Paris: The Triumph of the Bus Stop

Do you think bus service is never as “permanent” as rail service?  Well, it depends on how much infrastructure you build, and how proudly it announces the bus service as an essential part of the cityscape, both as icon and as opportunity.

Each time I visit Paris there’s something new in its public transit, but these new bus stop signs, now standard across the city, are remarkable.


They’re around 4m (12 ft) high, towering over the bus shelter to which they’re attached.  At night they are the most prominent informational icons in the streetscape, by an order of magnitude.

Look closer:

Version 2

Every stop has a name, reaffirming your sense of your place in the city.  (At night, these are actually the easiest locational signs to read, so they have navigational value extending beyond transit.)  For each route, there’s the number, the endpoint (indicating direction of travel) and the number of minutes until the next bus arrives.  If you know the network, you don’t even have to look down to know where you are, and when the next bus is coming.

Here’s one in the daytime, when the little realtime displays are harder to catch in a photo.


I don’t have a good pic of the entire shelter, but it has everything you’d expect of a rail stop, including maps of each route, a diagram of the bus network, a diagram of the metro and regional rail network, and timetable and fare information.  It also has more extensive realtime information displays, showing the next several buses departing.

On the other hand, it doesn’t have the extraneous things that my architecture and built-environment friends often suggest, such as distinctive architectural designs or “community hub” features like coffee vending or (yes) lending libraries — all of which have been explored.  A big city needs lots of bus stops, so the ideas that matter are the ones that scale.  In any case, the more you respect your bus system, the more you can celebrate it for what it is, rather than expecting it to entertain us in ways that distract from the liberty it provides.

When I lived in Paris in 1986, the buses and bus shelters were like what most Americans are used to: basic, functional, but sometimes dirty and poorly maintained.  It was presumed, back then, that the Metro and regional rail systems were the serious transit, and that the buses didn’t matter much, and the infrastructure reinforced that message.

All that has changed.  Buses are so nice that you can scarcely distinguish them from trams (streetcars).  Many streets have car-free lanes that buses can use.  Now, with these pillars of information, bus stops are even easier to find than metro stations, and almost as easy to navigate.

There are several principles at work here:

  • The more subways you have, the more surface transit you need.  This excellent bus system operates right on top of the world’s densest metro network (in terms of stations/sq km).  Almost everyone in Paris is near a metro station, but there are still plenty of markets (short trips, trips along paths not followed by metro) where surface transit is the right tool.
  • Unless you already have streetcar tracks everywhere, the only surface transit that can cover your whole city, soon, is bus service.
  • So if you want an effective transit system for everyone, you have to convey that the bus system matters, through network design, branding, and infrastructure.
  • The order is important.  First get the network design right, then develop branding that works with the network design.  Finally, conceive infrastructure that serves and celebrates both.

I could quibble with Paris on that last point.  As with most bus networks, Paris’s seems to be more complex than it needs to be, though a modest simplification is underway, as you can see by playing the map here* .  The signage doesn’t help us distinguish major routes from minor ones.  Imagine the extreme transparency that would arise from fusing Paris’s level of bus signage with Barcelona’s commitment to extreme simplicity and legibility in network design.

But the big point is this:  Buses can be as liberating and efficient as your city wants them to be.  The more efficient and liberating they are, the more they deserve to be celebrated in infrastructure.  The bus stop is one of the biggest signals, to everyone in the city, about the community’s attitude toward buses and their customers.


* At this page, you can move the map left or right to see the changes.  The current network is on the left, the proposed one on the right.  It’s simpler but not that much simpler, and it still doesn’t help you distinguish major routes (high frequency, long duration) from minor ones (lower frequency, short duration).

25 Responses to Paris: The Triumph of the Bus Stop

  1. Jeff Wegerson September 27, 2016 at 7:56 pm #

    My wife has difficulty handling stairs. The vast majority of Paris Metro stations have neither elevators nor escalators. That makes the bus system our first choice. For a tourist the bus provides the sense of connectivity and city scale that can be lost in a subway. Being from Chicago it has been a struggle adapting to a gridless bus system that also has well separated bus stops. But adapting has vastly improved our experience here.

    So that was you, Jarrett, I saw on the bus today! (Just kidding but I too am in Paris vacationing.) I just noticed the new signs “down town.”

    As an aside, last week we were in the south of France. We rented a car for four days. Learning to drive in France was one of the most stressful things I have done. We returned the car a half day early just to get rid of it.

    • ararar September 28, 2016 at 2:24 pm #

      I always thought driving in France was nice, the roads aren’t less well-ordered than those in Switzerland. Compared to Italy it’s relaxing for sure.

