branding individual routes: too many colors, or the gold standard of legibility?

 What might we learn from this bus? (click to enlarge)


Inner_Link_bus_in_Auckland crop

Inner Link is one of four Auckland bus lines — all very frequent and designed to be useful for a wide range of trips — that have buses painted specifically for the purpose.  The other three are Outer Link (orange), City Link (red), and Northern Express (black).  In each case, the paint job is all about making it look easy to hop on.  Note that the bus assures you of the maximum fare you'll pay, and that the list of destinations along the top of the bus gives confidence about exactly where this bus will take you.  (For an Aucklander, these names are all familiar landmarks, so anyone can mentally string them together into a general sense of route.)  

It's important, too, that this is one of Auckland's newer buses.  The big, clear windows are important.  In fact, if it weren't for the maddening bus wrap, this bus would be entirely transparent, so that you could see the people on board and even make out the city beyond it.  This bus arises from European designs that are intentionally gentle on the eye, and whose transparency starts to undermine complaints about a "wall of buses."

When I first saw the branding of these buses in Auckland, I found them irritating.  These buses were announcing simple, legible, frequent routes in a way that marketed them effectively enough, but did nothing to convey that they are part of a larger network of services designed to work together.  Of course, the reality of today's network in Auckland (unlike the one Auckland Transport has in the works) is that it is a confusing tangle of infrequent and overlapping services that is almost impossible to make clear.  [PDF]  

Akl chaos map sample

In the context of all that chaos, you needed these strong route-level brands like Inner Link to stand out as something useful.   And now that we plan to create over 20 bus routes that are as clear and legible as this one, the question arises, should we continue to brand them this way, each one separately, perhaps in a lively diversity of colors from goldenrod to teal?

Compare this to what Los Angeles Metro did, dividing its fleet of 1000+ buses mostly into just two colors, red for Rapid and orange for Local.  This has helped everyone see the faster Metro Rapid buses, but how much more might be achieved if you could paint a bus with both icons and information that would celebrate its role as, say, the Venice Blvd. Rapid?

The marketing and legibility question, of course is:  Would the diversity of looks (perhaps in the context of shared design elements that mean "Rapid") make the system look simpler or more complicated?  In Los Angeles I'm not sure.  In Auckland, where the system as a whole could hardly look more complicated than it does today, the call seems easier.  

The issue for operations is the risk of fleet diversity.  In almost any transit agency, the operations folks will tell you they need maximum flexibility to deploy any bus on any route.  In some big-city agencies I've worked with, operating bases ("depots" in British) store buses in long stacks, where buses can be sent out only in the sequence that they came in the previous night.  Every new factor of fleet specialization becomes a new threat to getting the right bus on the right route every morning — an admittedly heroic effort if you've toured some of the grimmer, overcrowded facilities involved.

So a separate color for every route would be a non-starter in most of North America.  Yet if we designed operating bases so that you could access any bus, or even could just have much shorter stacks, it's not obviously outrageous.  For each route, you'd paint enough buses to run just 80-100% of the midday fleet requirement.  You'd never have more painted buses than you could use.  You'd also have a supply of generic buses that could be added to any route, either as replacements for buses in the shop or as supplemental peak service.  And you'd only do this for routes with high all-day frequency seven days a week and relatively little additional service added at peaks.

In certain contexts — especially in a case like Auckland where the whole city must learn a new story about the usefulness of buses — it might make sense.  Even if we end up with goldenrod and teal.

23 Responses to branding individual routes: too many colors, or the gold standard of legibility?

  1. Morganwick March 28, 2013 at 7:29 pm #

    I’ve read that there’s a limit to how many colors you can put on e.g. a system map and still have them stand out from one another to the human eye, but I think the link I may have gotten that from is dead. But I’m pretty sure the number is somewhere around 10, certainly less than 30.

  2. Max Wyss March 29, 2013 at 1:37 am #

    As the article says, this emphasis on specific lines reduces the message “it is a system”; “we are where you want to be” etc. It is to decide whether this network message is important enough to justify the separation to lines.
    An alternative would be line numbers. But then, it is very important that the line number can be seen from any angle of the bus, meaning that it has to be displayed in a very legible manner on all four sides. If a color is added, it may be a secondary attribute.
    Considering full color coding of the lines could work as an introductory measure, but the time should be kept short, in order to prevent people be trained for the full color livery.

