = ring routes, white = hospital routes, silver = road express, red = brt express, etc.

  8. NCarlson February 8, 2011 at 5:11 pm #

    I would have to agree that for the most part this isn’t really worth the trouble, although I don’t mind it with a true BRT service that is distinctly improved over base routes. On the note of vehicles invariably getting shifted from time to time though I’ve never seen in happen with York Region Transit’s VIVA service (everywhere else I see it a lot), has anyone seen it there? I have a suspicion that the contractual setup means it wouldn’t be allowed come to think of it, so maybe a dumb question actually.

  9. Matt T February 8, 2011 at 5:43 pm #

    Matching the bus colours might be a bit hard, but you’d think that getting train station colours right would be a bit easier.
    In Adelaide, South Australia, Oaklands and Hallet Cove Beach train stations have opened in a lovely orange colour scheme. See for instance:
    Of course the in-car maps show the Noarlunga line as blue.
    The Adelaide Metro has a fine tradition firstly of not being a metro, and secondly entertaining us with unreadable maps and timetables. Now there are random colours. Thankyou Adelaide Metro, you’ve excelled yourselves again.

  10. Beta Magellan February 8, 2011 at 5:46 pm #

    These issues also come up in the world of rail—after Chicago switched from line names to colors in the 1990’s, the CTA briefly considered painting coordinating stripes on trains. In a totally-interoperable system with multiples lines operating from the same yard and different yards compensating for capacity issues in others, though, it was decided that having color-coordinated livery would be too much trouble (though when they introduced the Pink Line in 2006—a service alteration, not an extension—the CTA temporarily painted entire trains pink, a la rolling pepto-bismol tablets).
    In contrast, Boston’s trains are painted the same color as their line. Although the color names are more entrenched in Boston (I think it may have been the first in North America to use color designations for heavy rail), but the MBTA’s lines are also incompatible, so there’s little downside to giving each line a distinct livery.

  11. Steve Lax February 8, 2011 at 6:29 pm #

    As stated, color coding impedes to some degree fleet flexibility (and may also increase cost by increasing spare vehicle requirement) It is also no help to people who are color-blind.
    The key to identifying a bus which one is running to catch (on multi-route streets) will always be the route number (and other information on the destination sign if the route has branches, short-terms, or locals and expresses using the same route number). One way to address this is destination signs on all four sides of the bus. The front sign is the full route number and route name/end point information. Signs on the other three sides are for route number only. (I know of systems with front, rear, and door-side route number signs. I don’t know of any systems with driver side route number signs.)
    Additionally, route number groupings can be used as a marketing device, either to define local versus express versus BRT type routes or to define geographic areas that routes serve. However, in talking with many system users over my years in the transit industry, all most people want is to know the route(s) they need.

  12. anon February 8, 2011 at 7:29 pm #

    Boulder, CO has a number of buses painted specifically for the most frequent lines (SKIP and DASH), with the name in large letters on the side, but generic buses with a regular headsign are also sometimes used for those lines. I don’t know how many other places do this but it seems like a way to establish a brand without limiting flexibility too much.

  13. Tessa February 8, 2011 at 10:34 pm #

    What about some sort of light or LED or projection thing where the bus can change colour? It would probably be much more complicated and just maybe a power-suck the more complex you wanted it, but it could maybe work. Even if you just changed the colour of the LED display that tells you where the bus is going that could go a long way to branding a bus line, couldn’t it?

  14. francis February 9, 2011 at 12:32 am #

    While painting vehicles may not work the best, painting stations or parts of the stations might be a better idea.
    Aside from being unfriendly to colorblind people, color coding lines also has some other quirks, for example…
    LA had concerns that red and blue line colors would lead to gang associations, though in the end it wasn’t an issue.
    In Taiwan political parties are color-coded (much more so than the US red state/blue state situation) and a few years ago when the green-coded party took office the main line was changed to the “green line”. The stations were color coded, however, leading to a mismatch between station color and line color on the maps. The line color was changed back later.

