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?

43 Responses to do line numbers matter at all?

  1. Rob August 18, 2011 at 11:09 am #

    I think the answer is “of course!” As you noted, they can help understand the system, but they need to be part of a system of indicators. Here in Seattle we’ve used the hundreds digit to indicate that a route serves the suburbs, and whether they serve the north, east or south suburbs. I think people find that helpful. But we could also have used different bus colors in the different subareas, which would be more instantly intuitive and could have had the extra side effect of giving local elected officials in those areas more of a sense of ownership of services in their area.
    When Sound Transit service was overlaid on local service, they chose to use numbers in the 500’s to indicate which were ST routes, which could make sense since most of there services connect two subareas. But I wished at the time they would have chosen letters to stand out further from the maze of suburban buses and agencies logos mixing at bus stops around the region. Now Metro has taken that approach for its RapidRide buses, and they’re choosing route letters sequentially as they’re deployed, which is great for distinguishing RapidRide, but misses an opportunity to use letters that make one think of their key service area. A could be Aurora, for example.
    You don’t get many opportunities to make the number system make sense in a system that evolves and changes over time, so the question is most important when service is restructured or new, and becomes less relevant over time.
    What I’m trying to get at is that the service design, as well as other branding elements and facilities all need to work together to make it as intuitive as possible what role each bus serves; the number itself is just part of the message.

  2. Jack August 18, 2011 at 11:22 am #

    I agree that line numbering can convey information about the service, at least when the scheme for doing this is very simple. In Champaign County, IL, the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District runs two distinct sets of main routes – one, consecutively numbered 1 through 15 or so, that runs only during weekday daytime hours, and another smaller network, with route numbers like 20, 30, 70, 100, … , 150 that run only evenings and/or Saturdays and/or Sundays. The route of the 20 is based on that of the 2 but is somewhat different from it to compensate for the smaller network, and similarly for the 30 vis a vis the 3, etc.
    In my experience at least, everyone there gets that if you talk about the “70” you’re referring to a weekend or evening bus with a modified route, whereas if you talk about the “7” that’s a weekday daytime bus. It’s not lost on folks at all.
    Also, they have a third system of routes, numbered 21, 22, … (all begin with 2) just to circulate within the (large) University of Illinois campus. I’m not sure if everyone gets this pattern, but I think at least a lot of people do.

  3. hkp August 18, 2011 at 11:44 am #

    I think it matters to the extent you can group similar routes (ones that follow the same route in the core but terminate in different places or a route served by an express and a local) under similar numbers, like “any route numbered in the 30s” (or as we say in Washington, “the 30 buses”). I think it helps people understand the routes and helps in communicating how to use the system to those unfamiliar with it. I think there’s less benefit to trying to have the numbering on each set of routes relate to one another, though I could see the utility of, say, assigning directional value to route numbers by having all routes that start with odd numbers run N-S and with even numbers run E-W.

  4. ant6n August 18, 2011 at 12:26 pm #

    I think it makes sense to use numbers to denote things, because they might provide information that is otherwise available in schedules or maps. Having numbers to denote whether it runs on the weekend is thus a ‘waste’ of possible information you can provide.
    Any information that you do provide should be intuitive, and not be some complicated scheme that you need to explain to riders first. For example, saying that the 120s all run along some avenue, and branch later, is very intuitive – you just see it in the map!
    Another intuitive numbering scheme is to use smaller numbers for more frequent routes. For example, all double digit routes could come every 15 minutes or less – then if you go someplace and look on a map, and see that you can take the 35 bus, you know you don’t have to check a schedule.
    Some cities deliberately mix up the numbering scheme for trams and buses – basically showing that they provide the same quality of service. Other cities deliberately keep the tram and bus numbers separate, because they feel they provide different services qualities.

  5. Steve S. August 18, 2011 at 12:57 pm #

    Yes, they denote something. In Philadelphia, for example, back in the days when most of the network was streetcars, the BUS routes were lettered while the trolley lines numbered. Even though most of the network is buses today, those original bus routes still retain their archaic designations.
    This is the result of status quo bias. Once certain memorization patterns are invoked, it’s quite hard to undo them. When people for generations have been catching a “17” or a “23”, it becomes quite hard to renumber (or -letter) these routes into something that makes sense as a way to make them stand out from the background network–as, for instance–key frequent service links.
    The same status quo bias helps explain why Philadelphia’s Subway-Surface Lines all remain numbered, despite a N-S lettering pattern arguably being simple to implement and memorize.

  6. Andrew August 18, 2011 at 1:05 pm #

    It does, of course, depend on the city. For example, on Chicago’s South Side, the streets are numbered follow a very regular pattern: starting at about 31st St, there is a major street every 4 blocks and usually a “very major” street every 8. Bus routes on these streets match the street numbers (not sure if there is an exception or not), so the 47 bus runs on 47th St and the 55 bus runs on 55th St.
    In Boston, the streets follow basically no pattern at all, and the bus routes seem to go by area (mostly), so that there are a lot of 80-something routes in Somerville and 110-something routes in Chelsea.
    Basically, how the streets and the region as a whole are organized can make a huge difference to what numbering scheme makes sense.

  7. Andrew August 18, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

    New York’s MTA does roughly the same thing with its Manhattan crosstown buses as Chicago does: the M14A and M14D run on 14th St, M42 on 42nd, M86 on 86th (through Central Park), etc.
    Chicago’s bus numbering as explained here seems to be a combination of all the various factors above. When explained that way, the way the numbering is done makes sense as each group of routes was added, but as a CTA rider, the consistent patterns I can gauge are that South Side streets = bus numbers; some of the north-south streets have a semi-coherent pattern (e.g. the Damen, Western, California buses, which are parallel at half-mile intervals, are the 50, 49 and 52 buses); and that U Chicago buses all seem to be in the 170s.