      • Jeff Wegerson September 29, 2016 at 12:38 am #

        I’m sure I would get less stressed with time behin the wheel. Although I wonder if the stress remains at a subconscious level not usually raising conscious alarm. Additionally it was extremely stressful for my sensitive passenger wife and her stress also affected mine. But then you confirm the situation with the phrase “less well ordered.”

  2. el_slapper September 28, 2016 at 1:33 am #

    The current mayoral team of Paris(which began in 2001 with Bertrand Delanoë) is focused on making things better on that topic. It’s good. It’s very good. If you are a parisian, that is.

    If you live in the far suburb, and are not lucky to libe just next to a suburban train station, you’re screwed. In 1986, everything was in Paris, and you could go by car. In 2016, you can’t go by car, and you can’t park your car next to a train station either. So the wonders of Paris are forbidden to you.

    I’m caricaturing the situation, but while the inner car traffick has been properly replaced by various forms of efficient transit, the outer transit has not been adapted to the new deal. And that’s a problem.

    • sonamib September 28, 2016 at 5:32 am #

      You’re being a little unfair. The regional government is investing in mass transit in the outer regions of Paris : Consider all the new tram lines. Also, the Grand Paris Express. I guess the bus systems in the suburbs could be better, but that’s not really the fault of Paris’s mayor.

      The big problem is that the far suburbs were built to be car-dependent, and it was completely unrealistic to believe that the inner city would be able to handle that huge volume of cars. Retrofitting the suburbs is gonna take a long time.

  3. Lupus September 28, 2016 at 2:21 am #

    Hi Jarrett ! Thank you for your regular posts on Paris ! It’s always good to have an external view on what’s happening down here…

    I just have two comments on your post :

    – the first is the classic comment of greater parisians on such posts : Paris “Intramuros” may have the densest subway network in the world, but the city extends far beyond the Paris city council “limits”, and the densest suburbs still struggle with a far lesser dense system. Luckily, the Greater Paris Metro is going to improve this.

    – the second is on your comparison with the Barcelonian bus network. A similar grid plan would be difficult to apply in Paris, where as you know the wider streets are organised as a Spider Web, combining links between the different monuments and infrastructures (Operas, Squares, Train Stations…), radial axis and circular streets following the different antique city walls. Anyway, a rationalisation of the Parisian bus network, which hasn’t changed in 60 years, in ongoing. The plan reduces the number of lines in the core of the city to provide better service on the east side of the city, which population has badly increased in the last decades. More informations, with a before/after comparison tool, here :

    However, I’m allways glad to read you !

  4. Mike Robinson September 28, 2016 at 2:55 am #

    I think it is a great point that bus stops don’t have the same “landmark” status as metro or train stations. In London anyway, I haven’t been aware of systematic naming of bus stops until comparatively recently and even then, the names are nowhere near as apparent as the Parisian example.

    Interesting to read the comment about the rationalisation of the Parisian bus network. The same is long overdue in London as some areas in the centre are ridiculously “over-bussed” and are little more that a wall of red moving at snails pace. Trouble is, some routes are over 100 years old and planners tinker with them at their peril.

  5. Alon Levy September 28, 2016 at 8:46 am #

    Paris has a really low bus-to-rail ridership ratio, though. In Paris proper, bus ridership is 330 million as of 2006; it’s actually a hair down from 1997. The suburban buses are busier and growing, but they’re not situated in an environment where nearly everything is walking distance to the Metro.

  6. Valentin R September 28, 2016 at 8:51 am #

    In my opinion, there are two big issues about the Parisian bus network.

    Firstly, this is a very old network designed long time ago and that never changed. Most routes are oriented towards the center of Paris while some of the outskirts are poorly served, particularly the working-class districts in the north of the capital city. Furthermore, this network does not (enough) support commuting with suburban cities.

    Secondly, I think that the Parisian bus network is not complementary with the mass transit network. If the Paris Metro is one of the densest in the world, some journeys remain difficult (long) to achieve. Bus routes could be very good alternative to that. Catching a metro line from another one by taking a bus is never done because the routes are non-exhistent or because intermodal paths (train-bus-train) are not highlighted

    Anyway, the Paris bus network is still very dense and very useful compared to other cities. i am just pointing some improvements that i would like to see.

    • Eric September 29, 2016 at 3:14 am #

      Is this map accurate? The network seems pretty good to me. Most streets have only one bus route on them (which, presumably, runs at high frequency). And most of the routes are pretty direct. There is sort of a “grid”, although due to the street layout it is not perfect and definitely not rectangular.

  7. Simval September 28, 2016 at 11:08 am #

    “The more subways you have, the more surface transit you need.”

    I don’t think that’s actually true in all cases. On a statistical level, Japan proves the opposite, very high rail transit use, very low bus use. On a personal level, since I moved to the area covered by subways in Montréal, I’ve never taken a bus inside that subway-served area, except once or twice just for the heck of it.

