seoul: buses that tell you where they go?

Regarding Place has a good article on the recent reform of bus services in Seoul, South Korea. Seoul-buses_tfan

Seoul has done something that I often hear people ask for, a simple citywide color scheme that helps make the structure of the bus system obvious.  The four colors of bus correspond to four types of service:

  • Blue buses run in reserved median busways on major arterials, and appear to be mostly radial (into and out of the urban core.)
  • Green buses are feeders that tend to run locally within a particular area.
  • Red buses are "express" to and from outer suburbs.  It's not completely clear if this is peak commuter express or frequent all-day service (which I usually call "Rapid").  Express is a slippery word.
  • Yellow buses are orbital lines, thus tend to be perpendicular to the blue and red ones.

I have mixed feelings about this sorting.  Usually I prefer to make distinctions about frequency and service span, but if overall frequencies are high I can certainly see the value in this system.  In a city with a clear distinction between radial and orbital directions, which Seoul seems to have, the distinctions can probably help people orient about which direction is which at various points, and to discern the general directions that each bus might go.

The same thinking extends to numbering system.  Traditionally, most big urban areas have had a sub-area based numbering, where in fact it may make more sense to number lines in ways that heighten the distinction between different service types. 

Most big cities, of course, simply don't have the centralized control to do this.  Los Angeles Metro has made an effort with its Rapid vs Local branding, but most color schemes are tied to the brands of municipal operators whose service is entangled with Metro's.  Cities with a single consolidated transit agency could do it.  In Australia, any state government could do it, though it would need to gain ownership of fleets that are currently owned by private operating companies. 

Obviously, you're sacrificing "operational flexiblity" in terms of being able to deploy any bus on any line.  Now and then in Los Angeles you'll see a Local bus on a Rapid line and vice versa.  I think Seoul deals with this by running all buses of one color out of one operating base, often with a separate contract operator, so the systems are functionally separate.

If you've been to Seoul and seen this system in action, please share your impressions.

25 Responses to seoul: buses that tell you where they go?

  1. Ncbarnard March 7, 2011 at 7:54 pm #

    Well you can regain some of the operational flexibility by having white buses or something similar to be able to feed into any of the routes. (This is what the regional airline operators do in the US, they have a plane or two that is painted white can fly a route that they’re contracted to fly for the majors even if they don’t have any in that major’s liveries available..)
    Sure substituting a white bus destroys the branding, but its worth it to keep the frequency and get the flexibility. In Seattle you’ll occasionally see a Sound Transit route (which are operated by county transit agencies on buses owned by Sound Transit) being operated by one of the buses owned by a county operator. It keeps the frequency there but I’m sure causes a few other points of confusion, but its worth it to keep the frequency.

  2. Brent March 7, 2011 at 9:44 pm #

    There are two other issues I see with this, if I’m reading the linked article correctly:
    1) The buses aren’t just tied to a class of route (by colour), but to a specific route, because there is a sign board on the side that lists all that route’s destinations. It appears to be a static display (like an advertising panel).
    2) The numbering scheme appears to be [origin zone #] [destination zone #] [route ID #] — therefore the first route from zone 2 to zone 3 would be 2301. Doesn’t this mean that the return trip would become 3201? Wouldn’t this overly complicate route identification, mapping, etc.?

  3. Ncbarnard March 8, 2011 at 12:04 am #

    1) wow, that’s gotta decrease a significant amount of scheduling flexibility. No linked routes, or running a bus as one route at peak and another at non-peak.
    2) I don’t see a problem with 2301 vs. 3201 as long as the population knows thats how it works. Although in mapping you could just provide the zones and the route id, and educate people in how to find the full number..

  4. Corey Burger March 8, 2011 at 12:49 am #

    “as long as the population knows thats how it works.” – ncbarnard, that is the core problem. People shouldn’t have to know that much. Streets don’t change names with each direction, so why should transit routes?

  5. Felix the Cassowary March 8, 2011 at 1:10 am #

    “In Australia, any state government could do it, though it would need to gain ownership of fleets that are currently owned by private operating companies.”
    Well, the Victorian government doesn’t operate/own the Smartbus fleets, which have standard frequency-based branding, do they? It seems that if you’re the state government you can make the regulation/law requiring it pretty easily.
    @NCBarnard “Well you can regain some of the operational flexibility by having white buses or something similar to be able to feed into any of the routes. (This is what the regional airline operators do in the US, they have a plane or two that is painted white can fly a route that they’re contracted to fly for the majors even if they don’t have any in that major’s liveries available..)”
    Customers don’t care about what an aeroplane looks like; they’re herded like cattle onto the right plane, and will mostly never even see it from the outside!
    On the other hand, they have to pick the right bus. If you only occasionally run a white bus on a red line, people will get confused. If you do it regularly, what’s the point?