  8. Felix the Cassowary August 18, 2011 at 3:09 pm #

    Hey, I’m a line-numbering (anarcho-)conservative, but I’m also a posting conservative, and feel the comments section is better off remaining the way it was before I came across it. Despite that:—
    I think if there’s ever a major site/whatever that groups a bunch of lines so you can take them all, it should be part of the route name. So the Sydneysider 420s could be F, 9, J2, 76 and 239K, but say “Parramatta/via University”, “Kings Cross/via University”, “Cronulla/via University” etc. Only perfectionists and visionaries actually understand route numbers in the first place! [My knowledge of Sydney suburbs and geography is desirably inadequate, so these routes probably make no sense at all.]
    Whenever you have the space—and when don’t you have the space?—you should also group them by bay, so F, 9, J2, 76 and 239K could all be boarded via bay 8. But route Z!X, “Parramatta” (direct), would be boarded via bay 4.
    But then, once you’ve set them, you should keep them. Seeing as they’re meaningless to all but a small group of obsessive transport junkies, and the few people who have memorised just this one way of getting from here to there, there’s no advantage to fiddling with them.
    Fiddling would also disrupt the temporal unity of the system, which is more important than the systematicity of the numbering scheme, because it shows they expect it to be a part of your planning and vocabulary. In Melbourne, Mt Alexander Rd hasn’t gone to Mt Alexander since before Essendon Airport was put in, and Dandenong Rd was bypassed by a freeway decades ago, but these names remain! They are things, not just services to come and go at the whim of the government.
    Or, maybe I just think that all because the route numbering everywhere I’ve lived has been undecipherable, and with neither rhyme nor reason.

  9. Eric O August 18, 2011 at 3:42 pm #

    For lines, numbers would matter to distinguish branching options as you described, but do they really matter? I can’t quite figure out that one.
    Maybe if you manage to make the numbers inconsequential you have made a great network?
    My preference is to have the numbers signify the vehicle, like cruisers. Or just the vehicle series. If the lower numbers signified degrees of ancient-ness and the higher numbers degrees of modernity (as they usually do)…then you’d get prestige at both ends.

  10. Danny August 18, 2011 at 4:31 pm #

    I went through a phase when I was younger where I tried to learn how to orient myself when I was in my parents car. My dad explained to me that if the interstate was an odd number, that I would either be going north or south, while if it were an even number, I would be going east or west. I was told that I knew this because that is how they named the interstates.
    But then I discovered I-680.
    People can trust numbers up until the point where they don’t make sense…and then they won’t trust any of the numbers. Like all things in life, it takes time to regain that trust.

  11. Morgan Wick August 18, 2011 at 4:42 pm #

    Rob: Jarrett has mentioned in the past that using different bus colors to denote different types of service reduces system flexibility. And using it to denote subarea sounds like poison for already-weak regional unity.
    Felix, where have you lived? I’d suggest you give the NYC bus system a try.
    On Seattle Transit Blog, I’ve helped popularize “70-series” to describe the 71, 72, 73, 74, and maybe 70, which follow identical routes from downtown to the University District near the University of Washington campus. Before then, the popular term besides “70s” seemed to be “7x” or “7xs” – the former being easily confused for the 7 Express, which actually exists.

  12. Steve Lax August 18, 2011 at 6:15 pm #

    Has anyone actually done a focus group on numbering systems with riders and potential riders?
    From my experience, most system users simply remember the route numbers they need. For example, I need to take the #21 to the #13. Older riders tend to remember the routes they’ve used all their lives. And many riders don’t remember their route numbers at all. They simply know they wait at given locations for the next bus.
    Some examples:
    a. A route (No. 3) was discontinued in 1976 by a private bus company before the public agency was created. As late as my retirement in 2009 we were still getting occasional requests to bring back the #3 from residents of the area the route used to serve.
    b. Because the public transit agency had absorbed a number of private transit companies, it inherited duplicae route numbers. Both for general simplification and for computerized recordkeeping, it started to convert the duplicate numbers to unique numbers (using both a geographic and local/longer distance numbering system). So, even though the 7 Jackson had become the 87 King in 1984 (Jackson Avenue having been renamed Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive years early), during a community meeting in 2007 we still had residents refer to the route as the 7 Jackson.
    c. The agency regularly holds commuter forums at transit hubs to hear from customers. Normally, when a customer approaches a staffer to offer a comment, the first question the staffer wants to know is “about which route are you commenting”? About 10% of customers don’t know the route number at all!! They simply say “the bus that runs on Springfield Avenue” or “the bus that goes to Springfield”.
    In general, therefore, I don’t find much value in numbering systems. (The primary value actually seems to be to help new staff members learn the system.) I do see value in using a related set of numbers for multiple routes that branch out after a common trunk on a main corridor and also if there is a totally different night or Sunday network compared to the base weekday network.

  13. Chris, Public Transport August 18, 2011 at 6:21 pm #

    I’m not necessarily an anarchist, rather arguing for a simple network where since every street only has one route on it, a complex route numbering scheme is not required. Since almost every Toronto street has only one route on it, a complex scheme is not required.
    Sydney is quite different, and has many streets with lots of different buses on it. And I think that the suave passenger would know that any bus route number that starts with 46 will at least get you a fair way up Parramatta Road. If the Sydney bus system were elegantly designed, then this numbering would not be needed because only one bus would go up to the higher reaches of Parramatta Road.
    In my opinion, the fact that the Champaign Mass Transit District has completely different routes nights and weekends is very confusing. Why not just pick the best daytime routes and operate them all the time?
    So go ahead and adopt a scheme, but know that truly elegant networks will be intuitive enough to perhaps not need route numbers at all.