  15. Dexter Wong February 9, 2011 at 1:18 am #

    An idea like that goes all the way back to when the cable car was popular (the 1880s). The companies painted their cars according to their assigned lines. However during periods when one line was much more popular than another, there were no more cars to put out (without confusing the riders). This led to the development of the dash sign and the roll sign (ancestor of today’s digital sign) on a fleet with one paint scheme. I think it is more flexible to have signs which can change color to match the service rather than have a fleet which is painted to reflect a particular service.

  16. BBnet3000 February 9, 2011 at 8:35 am #

    AC Transit (East Bay Area) has colored screens on the front of at least some of their buses. I think they do use it to distinguish “rapid” (really limited) buses from normal ones, besides the R on the end of the line number.
    At night the bus screen being lit up bright magenta really stands out.

  17. anonymouse February 9, 2011 at 10:08 am #

    From what I hear, the colored headsigns on AC Transit actually directly correspond to the colors on the map. And the map has no red lines anymore because the police or Caltrans decided that red headsigns are not allowed on the front of a bus.

  18. david vartanoff February 9, 2011 at 10:13 am #

    Indeed fleet interoperability rules, especially in any system w/ less than stellar maintenance. As troy pointed out, the old roller curtain signs were very good at letting riders know which one to board. Now that LED/LCD screens are cheaper/brighter we should use that method. Wasting fleet $$ on spares to preserve a look is a disservice to riders.

  19. EngineerScotty February 9, 2011 at 10:20 am #

    Many modern transit vehicles do have color-coded LEDs as part of their electronic signage; MAX Type IV trains have this, for instance. (Older MAX vehicles with pre-printed signage include a colored dot on the sign).

  20. David D. February 9, 2011 at 12:41 pm #

    Color coding has its limitations. Inevitably operators are presented with fleet availability issues that prevent correctly colored buses from being placed on the correct lines. Some agencies, such as VTA (San Jose), differentiate by name instead of color and re-brand buses accordingly (e.g., VTA’s Rapid and DASH). Surprisingly, VTA does a good job of keeping the correct buses on the correct routes.
    Some agencies take a mixed brand/sign approach. For example, AC Transit (Oakland/East Bay) has branded buses for its Rapid routes, and at the same time all newer buses have color-coded destination signs. This shows another limitation of colors: AC Transit uses so many colors (lime green, dark green, baby blue, dark blue, magenta, etc.) that passengers have difficulty determining the relevance said colors have.
    In the era before digital signs, agencies like SF Muni and Golden Gate Transit would use color-coded roll signs. Similar in concept to the SF Muni example mentioned by Troy, GGT used white-on-red to designate Civic Center-bound routes, white-on-green to design Financial District-bound routes, etc.
    Perhaps this is one case where the cheapest and easiest option (color-coded roll signs) is not really an option anymore. Muni and GGT still have some roll signs left, but once they’re gone they’re gone!
    P.S. Steve, all newer SF Muni buses have destination signs on all four sides. Each of the signs include line number, line name, and final destination.

  21. Zoltán February 9, 2011 at 2:04 pm #

    I do like that signage from Canberra. It seems to make the service feel quite permanent.

  22. Ed Sanderson February 9, 2011 at 7:29 pm #

    Call me a Luddite, but I’ve never read a more absurd discussion. You can not run an efficient rapid transit or bus line system without interchangeable equipment and that means no painted trains or buses.
    I exempt fixed rail lines from the following comment. Is the traveling public so stupid that they don’t know that a numbered route follows a certain path as (should be) explained by a sign at the stop, or that an X (say) after a number indicates an express?
    I also can not understand how a bus transit system with literally hundreds of bus lines, can devise a colored-coded identification.
    “Take the Sierra White bus to the Navy Blue bus at Clark then change to the Martha Stewart Light-Black bus at Belmont.”
    “Take the 20 bus to 22 bus at Clark then change to the 18 bus at Belmont.”

