frequent network maps: san francisco east bay

Another great frequent network map from the prolific Steve Boland, this time of the East Bay region of California including Oakland and Berkeley . I previously covered his San Francisco frequent network here. Steve has created a series of transit maps for other cities, which can be found at his website, San Francisco Cityscape. Have a look at a small part of the map showing Downtown Oakland, below (or follow the link to view the full map):

Screen Shot 2013-04-16 at 09.20.18

Steve's done a great job drawing a map to show routes running at 10-15 minute weekday frequencies, and uses color to draw a distinction between local and rapid bus service, BART, and several shuttle services that operate in the same vicinity.  The map doesn't try to show the more complex background of less frequent services.  The best agency maps (Seattle, Vancouver, Spokane, Portland) have begun doing thi as well.  But maps showing only the Frequent Network are also highly useful, especially for people who want to use transit but just can't afford to wait long.  That's why every Los Angeles rapid transit station has a "15-minute map", and why many other agencies (Portland, Minneapolis, Brisbane) do maps of the Frequent Network alone.  Remember: Frequency is freedom!  So a frequency map is a map of your freedom as a transit rider.  


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.

that danish bus commercial making the rounds

Buzzfeed calls it "the sexiest, coolest, most EPIC bus commercial ever," and adds: "If you don't like this, you don't like anything."  The commercial for Danish bus company Midttrafik brings all the cinematic cliches of our historical moment to bear on the problem of making the bus sexy.  If you're not fluent in Danish, hit the CC button at the bottom for English subtitles:

Over the top?  It may seem like a parody of a bus commercial, but it's at least as effective as a parody of contemporary cinematography.

a great new resource on european buses and bus rapid transit

In case you've missed the headlines, Europe's economy is even more shaky than that of the US, with the consequences of the global crisis overlaid with the crisis of the Euro.  So as in the US, it's time to do more with less. But they're doing a lot more with less, as you can see by browsing this great online resource,


26_-_Nantes_-_bus_way_vue_aerienne_BDefBHLS stands for "Bus at a High Level of Service" and it refers not just to Bus Rapid Transit but to a range of other high-frequency, branded bus products.  The site features case studies from all over Europe, and provides numerous PDF downloads where you can read about individual cases in more detail — not just sexy photos but (Gotheburg above, Nantes at right) but also an explanation of the decision process that led to choosing a bus project over rail.

I'm trying to buy a house and pack up my office today, and will be at the Canadian Urban Transit Association conference in Victoria the next few days, so posting may be slow.  Fortunately, there's enough at to entertain anyone who cares about urban transit for days.




san francisco: winning speed and reliability battles

38 GEARY V A HospMajor San Francisco transit lines take longer than they did a century ago, as they have been obstructed by traffic and slowed by heavy passenger loads using (until recently) inefficient pay-as-you-board methods. A New York Times piece by Zusha Elinson lays out the statistics.  

(It's important to clarify, right away, that this has nothing to do with streetcars as a technology.  You could easily be misled by this subtle bit of anti-bus bias:

In 1920, the F-Stockton streetcar carried passengers from the Financial District at Market and Stockton Streets all the way to the Marina at Chestnut and Scott Streets in a zippy 17 minutes. Today a very similar trip on the 30-Stockton, the successor to the F-Stockton, takes a half-hour if the stars are properly aligned.

In general, streetcars replaced by buses have slowed down more, over the last century, than those that remained streetcars, but that's an expression of how much more was invested in streetcars than in buses.  The main lines that use the Market Street Subway — J through N — have picked up or shed just a couple of minutes from their 1920 times, even though back then they ran on the surface along Market St (about 3 miles) while now they're in a subway, effectively functioning as rapid transit.  No such improvements were made for streetcars that became bus lines, so of course their performance deteriorated more.  In fact, the 30-Stockton relies heavily on maneuverability in unpredictable Chinatown traffic; a streetcar in exactly the same traffic, unable to move around obstacles, would be even slower and less reliable.)