    One of the major reasons is the usual bus dilemma: to have high ridership, buses need high density around their route. But as density increases, they have to stop more often and traffic is slower, which means that buses get less and less useful. Buses do not only compete with cars, they compete with walking, biking and (where present) bike-shares. When they get too slow, there is just no point to taking it for healthy adults and teenagers (well, unless they have AC in a very hot city, like I saw in China where they advertised the AC right next to the bus number on the front of the vehicle).

    Just for fun, I checked on Google Maps inside Paris for a random trip along a boulevard. At 9 PM, the bus that travels down that boulevard goes at an average of 12 km/h, a bit over 7 MPH. At 5 PM, during the evening peak when transit demand is highest, it goes at a mere 8 km/h, or 5 MPH. What’s the point of taking the bus then? It’s barely faster than walking (once you consider the wait time at the stop), and slower than biking.

    London has a lot of subways and tons of buses, sure, but London has a piss-poor development pattern with no concentration of development along subway stations and poor bike infrastructure. So they have an awful last mile problem, which results in the average bus trip being about 2 miles only. Likewise, if you build rapid transit in a low-density city, you suddenly make transit far more convenient and entice some in the suburbs to take transit to go downtown, but since the suburbs are low density, people are unlikely to live within walking distance of the station, so they have to ride a bus to get there. In that case, yes, the more rapid transit you have, the more buses you will need.

    Even then, providing infrastructure and parking to bikes might fill that need. I remember seeing, near Chigasaki station in the far suburbs of Tokyo, a 4-story parking garage just for bicycles right next to the station, each row had bicycles stacked one on top of each other. I’d say it was literally built for a thousand bikes… but I think I am underestimating it.

    • Nathanael October 5, 2016 at 7:08 am #

      Jarrett: “The more subways you have, the more surface transit you need.”

      You: “I don’t think that’s actually true in all cases. On a statistical level, Japan proves the opposite, very high rail transit use, very low bus use. ”

      Jarrett’s a bus fanatic who pushes buses whether or not they’re appropriate, and his brain discards data which doesn’t support his bus-bus-bus stance.. He’ll deny this, but then he says nonsense like this, and nonsense like “Buses are so nice that you can scarcely distinguish them from trams”.

      This is Jarrett’s main problem, and the reason I would never recommend hiring him. If he admitted that he was a bus nut, he might be able to get some perspective on it and be able to give more objective advice.

      I notice he never commented on the Kansas City Streetcar, which has been a runaway success. It has all the characteristics which would cause Jarrett to think that a bus would have been as good, but of course a bus wasn’t as good. The streetcars — which have about twice the capacity of the buses they replaced — promptly filled up to standing-room-only levels and the result is that KC is going to increase frequency. Jarrett’s obsessive bus advocacy seems to make it impossible for him to see dynamics like this.

      It’s particularly frustrating because Jarrett’s advice on *route design* and *network geometry* is *spot on* and is *incredibly important* regardless of whether you’re using buses or streetcars or subways (and the KC streetcar follows that advice to the letter), but Jarrett’s obsessive love of buses distorts his advice. Badly. He’s more than once given recommendations which involve ignoring or even ripping out existing bus, streetcar, and trolleybus lines, much to the fury of the locals.

      Jarrett acts like a technology-first bus fanatic and he doesn’t even realize it.

    • Jim Gottlieb October 12, 2016 at 9:14 pm #

      Yes, the few buses in central Tokyo, for instance, seem to be ridden mostly by the elderly, but out in the suburbs there are many feeder lines because not everyone is walking distance to the train station.

      I’m guessing your experience in China was a while ago. There are very few non-aircon buses left, and the addition of “空調” next to the bus number wasn’t really “advertising” the air conditioning as much as letting you know that if you take this bus you’ll be paying the aircon surcharge (it’s double the fare in my city).

  8. Markus September 28, 2016 at 12:12 pm #

    Actually, in a city like Paris, there is no need to distinguish major routes from minor routes, since all routes are frequent. Also, due to the complicated street structure in Paris, you cannot make a grid network like Barcelona.

  9. Duncan Watry September 28, 2016 at 1:06 pm #

    I agree completely on the liberating nature of a good bus network on top of a rail network. I’ve just spent the last year living in central London, and we were very well served by the tube. But often the most useful transit for most of the trips we made was the bus network. London has not reworked the bus network to be grid-oriented (the street network really works against that), but the bus ridership is so high that the network can support frequent everywhere-to-everywhere bus lines.

    • Mike Robinson September 29, 2016 at 1:00 am #

      London is looking to rationalise the bus network in central London as many areas are “over-bussed”. The general desire is to reduce the number of routes in central London and improve services in the suburbs but this is easier said than done as routes are so well established.

