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:
- 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 …
- 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.
- Anarchists, who need a number for a new line, don't care about the vision, and pick whatever number comes to mind.
- 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?