The real message of this story, though, is the need to have a conscious intention about the speed and reliability of transit.  Highway planners ruled the late 20th century with their clearly defined notion of "Level of Service" or cars, which mowed down opposition through its simplistic A-F letter-grades.  Just after 2000, the Transit Capacity and Quality of Service Manual sought, at first, to claim this same authority-through-simplification for transit.  But while the TCQOS is a spectacular reference guide, few in the business believe that a single A-F score can capture the many important ways that transit succeeds and fails.

My own work in this area has always advocated a stronger, more transit-specific approach that begins not with the single delayed line, but rather with the functioning of an entire network.  Don't just ask "how fast should this line be?" which tends to degenerate into "What can we do to make those forlorn buses move a little faster without upsetting anyone?"  Instead, ask "What travel time outcomes do we need across this network?"  Or turn it around: How much of the city needs to be within 30 minutes of most people?  – a question that leads to those compelling Walkscore travel time maps, which are literally maps of individual freedom.

A network speed standard would identify necessary speed standards for each service type, but especially for the Frequent Network, because high frequency means greater impact of delay — both on passenger freedom and the agency's bottom line.  We* used this approach in a Seattle Transit Plan study about 7 years ago:

1.  Define the Frequent Network (every 15 min or better, all day, every day), including any segments that are "Rapid" (faster with fewer stops)

2.  Define the policy operating speed standard for each product (frequent local vs rapid)

3.  Map the existing scheduled speeds on each segment against this standard, creating a map with screaming red segments meaning "deficient."

4.  Prioritize interventions to improve transit speed based on those deficiencies.  

This is quite different from a classic cost-benefit approach in which we count the riders currently on a segment and assign value based on their total travel time saved, because it acknowledges that (a) a dysfunctional segment is probably driving away customers regardless of how many are on it now and (b) the outcome is the network, not just a single line.

We had a lot of success with this in Seattle at the time.  Once the deficiency map was drawn, engineers noticed segments that they hadn't identified as problems before, and went to work on fixing them.  Note too that the method cleanly separates problem from solution.  Don't start with what you think is possible.  Start with what you need.  Define the absence of what you need as a citywide problem that affects the whole network.  Then fix those deficiencies.  If you're going to go to war with three businesses over "their" strip of on-street parking, you're more likely to break through the "big agency attacks struggling small business" frame if you're defending the entire city's transit system.  

Remember: a line is only as reliable as its least reliable point, and a journey through a network is only as reliable as the least reliable of its lines involved.  So one localized problem affecting speed and reliability (such as stops too close together) actually affects a vast area, and drags down public expectations for an entire network product.  If it costs the agency money (as slower service always does) then it's also a direct detriment to the overall abundance of transit service.  That's the frame in which you win battles over three on-street parking spaces, a signal phase, or even an entire tranist lane.

San Francisco's Transit Effectiveness Project is, to a great extent, the culimination of exactly this thought process.  I remember in the 1980s or early 90s a time when Muni proposed to eliminate just one consequential bus stop;  17th & Mission.  The story became: "Big, bad transit agency launches personal attack on the people and businesses at 17th & Mission."  The TEP has worked to change that conversation, emphasizing that on high-frequency services, the speed of every segment is part of the whole city's transit outcomes.  The same process has made it easier to do a range of other locally-hated citywide goods such as removing parallel routes that were too close together.  

Does your city's transit system have a similar project underway, one that moves beyond route-by-route analysis and looks at how every speed/reliabilit deficiency harms the whole city's transit system?


*I was with Nelson\Nygaard at the time.  The project was the City of Seattle "Urban Village Transit Network" study of 2004, which became a foundation of the Seattle Transit Plan.

san francisco: frequent network map refined

SF Cityscape has done a refinement of their excellent frequent network map for San Francisco, one that highlights the basic structure of the network that's useful for impatient people at all times of day.  You can download the full GIF and or PDF here.  A slice:

Sf cityscape map
The map is so cool that I feel liberated to nitpick.  Some other basic principles for maps of this type, worth considering:

  • Limited stop service (numbers with an L suffix in San Francisco) is substantially faster than local-stop, so I think it deserves its own color, possibly shading gradually to the local color when the limited segment ends, as 71L does west of Masonic.  A separate color would also clue in the viewer that those lines stop only at the points indicated, while locals stop at more stops.
  • To further clarify the previous point, I'd come up with a really tiny stop symbol to mark all stops on local-stop services — maybe labeling them in smaller print or not labeling them at all.  This would give a visual indication of frequency of stops that would give an accurate view of relative speed.  You really do not want to ride all the way across the city on Line 1, which stops every block or two.  Such a notation would help the limited stop services — which really are useful for going all the way across the city — stand out more effectively.
  • The mapmaker has followed the transit agency's practice of marking only wheelchair-accessible stops on the surface streetcars such as N.  In fact, these line stop every 2-3 blocks, so I would be inclined to mark all stops, maybe using a notation like that above.  I'd also advocate separate maps highlighting issues that matter to disabled persons.  (Has any transit authority published special maps or online map layers specifically for people in wheelchairs etc, as an alternative to including all this information on a main system map?)
  • I would also be inclined to emphasize that surface stops around a rapid transit station are indeed AT that station, so for example I would extend the Van Ness and Civic Center station bullets to encompass the adjacent bus stops rather than giving those stops separate coordinate names.  This is especially important on schematic maps because the user is wary that a small space on the map might be a large distance.

But again, I can nitpick usefully only because it's a really great map!

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?

reims: the “strong lines” of the “bus-tram network”

The opening of a new tram (streetcar) line is usually the occasion for lots of hype and celebration about trams.  But Reims, France is using the opening day of a new tram to pitch a newly integrated network, the "Réseau Bus-Tram."  The term clearly invites us to stop thinking of buses and trams as separate things, and forming attachments to one or the other.

Reims lignes Their description of it in their timetables [PDF] shows a focus on promoting a network of main lines (Lignes fortes), which consist of two tram lines and five bus lines, all very frequent and designed to complement each other.  The name lignes fortes suggests not just main lines but also (more literally) strong lines, strong enough to be the structure that supports all the other transit lines in the city.

(Just home from Halifax.  More on that soon, though come to think of it, this post is about Halifax too, and about a lot of other cities …)

seoul: buses that tell you where they go?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

minneapolis-st. paul: let’s name our network!

The Metropolitan Council in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul is taking customer suggestions on how to name their rapid transit network, which until now has consisted only of a single rail line, the Hiawatha between Minneapolis and Bloomington via MSP airport.  They are now adding Bus Rapid Transit and, in 2014, the Central light rail line.  So they're starting to think about the whole system, and what to call it.

This is one of those moments when two competing impulses tend to diverge.

  • The longing for something that says "new and exciting and transformative!"
  • The desire to convey exactly the opposite, that although it's new, this thing is a permanent, reliable, and an intrinsic part of the city.  This message actually benefits from a branding that's a bit, well, boring

I lean toward the latter message.  I've seen plenty of systems with sexy marketing but incoherent information, so I tend to say that clear information is the best marketing

If you want "new and exciting and transformative," check out Boulder, Colorado, which has excellent transit, and where most of the bus lines have names like Hop, Jump, and Bound.  They seem to be happy with it, and that's great.  But I'm relieved to see that this impulse isn't becoming the norm.  To me, things that like to hop, jump, and bound don't seem especially reliable; these names are asking me to entrust my commute to a bunch of hyperactive rabbits.  They're trying to get my attention, which basic infrastructure doesn't do.  And transit's role is really established only when people think of it as basic infrastructure.

Obviously, there are early stages in transit development where you do need to get people's attention.  So cute names can have a place — on new shuttle buses, for example, that are trying to get a foothold in car-dependent suburbs.  But in the Twin Cities we're talking about naming the basic rapid transit infrastructure that will be the backbone of the entire system.  By the time such expensive projects get built, you usually already have people's attention.

So I hope that after an excellent outreach process, with lots of great suggestions, they pick a name like "Twin Cities Rapid" or "the Metro."  Even Los Angeles — a city built on industries that sell excitement, enchantment, and novelty — calls its transit system Metro, and its elements Metro Rail, Metro Rapid etc.  Boring.  But you can count on it.