  3. Robert Madison March 29, 2013 at 7:21 am #

    Having visited Los Angeles semi-regularly over the last few years, I note that despite the specific “branding” on the buses, you still regularly see “Rapid” buses on local routes and vice versa. I’ve seen similar occurrences in other cities as well.
    There’s also the issue of interlining and scheduling flexibility. If a bus is scheduled to do multiple services over the course of the day, you either have to pay for an extra bus and operator, just to keep the “branded” service separate, or you will have improperly allocated buses by design.
    I’m okay with the idea of putting fancy destination signs on the buses. Those are electronic, and can be changed in 2 seconds to switch from one route to another. But, with the example above, there’s too much information on that bus for any of it to really be useful in the few seconds (or less) you are likely to have while the bus is close by.
    A better idea, in my opinion, is to brand the bus stops. They are in a fixed position, and the passenger can take as much time as he/she wants to read the information. It can include an indication of what destination sign to look for on the approaching buses, and the bus can still be mixed in with the rest of the fleet.

  4. Robert Wightman March 29, 2013 at 10:26 am #

    The use of colour to differentiate between types of service, local versus express, is one thing but to have a colour for each service is getting carried away. You either end up with the wrong colour bus on a route or a larger than needed spare ratio.
    We have streets and terminals where buses from 4 different agencies can be found. The colour here helps you to find the correct service. If each service were to colour code routes it would be chaos.
    The city I live in out side Toronto has white and Blue buses for local service and grey and red ones for express. They also have a small group that are a mix of the two schemes that can be used on either line. I find the use of too many colours confusing.
    I believe that destinations signs were invented to tell you where the bus goes. Perhaps they will be able to produce multi coloured LED destinations signs to help patrons identify different services.
    Auckland should really look and getting a grid system.

  5. anonymouse March 29, 2013 at 10:52 am #

    From the operations point of view, the lines that provide a frequent and consistent all-day headway are the best candidate for this special kind of treatment, since they need a pretty constant number of buses that won’t really be used for anything else throughout the day (even if they’re different buses each day). On the other hand, things like peak hour express buses can be a worse candidate if, for example, the same physical buses do school runs before being sent off to do their afternoon express trips.

  6. Zoltán March 29, 2013 at 12:38 pm #

    Along with many cities in the UK in which the same operator (First bus) more or less monopolised, about ten years ago the seventeen frequent routes (every 10 mins day, 30 eves/sun or better) were given separate colours and marketed as blue line, red line, etc.
    Buses didn’t get all over coloured paint, but received coloured vinyl strips displaying the road used and major destinations, and destination boards spent half their time reading “[colour] line”.
    It seems to have been intended that people would start to refer to buses by the line colour. To this day, I’ve met no one that’s ever even mentioned a line colour. People continued to use the route (“the Burley Road bus”), or the number (“the 49 or 50”). As could be expected, it didn’t help that the wrong buses were often on the wrong routes, so people ignored the colours appearing on the buses.
    Over the years, this has become apparent and colour lines have been emphasised less. Far fewer buses have coloured vinyl strips; destination boards show destination and route (“Horsforth via Burley Road”) rather than destination and line colour.
    Though this has the appearance of a failure, there has been one major victory in the legibility of the network map ( ). The city’s road layout is messy and complex. The colours make the frequent routes stand out, and also, crucially, makes individual routes easy to follow.
    Here lies a contrast with Los Angeles, where the street grid is mostly very simple, so routes would be easy to follow anyway. Whether frequent routes should be individually coloured or emphasised in alternative ways probably comes down to two things:
    – How simple the road and bus route network is; i.e. how likely buses are to operate in a clear straight line;
    – How many frequent routes exist; i.e. whether the quantity of colours would be hard to visually distinguish and therefore potentially diminish legibility.
    If a city does proceed with colours, it might help to learn from Leeds and use colours but associate them with descriptive route names (perhaps “Central Road Line”, “North Coast Line” or “Anytown Line”) that relate to the Geography with which people navigate. I suspect naming by colour works best for heavy rail, where lines and stations are themselves a prominent geographical feature.