  14. Rob August 18, 2011 at 7:18 pm #

    @Morgan, I agree using different colored buses reduces flexibility – but KCM doesn’t always use the flexibility it has available. They don’t like to move buses or assign operators between bases. So you would just need to put the same colored buses at the same bases, and assign subarea services to the same base (assuming they all have the right capacity, which I know they probably don’t). Metro’s already decided that branding overrides vehicle assignment flexibility for RapidRide, so there are cases when it’s worth it.
    My point though is that there are a lot of tools available to help the customer understand the service better, and route numbers are only one of them.

  15. Matt Conway August 18, 2011 at 9:33 pm #

    I think Jarrett’s argument about simplicity in route naming may be the key here. The smaller, single-digit or letter routes have an air of importance – they aren’t just one of tens or hundreds of possibilities, they are elevated above the rest. There can only be 9 single-digit lines in a system. This is also true of colored lines – there can only be, say, 6-10 colored lines before it becomes impossible. Simple names seem “elite” because there aren’t very many – not just anywhere can have a line 6 or a line C, but a line 238 can seem like just another bus in a slew of many.
    Another interesting data point in the no-line-numbering debate is the Bay Area’s BART heavy-rail system. It has neither line numbers, letters, nor colors; the routes are instead referred to by their endpoints (e.g. Fremont-Daly City, Richmond-Fremont, Pittsburg/Bay Point to SFO, &c.) I think this is partly because of its interesting branching pattern; rather than spreading out like an octopus with mostly single lines at each endpoint, it instead has more of an internal branching pattern, with lines going each of three possible ways in Oakland. If I’m going to Fremont from Lake Merritt, I don’t care if I catch a Richmond-Fremont train or a Daly City-Fremont train; indeed, the signboards don’t even announce what line a train is on; they just say ‘Fremont train.’ Then again, it’s a pretty simple network; there is only one way to get from point A to point B on BART, given any station as point A and B.
    But the system of no-line-numbers begins to get more difficult in networks where there is more than one way to get to a given destination. For instance, if the New York MTA were to adopt this scheme, the D and the N at Prospect Ave Southbound would both be called Coney Island/Stillwell Ave trains. But if you wanted to get to Fort Hamilton Pkwy on the D line, you’d need to be able to differentiate these trains by more than their destination. You could call the D “6th Av to Coney Island” and the N “Broadway to Coney Island,” but this would of course get much more complicated. A route number uniquely identifies a route in a complex network in a concise manner. In a complex network, I think they’re necessary, no matter how well-designed the network.

  16. Kenny August 18, 2011 at 10:39 pm #

    The BART system seems to confuse lots of people – I often had visitors from out of town who said something about taking the red line or blue line of BART to get somewhere, and I had to double-check that they did in fact know what line they were talking about, even if the description they had would be no help at the station.

  17. Nicholas Barnard August 19, 2011 at 1:31 am #

    So I’ll admit, I’m very much a visionary. But I think when you get into trying to use the first digit for one data point, the second digit for another data point, and the third digit just to differentiate you get yourself hamstrung too much.
    In Seattle, with it’s focus on peak service runs super express routes that serve a section of the route. For example the 71 and 76 share the exact same route west of 15th Ave NE & NE 65th St. Both routes go to downtown Seattle, but the 76 goes via the interstate after 15th & 65th. Beyond the fact that they’re both in the 70 series there isn’t anything that tells you these routes do the same thing for much of their route. To top it off there are other routes in the 70 series that don’t do this.
    So I’ll toss out an idea: allow a single trip to have two route numbers. So in the case of the 70 series, here’s what would happen:
    * The 70 which always runs local between Downtown and the University District would remain just numbered as the 70.
    * The some of the other routes in the 70 Series, 71/72/73 would keep their existing number, but would also carry the 70 route number as a second route number because they serve that when they’re running local. If they’re running express they’d have the 70-Express route as a route number as well.
    * This makes the 76 route number superfluous. This bus route is simply a 71 that is NOT also a 70.
    So what this does is allow directions to be cleaner “Take the 70-Express to the U-District” instead of “Take the 71, 72, 73, or 74 to the U-District.” This also supports to one of Jarrett’s observations’ about frequent bus services: the consistency of the timing between trips matters more than the actual trips being on time. So what this does is allows someone who wants a 70X, but only has been told to take a 71, to not worry if everything is running 10 minutes late.
    Yes, in some ways this seems more complex, but it also allows people who are just glancing at a schedule to know that the frequencies between Downtown and the U-District are exceptionally frequent, without having to pull out three different schedules.
    Why hasn’t this been implemented? My guess is that the systems to plan it aren’t really upto the task. But here’s my take: I don’t care what system you’re using internally to track that trip, you should abstract the presentation of your internal system to something that is more user friendly. (Just as if you knew all the parts and pieces that are used to put together this single blog page your eyes would explode..)

  18. Melburnian August 19, 2011 at 3:24 am #

    Okay, let’s get things straight.
    Anarchists believe in no rulers (whether state or capitalist), not no rules. You all sound like Richard Nixon.