  23. GMichaud February 9, 2011 at 8:09 pm #

    Color is a useful tool. Signs may do the trick, but colored buses visible from a distance make it possible to immediately distinguish routes.
    The point about the lack of flexibility for replacement buses is real, although that can be overcome with an aggressive maintenance and management programs.
    The big draw is it makes the transit system user friendly, and that is the idea after all.
    This has to go back to a basic question of routing lines, connections, frequency and usability of the system.
    Color coding is more effective in defined situations and routes. Buses lines ambling all over the city might not find color coding as useful.
    For color to be effective, it should be coupled with a new approaches to developing the transit system.
    (Another option is double decker buses, also giving identity to routes and taking care of the color blind question).
    A transit system would have more impact for example if a red line makes a circular connecting path around the city.
    Say this same red line went from station to public square, to important site, to major commercial center and so on, quickly around the city, searching for connections, rather than stops every 400 feet. It becomes more like a surface subway with its fewer stops.
    Riders know instantly the meaning of the color coding. Color can be a factor in the redesign of a transit system. Signage could possibly do the same thing, but it is a duller approach, without the pizazz of full color buses.
    Transit riding should be a glamorous experience as well as fill practical needs.
    Color is a tool in creating interesting routing systems. It would be more difficult to simply slap colors on certain lines and make them worthwhile. The colored buses should have greater meaning than the normal lines for greatest impact.
    If the transit system is not rethought to accommodate the benefits of color then the identity and marketing functions of color coding are lost or minimized.
    If a single main line or two are color coded, red and blue for instance and combined with color coded signage for other routes, so much the better.
    Color should not be dropped from the planners tool box.

  24. Zoltán February 10, 2011 at 5:47 am #

    *crosses self*

  25. Randall BusTard February 10, 2011 at 7:03 am #

    Owing to the separated stops that LACMTA designs (Rapid on one side of an intersection, local on the other), designing and maintaining a color scheme for express, Rapid and local busses is an idea that would help greatly. Using the marques would be nice except that metro apparently refuses to want to pony up for such costs despite the great convenience it would offer. (One can easily see an approaching Silver Line, which has to colors in its marque, from a few blocks away.)
    if one has ever waited on a corner for a bus that serves both Rapid and local lines, one will understand. Owing to the occasional orange busses that turn out to be Rapids, or vice-versa, it is best to stand on the Rapid corner and get ready to sprint if it is a local.
    Perhaps one of the most notorious lines known for mixing red and orange coaches is the 751/251. This line follows a very hilly route and can be daunting for many of the “poor and transit-dependent” (Art Leahy, opening statement in the LACMTA FY2010 Budget) Metro customers who see a bus, run across the street to get to the correct stop, and then realize too late that it is the other bus than what the color suggested; the traffic light has changed.
    Maintaining a color code with the busses would be nice, and the color-coded marques would be great, to eliminate this frustration.

  26. Zoltán February 10, 2011 at 8:04 am #

    That sounds like an extremely dangerous thing, and I wonder if it’s a basis for Metro reviewing that policy regarding stops. I tend to favour double-length bus stops, as for those it doesn’t matter which order two buses arrive in.
    Though I’d also comment that if, for most passengers, it’s not worth waiting specifically for a limited bus, you probably should be providing more frequent locals instead.

  27. Zoltán February 10, 2011 at 8:07 am #

    @Randall BusTard
    That sounds like an extremely dangerous thing, and I wonder if it’s a basis for Metro reviewing that policy regarding stops. I tend to favour double-length bus stops, as for those it doesn’t matter which order two buses arrive in.
    Though I’d also comment that if, for most passengers, it’s not worth waiting specifically for a limited bus, you probably should be providing more frequent locals instead.

  28. Chief Clerk February 10, 2011 at 2:37 pm #

    Jarrett, I remember a post you did a few months back on Paris. You liked the fact that light rail was presented exactly the same way as buses regarding colours, stops etc all were clearly part of the same system. Isn’t differentiating (privileging?) some routes by colours, going along the same path as differentiating modes?
    Although colour variation might at least liven up the townscape a bit. The opposite of Italy, where in my experience EVERY bus, tram or trolleybus in EVERY city is the same shade of orange. By legislation or just habit?

  29. Jarrett February 10, 2011 at 3:52 pm #

    Chief Clerk. No, I think that different colors within a larger unified brand can be consistent with the message that the whole network is meant to appeal to everyone. Note, for example, that the red and buses in Los Angeles feature comparable fonts and designs that make clear they are two products within one network.
    When it comes to multiple modes, especially bus and rail, some effort needs to go into confirming that message because so many people project socio-economic categories onto the rail-bus distinction.