  7. LouisOutlook March 29, 2013 at 2:00 pm #

    A problem is the loss of operational flexibility. Sometimes we see these green buses running other routes, which makes things very confusing.

  8. Federico March 29, 2013 at 2:37 pm #

    I think a well designed system livery could be read regardless it uses one color to all lines or one color to each line.
    If you want to identify a line with colours you don´t need to use only one colour. Multiple colors could be used at one time to identify a single line. You can also have more buses than you need in each line for the case that some of them are broken or in rapair so you don´t need to share buses with other lines.
    For example, my city, Tucuman, have almost 20 lines and each one has it´s unique operator and livery. Argentina´s capital, Buenos Aires, have almost 200 diferent liveries. You can know what line is from every angle even when the buses have the line number only in the front.
    Some photos:

  9. Richard Layman March 29, 2013 at 5:42 pm #

    WRT this you have the Boulder examples of Hop, Skip, Jump, etc.
    And how many bus lines in the UK, particularly in Brighton & Hove, have branded buses, although they don’t use different color liveries, but do list the main activity centers on the route.
    just look up B&H buses in google and you’ll see a bunch of images of what I am talking about.

  10. Dexter Wong March 29, 2013 at 11:55 pm #

    The first horse car (or cable car or streetcar) lines had cars painted only for that line they worked. If another line ran short of cars there was no way to supplement service until someone came up with the idea of putting the line name on a removable sign and painting all the cars in one company alike (so any car could be used on any line). The removable sign evolved into the cloth roll sign and then the electronic sign. Now you say things are going back the other way toward different paint schemes for different lines?

  11. Jeffrey Bridgman March 30, 2013 at 9:12 am #

    Maybe someday we’ll have paint that can changes color available at a reasonable price… then you can just put a stripe along the side of the bus and change its color when you change routes 😉

  12. JJJ March 30, 2013 at 12:03 pm #

    Jeffrey, you can sort of do that with the destination sign.

  13. david vartanoff March 31, 2013 at 11:20 am #

    Special “branding” paint schemes (considered an integral part of BRT) make nice images for desk jockeys and politicians who don’t actually ride bus transit. Once the shine is off the new fleet the reality of chronically underfunded maintenance sets in with “anything roadworthy” assigned as available. And, frankly, as a rider, the extra cost red (or whatever) paint doesn’t make the ride faster or more reliable. Why bother!

  14. Max Wyss March 31, 2013 at 2:06 pm #

    I actually remember one public transport line which was fully color coded and lbranded: the light rail line between Bonn and Siegburg, where the Deutsche Telekom sponsored a long-term advertising contract. Essentially all vehicles got the pink Telecom livery, and the line was also marketed as the “Telekom Linie”. Now, in that case, there were no issues with mixing with other lines, because the rolling stock was exclusively used for that line.

  15. Neil April 1, 2013 at 8:33 am #

    I think this only provides value to the customer if and *only* if vehicle type X is used on route type X. Otherwise, putting the the “wrong” vehicle on the wrong route creates confusion, apprehension, and mistrust.
    So the transit agency better be willing to have at least as many vehicles as required for the route(s), and resist the temptation to deploy them elsewhere.
    Doesn’t feel like a good use of my fare & tax dollars, compared to larger, brighter electronic signs that can convey useful information anywhere, any time.

  16. Steve Lax April 1, 2013 at 4:52 pm #

    If one assumes that branding is being used, in part, to build transit use leading to increased patronage and the creation of more routes, one can also assume that the transit system will eventually run out of colors. (Of course, one could have striped and tartan patterns and symbols – the “bear” route passes the zoo, the “basketball player” route passes the arena, and so forth; but there is a limit somewhere, just as there is a limit on how many lines of information one wishes to put on an electronic sign and still be legible.
    I worry, however, that at some point a color-blind individual will complain and the “red” route would also have to be plastered with big white letters saying “RED” to address this problem.
    Even with this marketing effort, one would still have to be waiting in the correct direction at an intermediate stop; so signing at the stop would still be needed. And if this signing said something like “Route 15 to Hospital (a Rapid Transit route)” and if the marketing effort promoted routes ending in “5” as rapid or BRT routes (or an equally rational numbering scheme for the particular system), then a bus painting scheme would not be needed.