  19. Aaron Priven August 19, 2011 at 7:41 am #

    Part of the problem is that we are not in agreement about the purpose of line numbers — to help *understand*, or help *remember*?
    Part of the divide between transit enthusiasts and professionals on the one hand, and ordinary people on the other, is that ordinary people generally don’t want to have to comprehend the entire system in order to get around. They want to know how to get to their destination, and if they need to go to a new destination they’ve never visited before, they’ll ask somebody or look it up. (Hence the value of automated trip planners.)
    But once you have your trip plan, the most important thing to do is remember it. You don’t want to get on the 43G instead of the 43V and end up in a completely separate part of town, so having numbers that are memorable is important. And research (quoted in The Math Gene, by Keith Devlin, I’ve been meaning to actually read the sources) shows that smaller numbers are easier to remember than bigger ones; memories treat numbers on a logarithmic scale, so that “1” seems further from “2” than “101” from “102”.
    Of course, other things can help memory than just small numbers; matching the streets for numbered streets, for example.
    But what’s clear to me is that the type of numbering system where 100-199 are in the north, 200-299 in the south, etc., just makes it really hard to remember what line you want when you’re trying to get around *within* those areas. It’s easier to remember line 51 if your choices are “51 or 79” than “51 or 59”.
    In fact, picking numbers for nearby routes that are deliberately *different* from each other is probably more helpful to memory. It reduces the chance of confusion. (This is the way telephone area codes are assigned, too.)

  20. Paul K McGregor August 19, 2011 at 8:39 am #

    In Dallas back in the mid-90s when rail started up, staff had a deliberate scheme in mind when they started revamping bus routes from radial routes to feeder routes. We had to develop a numbering system that would differentiate route 39, which at the time was one of the busiest routes in the system, and route 539 which later became a feeder route to light rail. So when we were establishing new routes or reworking existing routes, we went with this numbering scheme:
    1-99 radial
    100-199 limited stop
    200-299 express [premium fare]
    300-399 suburban feeders [primarily to transit centers with no rail]
    400-499 crosstown
    500-599 feeder to rail station
    The next phase that we completed was educating the public on this numbering scheme. We undertook a major project that added bus route numbers to each stop and also color coded each type of route. This was a massive undertaking given the size of DART’s service area.
    It would’ve been interesting to conduct a post implementation survey to see what the public response was. It could range from total ambivalance to yes, it helps me understand the different service types better.
    I think the key elements to a successful implementation of a numbering scheme is educating the public so that they understand what it means and having a goal for you end product. That is why these types of projects start out as a visionary thing. Some one or group of people come up with a vision that they see and then the perfectionists come in and take that vision and implement it. That was the case in Dallas. One has to be careful doing this though because it can take a lot of staff time both for preparation and the actual implementation.
    SamTrans in the Bay Area has a similar numbering system that has feeder route numbers that reflect whether they serve BART, Caltrain or both, route numbers unique to each community they serve and routes that serve more than one community have another number group.

  21. John W August 19, 2011 at 6:19 pm #

    I-680 connects to I-80. It doesn’t seem so confusing to me. I think the interstates are a great example of a system where the ordered numbering from west to east and south to north is very helpful.

  22. Rob August 19, 2011 at 9:55 pm #

    @Aaron Priven, that’s why I liked the idea of using different bus colors for north, south, east and central (the things Seattle now uses the hundreds digit for). When you get into the hundreds of routes, people give up thinking they can eventually understand the system and jump in their cars instead. (I also thought maybe the Seattle area elected officials wouldn’t have fought so hard for subarea service allocation formulas if they got their own bus colors! Who knows whether that’s true).
    @Nicholas Barnard, the 76 was once the 71 express, but then they introduced the all-day University express that was somehow different from the late night local 71 bus – and they didn’t like two routes being the 71 express, so they invented a new route number. Meanwhile over in Greenwood my kids keep getting on the wrong #5 bus because it branches to two separate destinations but keeps the same route number. Might it be a better idea to add a letter to a trunk route number? I think having two different numbers would be a lot more confusing than that.
    Or, the number could change at different points along a route to show what’s relevant at each point. If you’re inbound on the Ave you don’t care what tail the route came from, so why not change the number at that point to be relevant to customers along the route? Drivers won’t want to do that, but with new on-board computers the buses could make destination sign changes automatically along the route.

  23. Nicholas Barnard August 20, 2011 at 12:01 am #

    @Rob Perhaps piggy back on adding a Letter to signify the trunk route. So the 70-Express in my example becomes the “U” So you’d have a 71UX, 72UX, etc, as well as a 71X. Then the 70 becomes the U-Local? Its got promise and dovetails nicely with RapidRide being lettered.
    But, @Aaron Priven makes a good point. What really should happen is this should all be pitched over to usability designers to do some testing and figure out what works best. Transit Planners should be good at planning the routes. Numbering them and communicating them on a map should be a usability designer’s job.
    Oh, but whoever is naming the routes, will they please define “Express” with a solid definition? In Metro’s system it means different things for different routes, and the phenomenon of routes being designated Express without having a corresponding local route is puzzling. IMHO, if you want to discontinue the local without discontinuing the express route, the correct procedure is:
    1. Remove the local route, the express route keeps its express designation.
    2. Either one revision cycle or one year later, the express route has its express designation removed, and just subsumes the previous local route number.
    (Yes, I am crossing over to perfectionism. But I want “Express” to mean one thing in the system, not many different things as it does now.)
    But to answer Jarett’s question: Yes. line number matter. As someone who went from living in suburbia to living in a metro area and learning the route system, the line numbers have helped me a great deal in understanding the system.

  24. Paul August 20, 2011 at 11:37 am #

    I am completely unaware of any overall scheme in place for the bus routes in DC. Subsequently, I don’t know where any of them go except the two that run immediately adjacent to my house. Therefore I almost never use them for my method of travel. I sometimes look up routes before leaving my house to see if any would shorten my travel time, but that rarely is helpful. I think one improvement would be to make a distinction for those buses that run throughout the day and those which are only available during rush hours.