  6. Ncbarnard March 8, 2011 at 1:42 am #

    @Felix, thats why I mentioned the example of Sound Transit routes on King County Metro Buses. People can and do frequently categorize routes by the color of the bus, then check the number. The riders do find the right buses even when they’re in the wrong colors, although it probably causes them to expend more cognitive energy.
    Probably an even better comparison is the San Francisco system which is served by multiple agencies. You know if you’re going to North Bay you’re looking for a Golden Gate Transit bus, not an AC Transit Bus or a MUNI bus.

  7. Jonathon March 8, 2011 at 7:40 am #

    I think that grouping route numbers is the easiest and most flexible way to organize services. I think that colour co-ordination is more effective when used for shelters and permanent structures because it is more useful to know what kinds of routes come to the stop that you are waiting at before the bus gets there.

  8. anonymouse March 8, 2011 at 12:42 pm #

    The sort of scheme that Seoul has probably works well partly because you tend to need different physical vehicles for different kinds of routes. For example, for “blue” trunk routes you’d probably want big, high capacity buses with lots of standing room. For “red” express routes, you want more seats, since it’s probably a longer ride. For neighborhood “green” routes, you want a smaller bus, to fit on smaller streets, maybe with more seats since it’s more useful for those who can’t walk to the “blue” routes. And so on. When you have lots of buses, dividing the fleet in this way isn’t such a big deal, because the fleet is already divided.

  9. Paul McGregor March 8, 2011 at 12:46 pm #

    In Dallas, we number routes by the type of service: crosstown, feeder, radial, express, etc. Before rail started, there was a numbering system that applied to express and suburban feeders but it was never really explained to the public. When routes were changing from radial to feeder, we gave them 500 numbers but again, didn’t really explain the rational behind it. It was only after the full rail start-up was done that we started to educate the public and renumbered the remaining routes, which were primarily the crosstown and limited stop routes. People would ask why the big deal about the numbers but when you explain to them the rational, they do understand it better.

  10. GMichaud March 8, 2011 at 9:44 pm #

    I think color is a great accessory in the transportation planners toolbox. Color can allow the bus to mimic a subway for instance. Longer, dedicated rides between stations, even in the dense city. Color creates identity making it easier to mount marketing efforts. The Red line is the museum line connecting all museums and parks. A Blue line is the downtown line and so on.
    Seoul takes another approach, valid, perhaps more abstract and because of this not maximizing the abilities of color. Color can make a system more understandable and usable. Seoul’s approach seems to do that, but as a stranger could I find my way around? The color should help announce districts, monuments, pubic spaces for ease of use and identity.
    Using color effectively guides regular users especially when they venture out of their usual paths.
    It is okay for transit to be flamboyant, and color is an ingredient.
    What are the characteristics of an ideal transit system? Can color be used to help mimic some of those characteristics?

  11. anonymouse March 9, 2011 at 12:41 am #

    @GMichaud, the problem is that Seoul is a huge city, and presumably has a huge number of bus lines, and there are only a limited number of colors. Depending on the language, you can get about 10-12 unique colors, and that’s already barely enough for just the subway lines in Seoul. So they chose a different, but still useful meaning for their color-coded buses: the color gives you an idea of how far the bus will take you. The red and blue buses presumably take you to downtown or at least major hubs in the city, while the green buses take you around the neighborhood, presumably to the local subway station, and the yellow buses take you to adjacent suburbs. They’re different services used by different people, so telling them apart at a glance does have some value

  12. Matthijs Gall March 9, 2011 at 2:30 am #

    I’ve lived in Seoul, and thus used this system.
    I think in practice the colour coding works well, also because of the combination with the line numbers, which like Brent notes include both origin and destination zone.
    Traveling within the city I only had to watch the blue buses, as the red really go to outer suburbs, while the other colours’ routes equaled “walking distance” to me.
    In addition, travelling to some destination area I could typically only look for buses with similar line numbers. I.e., if bus 801 goes to the area, than 811 or something probably does too, while 805 doesn’t (goes to zone 5 instead). (I lived in zone 8 if I remember correctly.)
    Exactly as anonymouse notes, the four category colours are easy to keep operationally separate because they require different kinds of vehicle.
    And indeed GMichaud’s idea wouldnt work here, as we’re talking about a _huge_ city (bigger than NYC) with hundreds or thousands of bus lines.