  17. Joel N. Weber II April 3, 2013 at 8:55 pm #

    The New York Subway system in the US has 24 train services, which seems similar to the number of bus routes you’re considering, and the New York Subway system seems to use 10 colors (five for the five north-south quad track mainlines through midtown, one for the 7 Flushing Line, one for the L train, one for J and Z, one for G, and one for the shuttles).
    The New York City Subway also does not paint entire trains to brand them as far as I know, although the trains spend more time underground than typical buses.
    The MBTA subway trains in Boston, MA, USA are painted different colors, but the dimensional requirements are different for each line. (Mattapan Line style equipment used to be used on the Green Line, but given that the Mattapan Line fleet is a dozen or fewer 50′ PCCs and the Green Line fleet is around 200 75′ articulated cars and there is probably no operational track connection between them, there doesn’t seem to be much motivation to borrow the Mattapan cars for the Green Line; also, the wheelchair accessibility on the Green Line that seems to actually work reasonably well is for the newer low floor cars, whereas the Mattapan Line has mini high platforms for the PCCs. Also, new Blue Line trains are tested on Orange Line track before being trucked over to the Blue Line.)

  18. Sascha Claus April 12, 2013 at 5:59 pm #

    Decades ago, before streetcars used to line their roof edges with advertising ;-), they used to fit signs with major landmarks or neighbourhoods along the route. If the average LCD/LED sign isn’t enough for special bus routes, fittings for some old-fashioned signs shouldn’t be too expensive, but much more flexible than painting it onto the bus.

  19. Cowan April 19, 2013 at 5:19 am #

    Colors for Branding is much important thing when i read this post, well all buses have a unique color and shows elegant on road as well…

  20. Jordan Trew April 19, 2013 at 10:33 pm #

    re: “The issue for operations is the risk of fleet diversity. In almost any transit agency, the operations folks will tell you they need maximum flexibility to deploy any bus on any route… Every new factor of fleet specialization becomes a new threat to getting the right bus on the right route every morning”
    Colour-coding busses does not need to be permanent. Could not a panel of multi-color LEDs be used, say on the front and back end of a bus or in some other prominent location? Then the colour could be changed as required.

  21. hU0N January 29, 2014 at 12:23 am #

    This sort of thing is starting to happen in Brisbane also. I’m not sure that it’s particularly useful though, mostly because the branded lines are fairly haphazard in their routing and coverage, and are duplicated along sections of their length by other unbranded routes to alternate destinations that may actually be more useful. So unless you are one of a very small subset of commuters, you still need to look up where you want to go to find the right bus.
    I have often wondered though, if colours could be used to brand groups of routes, for the purpose of legibility. For example, a main road into town might warrant 8bph service, but none of the individual sub-catchments served by this road warrant greater than 3pbh service. Would it be useful to group three sub-catchment routes together as for example, the Blue 1, Blue 2, Blue 3, with branded buses etc. Together these routes would provide 3bph into each catchment AND a combined 9bph along the main road.
    With branding, signage outside the bus would focus on the common route, (something like the blue corridor) making it clear that any blue bus would take you to every stop on the blue corridor. Signage inside the bus could then highlight the entire blue network, perhaps with a map of all three routes, information about which route you are currently on and information on where to alight to transfer between blue route services. (Similar to on board signage on Melbourne trams).
    This way you can maximise frequency where it’s needed, coverage where that’s needed, single seat journeys where they are possible, all without sacrificing legibility.
    Just something I’ve often wondered.

  22. Timothy Tielman August 30, 2018 at 1:32 pm #

    How about a broad LED ring around the top that can change color at the push of a button? Scoreboards in stadiums in direct sunlight are legible, so it would work day and night. No need to paint the buses or worry about the pulling the right equipment out of the barn in the morning.

  23. jack June 4, 2020 at 9:27 am #

    Here is an odd coincidence, the name of this game is very close to the campaign theme of the incumbent Honolulu mayor, “Honolulu, a city in motion,” which plays up the large city aspects of the region.