  25. Viz August 20, 2011 at 1:51 pm #

    Paul, I think an important problem with the DC bus system (as opposed to the user-friendly metro system) is the lack of information. In 99% of cities in the western world there are route maps, network maps and schedules in at least one out of every four bus stops. In DC, if you don’t have a computer on you, there is no way to plan a bus trip.
    As for line numbers and colours, I’m from Las Palmas, one of the capitals of the Canary Islands in Spain. You can follow my description with the route maps which can be found on
    We have 40 bus routes but the numbering historically refered to the main corridor served, as follows:
    1, 10, 11, 12… for the waterfront corridor.
    2, 20, 21, 22… for the base-of-the-hills corridor, parallel to the first one.
    3, 30, 31, 32… for buses going up to the triangular plateau.
    4, 40, 41, 42… for the north-coast (beach) corridor.
    5, 50, 51, 52… for the southern hills.
    6, 60, 61, 62… for the southern strip.
    7, 70, 71, 72… for the southern valley.
    8, 80, 81, 82… for the central valley and hills surrounding it.
    9, 90, 91, 92… for lines running through the central valley and reaching beyond it in the West.
    There are two other routes, OA and OB (for the clockwise and anticlockwise services) which are circular (covering the 1, 4, 3 and 8 corridors).
    As the lines have extended, shortened or otherwise modified their routes numbering has been kept, so you will find that there is no line 4 anymore, for example.
    New developments are served by some of these lines, modified or extended. Some lines have extended into other corridors as activity in them has increased. Furthermore, they have subsequently been cut or shifted on the other side, so they run very little or not at all on the corridor they originally served.
    To reduce this growing distortion, about a 15 years ago lines were also assigned a colour, which reflected the main corridor they were currently serving:
    All lines that “now” serve the waterfront corridor are red.
    All lines that “now” serve the base-of-the-hills corridor (parallel to the first one) are yellow.
    All lines that “now” are mainly intended to go up to the triangular plateau are green.
    All lines that “now” serve the north-coast (beach) corridor are light blue.
    Lines that “now” serve exclusively the southern hills and the southern strip have each their own colour since the hills are not interconnected so they do not form a real corridor. (Although they all use the southern strip to reach them, but whatever).
    All lines that “now” serve the southern valley are dark blue.
    Those serving the central valley are also dark blue, although they are separate corridors.
    Those running through the central valley and reaching beyond it in the West, used to be purple but since they share the “central valley” corridor they are now also dark blue.
    The circular lines are green, since they mainly connect the two CBD’s via the waterfront corridor (red) and via the triangular plateau (green), but the purpose of these lines was to provide the beach-plateau-valley connection, since the beach-waterfront and waterfron-valley corridors were already connected by other lines.
    Of course, after 15 years more modifications have been made and the colour grid is again getting messier. Still, I think the colours help visualization on a map with 40 lines.
    If you look at the maps on the website, you will see that most colours still run through the same corridor, and many numbers also follow the corridor organisation, at least partly (and you can even understand the modifications made to those route numbers that follow it no more) so all 1s are red, most 2s are yellow (although 21 has become green), most 3s are green (although 35 has become light blue), most 4s are light blue, the 5s are a mess of different colours (which in some cases result in very similar colours to the blue, yellow and green corridors which could be confusing), 6s likewise (although not so much a mess because there’s only 2 lines after the supression of 61), and 7s, 8s and 9s are mostly dark blue.

  26. Alex... August 20, 2011 at 6:28 pm #

    Time to put a word in for the Conservatives.
    There is something to be said for holding onto long held numbers for the core services in a network. They become part of mental maps of how to navigate a neighborhood even long after someone may have stopped using that bus on a day to day basis.
    Regular users adapt to whatever the new route number is. Infrequent users on the other hand aren’t that connected with the day to day changes in the network. If the same route 2 that existed when they were riding the bus as a teenager is still there they remain confident to use the PT system and give others directions on how to use it. “You want to get to Miramar, sure I know that, just take the route 2”.
    If the route 2 they grew up with is now route 578 they have no idea what bus to use and it seems all just to difficult and so they avoid bothering to even try let alone have the ability to provide the information to others.
    Imagine growing up in a neighborhood and coming back ten years later and finding all the streets had been renamed and then having to describe to a visitor directions on how to get somewhere.
    This was a real scenario in a city I worked for 5 years where as a result of network changes route numbers were changing every few years in some areas. Regular users adapted. But non users were left with no idea how to navigate the city by bus.

  27. Ty August 20, 2011 at 9:59 pm #

    @Paul there is a logic to the DC bus numbering system, but it’s a carry-over from an older generation of visionaries. There’s a great article about the District’s numbering system here:
    Buses in the District follow two parallel systems based on what was originally on the line when naming was consolidated. Lines that were streetcars were assigned numbers in clock-wise progression from Southwest through Southeast. Many of the numbered buses today still follow the same routes as those original streetcars. That means for those numbered lines, you can easily orient yourself along the following trunks:
    30s: Pennsylvania Avenue
    40s: Connecticut Ave/Columbia Road (to Mt. Pleasant)
    50s: 14th Street
    60s: Petworth to Takoma/Fort Totten
    80s: North Capitol Street and environs
    70s: Georgia Avenue/7th Street
    90s: Florida Avenue to Capitol Hill
    It gets more complicated because lines that were originally buses are thrown into the mix, assigned a letter followed by one number, and numbered progressively in groups counter-clockwise from Southeast to Southwest. That leads to a second numbering system that also provides a great deal of information, so you know that the “S” buses (S1, S2, S4) travel on 16th Street while the “L” buses (L1, L2, L4, L8) travel along Connecticut Ave.
    A lot of people don’t realize that any system exists, save for around where they live, but I do believe that it can provide valuable information when I find myself in an unfamiliar area or need to find a contingency plan if I miss my bus; If the next bus is an “H” or “N” or “30-something”, I have a very good idea of where that bus will travel and terminate. It may not be the most intuitive at first, but it conveys a lot of information and, by keeping out 100+-series buses actually connotes a level of simplicity in a very complex system.
    Now that being said, with the ability to look up nearby service on your phone more-or-less ubiquitous (thank you, Next Bus), the entire debate about numbering systems may be moot.