  30. Ted King February 11, 2011 at 3:43 am #

    What about flags ? I believe the historic streetcars in San Francisco have sockets for small flags on either side of the front roll sign.

  31. Zoltán February 11, 2011 at 9:44 am #

    @Ted King
    You mention something I often wonder about – how one can provide colour designation in an easily changed way. Possibly less whimsically than flags, but in that spirit.

  32. Ted King February 11, 2011 at 10:44 pm #

    The other possibility is to have a colored panel of canvas that could be fastened above the destination sign like a head-band or scarf.
    An image search at Google turned up the following :
    . Scroll down almost to the bottom to see how a shuttle bus service uses flags.
    P.S. to comment of 11 Feb.
    I couldn’t find a recent picture of a flag-capable PCC ( is down) but I found the following at the site that makes it clear what I’m referring to :

  33. Pete February 12, 2011 at 12:57 pm #

    Several major UK bus operations use route colour branding, usually as part of a frequent network. Over here we usually do this with coloured vinyls rather than painting.
    The Brighton & Hove Bus Company serving the city of that name uses coloured vinyl strips below the upper deck windows on double deckers, and on the roof cove panels on single deckers, which list the main places served. The front panel has a matching strip stating the maximum frequency.
    This certainly helps in identifying an approaching bus as it can be seen before the destination sign and route number become legible. The route colur is also included in an upswept stripe as part of the standard livery. There are sufficient vehicles in a generic all-routes livry to allow vehicle schedulers flexibiity.
    Manchester has a large spread-out city centre, which is served by a network of free shuttle buses. These are colour coded to aid identification.

  34. Kenny February 15, 2011 at 2:14 pm #

    When I’ve had guests visit while I was living in the SF Bay Area, several of them were surprised first to learn that locals don’t even associate the colors on the map with different BART routes, and second that the colors aren’t indicated in any way on the individual trains. It seems plausible that in that case the colors should just be removed from the map, though maybe that would cause too much confusion.

  35. Jarrett at February 15, 2011 at 2:22 pm #

    Kenny.  Cards of the correct color used to be in the front windows of the trains, but it's all electric signs now. 

  36. Ted King February 16, 2011 at 7:55 pm #

    Jarrett – Those BART signs are a joke. Too small and too dim. If one is watching the approaching train you have to look at the base of the control console and hope that there isn’t too much glare on the windshield. Basically, you blink and it’s gone. The drivers spend a fair amount of time on the PA system telling you where their train is going.
    A better solution would be to have a flat panel annunciator above the system maps in each car. When in a station the panel would display the final destination. Then when the train is moving next station and service advisories would be shown. Also, given today’s range of colors in LED’s, a rainbow bar* could be mounted at the top edge of the windshield and not take up too much space.
    * A simple rainbow bar consists of several colors that can be lit one color at a time. DIY electronics seems to have gone underground but Hansen’s Hobbies (“Mini Scrolling LED Sign Kit”) and NerdKits (“LED Array Kit”) come closest to what I’m describing.

  37. Ted King February 16, 2011 at 8:14 pm #

    P.S. Yes, there are also the red LED signs above the BART platforms. But those units are a retreat from the trial use of CRT’s in some of the stations. It’s rather odd that a supposedly high-tech transit system isn’t using LCD flat panels for announcements. (SFMuni’s units in the Market St. Subway are both clunky and cheap looking and it seems that most riders watch the system map TV’s instead.)

  38. AB February 17, 2011 at 10:02 am #

    Related to this discussion, NYCT is using flashing blue LEDs on the front top (either side of overhead destination sign) on its Select Bus Service (pseudo-BRT) buses to differentiate them (generally speaking, same type of fleet is used for both local and SBS services).
    While at first these seemed gimmicky, they have proven to be very useful to customers, as the SBS bus can be very quickly identified from a distance – especially on straight Manhattan avenues. Of course, they can simply be turned off if the same bus is used for local service.

  39. Pete September 25, 2011 at 1:34 pm #

    Lothian Buses, Edinburgh’s municipal bus company has adopted an historical theme to its route branding.