  13. Matthijs Gall March 9, 2011 at 2:40 am #

    By the way, you slightly misunderstood the role of the yellow buses.
    The yellow buses don’t run tangential routes through the wider city, but instead local loops within (central) neighbourhoods/zones.
    (Tangential routes would be covered by blue buses too. This makes sense because Seoul, like other megacities, doesn’t really have a single central area. You can therefore not really distinguish between radial and tangential routes, so both are blue, or red in case of longer distances.)

  14. Zoltán March 9, 2011 at 10:10 am #

    I dislike the numbering system’s emphasis on the origin and destination zones of the buses. It seems to tell the user very little – nothing about the route the buses take, and very limited information about the destination point.
    The route is most important, as most passengers probably aren’t going from end to end, and as Seoul shows, you can only provide very limited information about destination – the very large zone in which it lies.
    I don’t know the extent to which multiple routes with different origins and destinations share significant common stretches in Seoul, but in most places, a good numbering system will signify the route the bus takes in some way, and group similar routes together with similar numbers.

  15. GMichaud March 9, 2011 at 7:45 pm #

    @ Matthijs Gall, Actually my comments were more about the value of color in building transit system usability and identity.
    I don’t quite understand the comment that my ideas won’t work. The original post doesn’t make it clear the purpose of the colors and when I went to a Seoul transit site, the colors are explained differently. Green goes between subways for instance, Blue goes between downtown and satellite cities, Red serve major areas in the region and Yellow buses are the circular lines in the major metro area.
    Those descriptions are more along the lines of what I was talking about building an identifiable system. The terms used in the original post, tangential, arterial and so on made it appear as if the system had an abstract basis to it. It turns out that is not true.
    Clearly coloring bus works in large cities. Isn’t that what is happening in Seoul? It works.
    Other approaches could work in Seoul if they are comprehensive and rational. Seoul seems to have figured out a decent system though.
    You see a green bus, you know your headed to the subway, that’s it: identity. A blue bus and your headed downtown if you are in the suburbs, or to the suburbs if you are downtown.
    Simple as can be. And as you point out the numbering system is in place to further pinpoint directions.
    Even without numbering, if you are in the suburbs, you can jump on a blue bus without thinking twice about it and know where you are going. Color is creating ease of use, making the system more desirable and successful.
    Andhat is what I was saying, color has a great deal of potential to help make transit systems desirable to the public.
    It’s cheap too, paint the buses, no expensive transit upgrades. I don’t mean you can go into a city and just start slapping paint on buses.
    It requires rethinking the system so that colors can identify routes in a way people can get their mind around.
    If I was in Seoul and was told blue means tangential lines and green radial it is almost meaningless compared to saying blue goes to downtown or green to subways.
    Finally I don’t think you need a bunch of colors to make this work, Seoul obviously makes it work with 4, you probably don’t want to go much more than that, maybe 5 or 6 max otherwise the impact might be lost. (never say never though)

  16. Charter Bus March 10, 2011 at 11:33 am #

    Color coded buses… There is no question that this is a good idea. The sorting of what the colors should mean may need some tweaking, but color coding is certainly going to make it easier for the transit passengers.

  17. anonymouse March 10, 2011 at 3:32 pm #

    @GMichaud if instead of “radial” and “tangential” it was “goes to downtown” and “goes to other non-downtown centers”, would that help you? In that case it’s just a language issue, because the first set terms mean the same things as the second set. And, of course, in Seoul, they’d use Korean words, which may not directly translate to any of the above.

  18. GMichaud March 10, 2011 at 7:03 pm #

    @anonymouse I don’t think you get what I’m saying. Color has the potential to rejuvenate moribund systems, to increase user satisfaction, to create more understandable transit systems, to make transit systems marketable and enhance public satisfaction.
    The key is to configure the system so it works with concrete concepts giving the public a sense that they control their destiny. Thus, no matter what the language, a blue lines all headed downtown is much clearer than saying all blue lines are radial.
    Journalists are taught to use language that is easy to understand, in the same way transit descriptions should connect with the public.
    Radial from where? Radial describes something to transit planners, not to the public. Tangential is even more vague unless you are a transit planner sitting at a drafting table.
    The point is that the use of color can be effective, especially to freshen up existing systems that may have fallen out of favor. It is a relatively inexpensive idea to consider. The biggest hurdle is how to create a real and tangible sense of movement and destination for the color coded buses.

  19. anonymouse March 10, 2011 at 9:27 pm #

    @GMichaud, “radial” makes a whole lot of sense in a city that is structured radially around a single primary center, such as Moscow. I think the words that make the most sense for the transit system depend on what words the city residents use to describe the city itself. Don’t go telling a Muscovite that she doesn’t know what радиальная means and that it would make more sense to her if it were линия котороя идёт в центр instead.
    The other thing that I think you’re saying is that color can be a powerful way to make a system comprehensible, and that for it to really be effective, you need to simplify the system to the point where the colors really do carry a lot of useful information. That I agree with wholeheartedly, and can even give an example: the simplification of routes in the NYC subway was, at least in part, driven by the color-coding of the map in the 80s, which would have been indecipherably messy with the QJ and NX on it.