  28. david vartanoff August 21, 2011 at 12:08 pm #

    The whole point is making travel easier for riders. As others have pointed out, in cities with numbered cross town streets, keying the routes to the actual streets is intuitive. Similarly, DC’s legacy of grouped ##s and alphanumerics at least suggests a given area/corridor. Suffix letters indicating limited or express variants are clear. Using planning time to construct complex numbering schemes doesn’t speed riders to their destinations.

  29. Zoltán August 21, 2011 at 1:25 pm #

    I find it interesting that the more-or-less-monopolist bus operator in Leeds just tried its hand at corridor numbering, at the same time as buying new hybrid buses for the Scott Hall Road corridor. They refer to it as the 7-series.
    They all begin at City Station, then proceed as such:
    7 to Primley Park; every 10 mins.
    7A to Alwoodley, every 20 mins.
    7S to Shadwell, every 20 mins.
    (7A+7S every 10 mins to Ring Road Moortown, 4.5 miles)
    (7+7A+7S every 5 mins to Potternewton, 2.5 miles)
    X7 to Alwoodley, Limited stop, peak times only.
    Particularly good, I think, is that:
    – The letters correspond to destination – just about anyone can understand that.
    – The single number belongs to the frequent all-day route.
    Problems I have with it is:
    – The 7 and X7 share few stops; the X7 is really the X7S, but that would seem a cumbersome number.
    – For only 2.5 miles of the route can you simply take a number 7; nothing indicates well that it’s the 7A and 7S that share most of their route miles.
    – The presence of a 7 with no letters might be confusing in terms of interpreting instructions. “Did they mean I can only get the 7, or are any of the 7s good?”
    So, it’s a pleasing system, but I’d stop short of saying with any certainty that it’s the best way of doing numbering.

  30. Zoltán August 21, 2011 at 1:26 pm #

    *X7A, not X7S.

  31. Eric August 21, 2011 at 11:39 pm #

    I think a good example to use as a guide is the numbering systems that are used for highways. For example, in Seattle, highways can have all sorts of numbers, such as 516, 518, 520, 522, 524, 525, 526, 527, 900, 99, 18, 5, 405, etc. and nobody complains that the highway system is too complicated.
    So, I think 3-digit numbers are ok for transit too. In fact, for corridor-oriented transit routes that go up and down major highways, simply taking the number of the highway for the bus route can make it very easy to remember, provided it’s reasonably consistent with the transit agency’s numbering scheme.
    For example, Seattle uses the 500’s as regional express buses and the biggest state highways are also numbered in the 500’s, creating good opportunities. We take advantage of this once by running bus #522 on highway 522, but we’re not consistent about it. For example, the bus that goes down highway 520 is numbered 545 instead.

  32. David M August 22, 2011 at 8:29 am #

    I think it depends on how the system is structured. For a pure grid city, such as Vancouver or Toronto, I don’t think line numbers matter at all. In fact, when I take a bus in Vancouver, I don’t bother with line numbers, I just know the buses run the length of the main road for the most part. For example, in Vancouver, over the past 15 years or so, the line number for the Granville route has changed 3 times. I don’t know what it is now, but it will always be The Granville bus.
    For regional and non-grid systems, yes, a number is needed as it is a quick easy to remember identity and there is no one road to identify the bus with. You might be able to name the line after its final destination, but as the region becomes complex and more lines added, there’s a need to denote the line routing too.
    Consider this – in Victoria a regional line from Victoria to the ferry was the 70 Pat Bay Highway because it largely followed the Pat Bay Highway. It became known as the Pat Bay Highway bus for years. To serve more areas, more trips were added but diverted, so it now became the 70 Pat Bay Highway via Lochside, or 70 Pat Bay Highway via West Sidney, or 70 Pat Bay Highway via Airport or 70 Pat Bay Highway Express (the later staying on the gihway to provide express service between Victoria and the ferry terminal).
    These lines were eventually split into individual numbered routes and for all of them Pat Bay Highway in the descriptor was dropped and instead individual line numbers and a destination were added. Not surprisingly, this confused people and not long later the routes were consolidated again.
    I think the main point is that numbering lines or not, the key is for the transit agency to avoid renumbering lines or renaming lines were possible. As a previous poster stated, municipalities don’t keep changing road names; far too often cities change line numbers or names, or reroute lines for reasons that do not seem to make much sense or offer any benfit for the organisation or public.

  33. Alan Robinson August 23, 2011 at 1:24 pm #

    One often encounters the same problem with designing household or commericial electrical distribution systems. There are many buildings around with two or three electrical systems layed on top of each other as needs have changed. The best practice is to separate you’re circuits into a few main categories (lighting, plugs, and machinery), have one panel per category per floor or service area, and have double the number of circuits in the panel that you need.
    Have a simple to understand top level distribution of the numbers, and lots of spare space in the detailed numbers.

