email of the week: should blue lines have blue buses?

From a longtime Canberra-based reader:

PB150032 In your latest post on [San Francisco] bus wrap art, you refer to your fondness for colour-coding of buses, etc for different service.  For instance in Canberra, this would see the Red Rapid using red coloured buses, the Blue Rapid using Blue coloured buses, and so on.
[JW:  The Red Rapid and Blue Rapid are the two frequent rapid corridors that connect the major dense nodes of Canberra to each other, with widely-spaced stops.  They are the top priority for bus lanes and other speed/reliability improvements.]
Which I personally think is great in promotion of the service, making the service stand out – it also helps give a rapid bus (which isn't run solely on transitways) an identity akin to a light rail line.
However, I've always found that schedulers don't like it as it limits the general number of vehicles available to run a network. It also removes the ability to use a vehicle in one service type and have it continue its run on a rapid route – thereby removing a connection for some passengers  …  And I'm sure there's a whole stack of other reasons which schedulers and operators will through up in relation to this.
So, I guess the question is, given that this is more of an aesthetic improvement … do the benefits measure up to the costs?

Seoul, South Korea went a long way with this idea, branding all their buses with four colors that indicate different functions in the network (Trunk, Branch, Rapid, or Circulator).  Paint schemes are often used to distinguished closed Bus Rapid Transit [BRT] systems (systems where buses do not flow through onto other corridors, but remain confined within the BRT infrastructure.)
DSCN2405    DSCN2519
Los Angeles Metro has painted their fleet two colors, red for Rapid and orange for Local.  Even with two colors, the "Local" is problematic.  Orange really means "everything but Rapid," including limited-stop and freeway-express services that wouldn't satisfy anyone's definition of a "local."
And even so, sometimes you see an orange bus on a Rapid line, or vice versa.  I've never seen a painted color scheme where this never occurred; sometimes the dispatcher needs a red bus and all he has are orange ones.  Sometimes an orange bus breaks down and the nearest available spare is red.  You'd rather we didn't send out a bus at all? 

I do think, however, we could be doing much more with signage to highlight color-based brands. 

email of the week: marketing a “bowl of tangled noodles”

Why do so many transit agencies not provide clear maps highlighting basic user-critical features such as frequency?  From a major transit authority located between the Arctic and Antarctic Circles, a planner proposes this explanation (links mine):

The current method [of designing marketing and information materials] is based on showing things to focus groups, and whatever wins the opinion poll seems to [get done].  Focus groups can kill good ideas.  [For example] if you show the Los Angeles 12-minute map [now a 15-minute map], it will probably be considered way too complicated.  However since the public’s image of buses [in my city] varies between zero and a bowl of tangled noodles, surely an effort like the 12 min map would be an improvement, despite the criticism re complexity.
Our marketing people are marketing people who work in transport, not transport people who work in marketing. So their knowledge of customers is probably better than mine, but their knowledge of the network (including its frequent service strength areas) would be inferior.
In contrast I take the view (influenced by the familiar themes on HT) that passengers worldwide pretty much have the same wants and needs.  So you can look at what works elsewhere, and apply it to relevant parts of the network here – no need to reinvent the wheel. You’d still have focus groups, but they would help with refining rather than saying yes or no.  I may grit my teeth at their lack of network knowledge; they’d probably think the same if I talk about marketing.

By “bowl of tangled noodles,” I’m guessing he means something like this (although this is not his city):
My experience is that good marketers and good transit planners have the same reaction to a bowl of tangled noodles — confusing piles of overlapping routes.  They hate them.  Both professions strive to reduce complexity, but often they don’t have the same notion of which fundamentals are most important. 

For example, as a planner I’d rather see a map that uses a strong color like red to highlight frequency, whereas many published maps use red to highlight speed — even fast services that run for only a few hours and are thus useful only to a narrow market.  San Jose’s VTA map, for example, uses red to mean “express, but maybe not all day, and maybe not in both directions.”  To me as a planner, this gives a misleading impression that the red lines are the underlying structure on which the network is built.  In fact, that structure lies more in the green and blue lines.

Others, as in this 2009 Portland map, prefer to use colors to differentiate the lines from each other, leaving little information bandwidth to convey other distinctions.  Portland’s 2009 map “highlights” Frequent Network lines by making the number bullet background yellow rather than white.  See?  Me neither.


Also, on this Portland map, if you look at 39th Avenue (north-south a bit to the left of the center of the image) you’ll see a route 66 running for a little distance, clearly an exception to the overall all-day grid pattern.  This route is one-way and peak-only, just a few trips designed to handle commutes to the medical center.  To me, drawing it as such a solid line gives a misleading impression that it’s more important than it is, and partly obscures the grid structure of frequent all-day lines that’s most people are likely to find useful.  So my instinct is usually to render peak-only services as dotted lines, showing them but not letting them distract from the big picture.


UPDATE:  Fortunately, Portland’s map has been revised, effective September 2010, exactly along the lines that I’d have suggested!  (Thanks to Nathan Banks for the update.)
Portland 10
The near-invisible yellow dots are still there, but Frequent Network lines are now drawn slightly wider.  See the difference?

Thanks to years of diligent planning, and a high tolerance for connections, Portland’s network is not a bowl of tangled noodles, though the 66 is a step down that slippery slope.  Still, even in Portland, these differences arise between the planning perspective and a marketing perspective on what’s important to show on a map.

I would especially love to get comments from transit marketing professionals on this.  Confidentiality policy is here.  Feel free to use email, via the link under my photo –>

Canberra: A New Circulator Network for the National Core

Washington DC has its downtown circulator, and now the Washington DC of Australia, Canberra, has one too. What’s more, my clients in Canberra created their circulator for almost zero in new operating costs, using one of my favorite planning tricks. Starting next week, four color-coded lines will provide frequent links among all the major tourist attractions, government buildings, universities, commercial districts, and interchange points in the dense core areas of the Australian capital. Continue Reading →

My Talk at VIA Architecture, Vancouver

I never know who’s taking notes anymore.  Turns out the pleasant lunchtime chat I had with the staff at VIA Architecture in Vancouver last month is now an article on their blog.  This talk was more or less the same talk on service branding that I did with Translink staff, which their blog the Buzzer documented here.  I’ll pull it together into something more formal soon, or at least as soon as someone wants to pay me to do it.

Singapore: Mysterious, Providential Buses

[Slightly revised 22 August ’10 to eliminate some innocent mistakes.  The overall naive tone of this post was intentional; this was, after all, my first full day in Singapore, so I was seeing as one sees when first trying to figure out a network.]

My first transit adventure in Singapore began in at the remote wetland reserve, Sungei Buloh, in the northwest of the island.  It’s adjacent to a curious area called the “Kranji Countryside,” billed as Singapore’s “homegrown agritainment hub.”  It’s a small patch of farmlands and vineyards designed to serve all the agrarian tourism needs for the 5 million people living just down the road.   Continue Reading →

Boston: The “Rapid Transit and Key Bus Routes” Map

Boston map slice As several commenters have mentioned lately, Boston’s transit agency recently published a new network overview map, part of an overhaul of the information system.   The new map is similar in function to a subway network map but with some key bus lines added.  Here’s a slice, but you can get the whole thing, in much better resolution, here.

Most large transit agencies with extensive rail transit publish a map of just the rail transit services.  These tend to be the fastest, most frequent, and highest-capacity services in the network, so it makes sense that if you zoom out to a full-system overview, these are what you should see. Continue Reading →