  20. Sam March 11, 2011 at 4:49 am #

    Copenhagen simplified and line and colour-coded the urban bus system when Metro 1+2 opened in 2002. All of the major inner city and rapid suburban lines are painted in red and blue schemes with the line number and major stops painted on. Because of the way the system is contracted, there’s no interchanging of buses anyway, although you occasionally see replacement buses without the route info.

  21. GMichaud March 11, 2011 at 7:48 pm #

    @anoymouse I’m talking the peoples language, whatever that may be, and if Russian transit riders use terms like radial to describe where they going, then great. (On the other hand maybe the blue buses are the Kremlin line so visitors can also understand they are going to the center of the radial)
    An abstract word as circle might work also. The Blue route makes a circle, north to south in the city, ending and starting downtown. Certain stops can be featured, so if you take the blue circle route you know you’ll connect with the farmers market, the theatrical district as well as downtown.
    The blue circle route would work with a double decker bus also. Color is not as essential as it is to find ways to create identity.
    Using color is an architectural/design exercise. What are the characteristics of a good transit system?
    1. Create a feeling of elegance
    2. Convenience so that it feels preferable to use transit over auto.
    3. A city that surrounds transit and readily accepts walking, utilizing public space, vistas, commercial options, monuments, living space etc, as an extension of transit.
    And so on
    The best transit systems I have seen include the 3 points above (and many others). On the other hand the worse transit systems do none of the above well and feel disconnected from the city as a whole.
    Color is a tool that appears to work best with concrete descriptions and routes defining it.
    That’s my view for what its worth.

  22. Allan K, Vancouver, BC March 12, 2011 at 9:49 pm #

    I wonder if the smarter approach (in terms of flexibility) would be to use multi-coloured LED to simulate several colours denoting their purpose. Yes, not the whole bus is coloured but most riders usually see buses from two angles anyway (front and boarding side).

  23. Matthijs Gall March 14, 2011 at 8:15 am #

    @ Alan K.
    Currently the buses don’t even have LEDs at all, instead using fixed stickers denoting line numbers.
    If there would be any need for additional flexibility, that would be the obvious place to start.
    Considering that the different categories generally have different hardware anyway (coaches for red, regular city buses for blue, small buses for yellow) and that the city’s bus fleet is sufficiently huge to still yield large bus pools when split into four, I guess there is little need for flexibility across categories.

  24. Daniel Tan March 18, 2011 at 11:57 pm #

    I find myself very impressed with this colourful paradigm. Just from looks alone, it makes distinguishing categories of buses even clearer than any number-word code could alone and instantly too. I can see how this would be especially useful where orbital travel becomes increasingly necessary where I seem to find in Malaysia.
    This post also sparked an idea for restructuring relationships between private bus operators and city administration(forgive me if this has been hashed out in the earlier posts and also if it looks like I’m high jacking the post itself):
    City admin would push the bus service as a brand identity that the private bus companies will use (instead of the ones they now have). This goes along with a color-coded scheme for respective bus categories. I wouldn’t suggest an outright replacement of the private operators’ brands but to have them resized so that city admin’s become the first thing they see and secondly identify by which operator the route is serviced.
    This will do a lot to slash the operators’ marketing and branding costs, and allows them to devote more resources to their core functions (making the buses arrive more timely and frequently). Let the operators tender for routes with a practical time-cycle. Set up a reward scheme for operators who work together to create a more efficient relationship between routes. It could place positive pressure on the others to do likewise. The city could then budget for a ‘all partner’ reward if all the operators can show they have saved the city money from their joint efficiencies.
    This is a suggestion to the effect of turning private operators into partners who then contribute towards a common cause. Of course there will be disagreements, entrenched practices, conflicts and behind the scenes negotiations in between but this can a long way to making those two elements a bit more predictable for cities struggling to make buses more relevant to their passengers.

  25. Luci May 20, 2011 at 8:22 am #

    This colour coding system has been in use in Curitiba, Brazil for YEARS! It works really well, and it helps users identify buses. They may have numbers for operations and internally, but for the user, all buses have names. The name on the bus is usually origin/destination, and by the door, it lists the main roads the bus goes through. A few years ago, they replaced all bus shelters, and they all have a map of the neighbourhood with buses and routes (of course, not all stops have shelters).