  34. Steve A September 1, 2011 at 3:13 pm #

    First time poster here, long-time fan of well-designed transport, maps, cartography and as you’ll see, a beginning dabbler in transportation planning. However, my approach is not without a foundation of plenty of math, university computer science, a thirty year career in software engineering and management (significant gigs at Apple, Adobe and private consulting), and lots of commuting by car, train, bus and bicycle. So I am a professional, just not a transportation planning professional per se. But do call me a “perfectionist” in the above-noted scheme.
    In Santa Cruz, California, we have an outstanding (and relatively complex) bicycle network infrastructure. In the USA, something like 1% to 2% (maybe) of commuters bicycle (to work, socially, for light transport of goods, and to cultural destinations like fairs or festivals), but in my city of 60,000, bicycling is something like 11% to 13% of trips, an exceedingly high number.
    Consequently, the Bike Map published by our county transport agency is their most popular publication. It shows “Class I, II and III” bicycle paths, lanes and routes (respectively) as different colored segments on this printed and online map, but there is no “whole network” or gestalt-like approach to tie it all together. Until recently, when a “wayfinding” project by the city decided to provide an overhaul of most transport and tourism signage and this got started talk of bicycle routes and whether numbers should even be applied to them.
    Similar to San Francisco, Silicon Valley, East Bay (Oakland, Berkeley), Stockton, San Diego and other cities (in California, the USA and Europe), our city cries out for a well-numbered bicycle network. As I have been involved in a wikipedia-like worldwide mapping project for some years (OpenStreetMap, or OSM) by mapping my city and county, and it has a well-defined bicycle route-aware layer on the map, I decided to undertake designing and developing a network numbering system. I have deployed a “mid-stage” visualization of this proposal on OSM, which you can view at The reason the blue lines are dashed is because this is all just a proposal: lines on any given route will go from dashed to solid simply by deleting the tag “state=proposed” in the map source.
    The reason I post here is because my approaches to this transportation numbering proposal are quite sane, regular, and even familiar to the uninitiated, but it has been very difficult to get any feedback from our local public officials on whether this is a workable system or whether or not it might be adopted (sans other competing proposals). To wit, the system has very sound rules:
    East-west routes are even numbers, north-south routes are odd numbers, identical to California’s automobile highway numbering,
    One-, two- and three-digit bicycle route numbers are allowed,
    Single digit routes serve the downtown urban core and beach,
    Two digit routes are longer-length, or “more primary,” with routes ending in 0 or 5 being “significant” or “major” (identical to the USA’s national Interstate Highway System numbering),
    Three digit routes are “spur” or “belt” routes off of the “root” or “parent” 1- or 2-digit route (again, even E-W, odd N-S, ditto),
    Suffixes on routes are thus: L = Loops, N, S, E, W are direction-restricted travel segments, A, B, C, D are alternative or separate segments, and Z are planning routes (not usually shown on maps),
    There are also routes on dirt or gravel paths or tracks with an M suffix (for Mountain Bike trails) which form a sort of sub-network, and are shown on maps in a different color.
    There are also fairly firm trends of “closer to the coastline, lower number” and “further south in the county, higher number.” In my opinion, the entire effect of the visualization you can see with that link up there is quite pleasing, but of course I am biased towards my own design!
    The whole point is to achieve a harmonized (among several city and one county jurisdiction) and very user-friendly approach to bicycle network route numbering. (The proposal even spells out how to slowly introduce routes along major corridors first with suggested “first point” signage locations). I hope to simply throw this proposal into the public domain and hope it “sticks to the wall,” but I do know how important patience is here: my proposal has been hanging in limbo for the better part of a year.
    Might I ask folks here to take a brief look and tell me what you think? I know bicycle routes and their numbering into a cohesive and friendly numbering system is not quite what has been / is being discussed here, but I believe the same good transportation planning fundamentals apply to numbering a bicycle network as they do to bus, rail, or highway systems. Right?
    I don’t think I have over-engineered this, as I have tried to leave about 10% to 15% of the two-digit namespace available for unanticipated future growth, and growth is easily accommodated using 3-digit routes where appropriate. I have checked all jurisdictions’ planning documents 25 years into the future (for bicycle infrastructure proposed projects) and my numbering is prepped for all such anticipated growth (with Z or planning numbers in the namespace). What am I forgetting? Am I mostly on-track here?
    Thank you!

  35. EngineerScotty September 1, 2011 at 4:10 pm #

    The route numbers on TriMet mean diddly-squat these days. And the system works just fine.

  36. Jarrett at September 1, 2011 at 4:32 pm #

    Good job, Steve!  Your numbering is certainly more durable than the Interstate Highway System's!

  37. Steve A September 2, 2011 at 11:13 am #

    I appreciate the comment, Jarrett.
    And EngineerScotty, I’m not sure if your comment is meant to directly address my post or my post + others, but part of the reason a “perfectionist” like me about route numbers does this is to “ease” or “guide” users through the system, especially as they may view signage and/or not have an actual network map. Please understand that a bicycle rider is an active, rather than a passive navigator through a transit system: the navigation happens either as a plan before beginning the trip, ALONG THE WAY, or both. It is that “along the way” portion that a well-designed numbering system can truly help.
    For example, in the proposed Santa Cruz “CycleNet” numbering proposal, if a tourist wants to rent a bike at the Beach-Boardwalk (single-digit numbers) and go north via the 30s to the 50s (Scotts Valley), that is different than if they take the 40s east to the 60s (Live Oak) and 70s/80s/90s (Aptos and Watsonville) that are in mid- and south-county. Conversely, seeing route numbers on signage “get smaller” means that the active navigation the bicyclist is doing to get closer to the downtown urban core is correct: the “pull-through” aspect of the signage which says “Downtown” as a control point/city and the route numbers getting smaller and smaller (towards the single digit routes Downtown) is reassuring that the bicycle navigator is progressing in the correct direction.
    With a bus or tram/trolley/train network, this sort of route numbering matters less. But with “active navigation” (as on a highway or bicycle numbered network), I believe it is a much more important consideration to have a numbering which is regular and therefore helpful. It is not just everyday commuters who use our bicycle infrastructure. Tourism, and bicycle tourism especially, play a major role in why a sane and regular bicycle network numbering is a good idea.
    Many areas of Europe (especially the Low Countries of Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg) have outstanding bicycle network numbering systems. There is no reason the rest of the world shouldn’t, too.