      Oxford Street is a classic example of “when buses go bad…” because at peak times it has just a single “wall of buses” moving at an average of walking speed or less (3mph – 4mph) Pollution is off the scale (although this can be addressed by cleaner engines) and there are a very large number of pedestrian casualties from collisions demonstrating that large numbers of people and vehicles in very close proximity don’t mix…

      The current mayor has pledged to pedestrianise Oxford Street but I don’t envy the task of untangling all those bus routes…

      • Dave September 29, 2016 at 3:54 pm #

        London’s problem is that there’s no financial incentive to transfer from bus to rail. You have to pay full fare on the bus, and then another full fare on the rail. So all the bus operators feel like they must end the route where people want to go, instead of operating purely as a feeder to the Tube. They should rationalize their fare policy and then the bus routes could simply end at the closest Tube station, which would in turn mean almost none of them would need to go into central London at all.

        • Eric October 5, 2016 at 4:02 am #

          Except that the Tube lines are already full.

      • Nathanael October 5, 2016 at 6:53 am #

        Oxford Street is why there has been serious talk about trams on — or near — Oxford Street. With the Tube full and no real way to dig a new Oxford Street tube, the only way to avoid the “wall of buses” is to add capacity by using multi-unit trams. Unfortunately there’s been surprising resistance to bringing trams back to London.

        • Ian Mitchell October 5, 2016 at 9:49 am #

          Why’s there no way to build an Oxford street tube? Is elevated out of the question?

  10. RichardB September 30, 2016 at 5:35 am #

    There is no way the Underground could cope if the London bus services were designed to act only as feeder services for the Underground. I think you have to recall the scale of operation. On a weekday some 6.5 million passengers use the bus services. There are about 600 bus routes (inc just under 60 night bus routes) encompassing some 19000 bus stops. I think in this respect London has a much larger bus system than Paris

    The underground is close to capacity and aims to handle 5 million passengers per day once various capacity improvements have been completed. The main line railway services (inner and out suburban routes) already handle a similar number. If London continues to grow it will at some point have to consider building additional metro (subway) lines over and above the proposed Crossrail 2 scheme currently being considered.

    I don’t think people realise how good the coverage and the frequency of the London bus service is. I live in outer south west London and have the choice seven bus routes plus two which operate at night. Most of the services run at 8 or 12 minute intervals while the rest are half hourly. In addition I have the choice of two railway stations on two different branches of the Waterloo lines. Throughout the day each line offers six trains an hour. The station are also served by some of the buses. All bus stops display the route information observed by Jarrett in Parisand 2500 of them have digital dot matrix count down indicators. I like the Parisian stops but it strikes me they look good on wide boulevards but could easily be excessively intrusive on residential streets. I also think the live feed displays which look good at night are going to difficult to see on a bright summers day. White on black perversely does not work so well in bright sunshine. London went for illuminated orange on black for its count down displays and they are easily legible in both the day and the night time.

  11. Nathanael October 5, 2016 at 6:50 am #

    Stop with your single-mode obsessive bus advocacy.

    Yes, this is what every bus stop should look like.

    No, it is perfectly obvious when you are on a bus instead of a tram, and it’s less pleasant (bumpier, more unpleasant ride) and has less capacity. (Which is OK if it’s a feeder route which doesn’t need the capacity and you won’t be on it too long.)

    • Ian Mitchell October 5, 2016 at 9:57 am #

      Given the cost differences, it’s best to use technologies where their capacities are appropriate.

      That’s going to mean anywhere, you’re almost always going to have more route-miles of bus than light rail, more route-miles of light rail than heavy rail. Ideally, you have a rational grid system where you are providing mobility using what you have, upgrading technologies where they reach their limitations, or building out for the pent-up demand where appropriate (e.g. LA-Santa Monica, there was no need to go light rail when the capacity demands will outstrip the technology’s limitations practically from opening).
      But mixed-traffic steetcars with two-mile long circuitous routes have no place in it.

      Making buses not suck is the quickest and most noticeable way you can improve transit networks. It’s a compliment, not a substitute, for rail service.

  12. Vincent October 15, 2016 at 7:47 am #

    “Here’s one in the daytime, when the little realtime displays are harder to catch in a photo.”
    A little note, time display are only shown in one side on those pannels. This picture show the opposite side where there are no realtime displays.

    Realtime displays are well visible even in daylight.

  13. R. W. Rynerson October 15, 2016 at 9:07 pm #

    It is good to see the display of stop names, helping not only bus passengers, but pedestrians and cyclists. We recommended this for bus shelters in the 1966 Lake Oswego bus service study as a way of not only helping passengers, but also establishing stronger neighborhood identities. It was not followed up on, but I have seen the idea applied here and there since.