  38. EngineerScotty September 2, 2011 at 2:37 pm #

    My comment was directed at the thread in general, not at your post.
    There are a few bits of rhyme/reason to TriMet route numbers. At one point, the routes were arranged in a radial system with numbers increasing as you went clockwise, and there are still remnants of that–but many routes violate that pattern these days. 9X routes are expresses; there’s a few 1XX routes serving as local circulators in Clackamas County, etc.–but in general, there’s little that can be discerned from a given route number about its location, importance, or service level.
    One other thing about TriMet–several lines do have branches or short runs, while having the same route number, so you have to pay attention to the final destination as well as the number to make sure you’re on the right bus. For example, only half of the 9/Powell busses leaving downtown will make it to Gresham; the other half only get to SE 92nd before turning around and heading back to downtown. I tend to consider this practice somewhat obnoxious–especially since other branching lines are given separate numbers (54/56 and 76/78 being significant examples).
    In general, I think that encoding information in route numbers is about as useful as the fact that the first three digits of a US social security number identify the state a person was born in–not much. In the field of computer science, database keys (account numbers, etc) which encode information is nowadays considered a bad practice; the preferred practice is to use pseudo-random numbers (or serial numbers) for identifiers–numbers whose only significance is that they are unique.

  39. Jarrett at September 2, 2011 at 2:41 pm #

    Nothing obnoxious about using the same number for a shortline and longline.  Would you really rather have two line numbers on Powell, and all the complexity that brings to the map?  It's not a big problem.  If your bus ends at the shortline, the driver will tell you to get off and wait for the same longline you'd have caught anyway. 
    Branches are a totally different matter, and TriMet treats them as such.

  40. EngineerScotty September 2, 2011 at 3:25 pm #

    There are a few exceptions (the 15 comes to mind past NW 23rd, though the two branches are both rather short). The 33 used to branch in Gladstone (half of the busses staying on OR99E, the other running through downtown Gladstone), though this appears to have been eliminated in a recent round of service cuts (all 33s now stay on the highway).

  41. Andrew C September 13, 2011 at 8:27 pm #

    Well, another first-post here. Call me a perfectionist.
    One thing that hasn’t been emphasized very much is they type of network we’re numbering. Sydney is a perfect example of how to number a radial network. Like Jarrett mentioned, the 420-series is quite systematic – but 42 doesn’t mean via University of Sydney. 4 means inner west, and the 2 alone means via University of Sydney.
    This works great in Sydney, but would be a disaster in say, Singapore, where the system is not built around the CBD but rather on interchanges scattered all over Singapore. Singapore has a mildly systematic system – mildly because the numbers have some meaning but these are obscure. 1- or 2-digit SBS numbers indicate the route is either a) trunk or b) old, for example. Higher-order numbers (6xx, 7xx, 8xx, 9xx) usually indicate the routes belong to the other operator, SMRT.
    Now, what really works? It depends. I prefer Sydney’s numbering system, mixed with some Singapore. The first digit should indicate area, the second digit the corridor and the third digit the route. Letter suffixes can be appended to indicate limited, express, short-turn, branch, diverted, etc.
    Alternately, we can use the first digit as region, the second digit as interchange and the third digit as route.
    For greater fun, we can even shift the type suffixes to the front, and replace the third digit with a letter suffix to indicate route – giving us 24 options (kicking I and O) rather than just ten.
    This works OK for radial or overlapping radial systems, but collapses with grids or otherwise non-focused systems.
    On the whole, I just support systems that can be used. Truth is, the average commuter doesn’t care that much what the numbering system (if there even is one, e.g. Hong Kong) is – they just want to get from A to B.

  42. Ivy February 23, 2012 at 12:33 am #

    My city, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has a numbering system that’s not too crazy but I think is mostly of the Anarchist variety that tried to be fixed. Eventually, the routes mostly in the city proper were numbered 1 to 89 + some lettered routes like R & J, and higher numbered (into the 100s–300s) routes are usually suburban. A special 400-series is reserved for a few school routes that run at very limited times of day & don’t seem to be listed on any public resource.
    My major gripe with our number system is that the few trolleys we have (all of them except one is run underground for a decent portion of the route) are also given regular route numbers that don’t stand out at all from the large number of buses in this city. A more minor gripe is not enough express bus routes and several routes that are modified a bit and would be better notated by a letter suffix like 20A & 20B for two local variants of the 20, as well as a 20E for the express 20.
    I believe SEPTA should get rid of the current few letter buses and seem to be working to do that with the recent conversion of the 2 C buses into 2 numbered routes. Letters ought to be switched to the trolley lines even though when run outdoors, they mostly run like regular buses (having to obey standard traffic rules). Additionally, I believe the rest of the 2-digit numbers (the 90s) should be re-assigned to primarily run in the city as the rest of the smaller numbers, with the 3-digit numbers being all suburban (with as many slots open especially in the 300-range, it’s likely they could just prefix all 90-series routes with a 3, making say the 91 a 391).
    I think good numbering could still benefit people even in this technological age we live in, as not everyone has access to the latest gadgetry and it may not be practical to retro-fit detailed maps & timetables at every stop in large cities. We shouldn’t make too specific a system but something more general like I mentioned above.

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