watching our words: route or line?

(Another short selection from the draft of the book I'm writing.)

The word for the path followed by a transit vehicle is sometimes route, and sometimes line.  Whenever you have two words for the same thing, you should ask why.

Most of the words used in transit discussions also have a more common meaning outside that context.  That common meaning often forms a connotation that hangs around the word, often causing confusion, when we use the word to talk about transit.  In saying the word, we may intend only the transit meaning, but some people may be hearing the more common meaning.  Regardless of our intentions, the commonplace meaning of a word is often still there, as a connotation, when the word’s used in a transit context.  The words route and line are a good example.

A route, in its common meaning, is the path traced by some kind of person or vehicle.  When a package or message is going through a postal system, we say it’s being routed.   The person who delivers newspapers to subscribers in the morning is following a paper route.  School buses typically follow routes.

What these meanings of route have in common is that the route isn’t necessarily followed very often.  A package going through a delivery system may end up following a specific route that no package has followed before.  Paper routes and school bus routes run only once a day, and not at all on some days.  These common uses of route imply a place where some kind of transport event happens, but possibly not very often. 

The word line, on the other hand, has a clear meaning from geometry: a simple, straight, one-dimensional figure.  In common usage we often use line for something curved, like the laugh-lines and worry-lines on a face, and transit lines may be curved as well.  But in any case, the word line doesn’t imply an event, as route does.  A line is a thing that’s just there, no matter what happens along it. 

Lurking inside these two words, in short, is a profound difference in attitude about a transit service.  Do you want to think of transit as something that’s always there, that you can count on?  If so, call it a line.  We never speak of rail routes, always rail lines, and we do that because the rails are always there, suggesting a permanent and reliable thing.

If you’re selling a transportation product, you obviously want people to think they can count on it.  So it’s not surprising that in the private sector, the word is usually line:  Trucking and shipping companies often call themselves lines, as do most private bus companies and of course, the airlines.  This doesn’t mean that all these services are really line-like – some may be quite infrequent – but the company that chose the word wants you to think of it as a thing that’s reliably there, that you can count on.

So in general, when talking about transit, think about the more commonplace meaning of the word you’re choosing.  In this case:

  • Use route to indicate the site of a (possibly very occasional) transportation event.  The word route reminds many of us of school transportation, newspaper deliveries, and delivery systems that may operate only infrequently.
  • Use line when you want to imply something that has a continuous physical presence and availability – for example, a transit line where service is coming so often that you don’t need a schedule.

To put it even more simply, the word route lowers expectations for the frequency and reliability of a service.  The word line raises those expectations.

Often, transit agencies themselves will use these words in a way that’s not quite conscious of these connotations.  In Australia, for example, bus services are usually routes, but rail services are lines.  This usage carries a hint that we should have intrinsically lower expectations of bus service as compared to rail.  In many cases, that’s not true: many bus “routes,” for example, run frequently all day while commuter rail  “lines” may run only a few times at rush hour. 

Of course, these connotations can be a nuisance. Sometimes you don’t want any connotation.   Sometimes you just want the meaning.

Unfortunately, words without connotations tend to sound abstract and dull.  I could insist on saying “fixed vehicle path” instead of route or line, just as I could say “nonmotorized access” when I mean walking or cycling, but you wouldn’t get through this book if I did.  Language that strikes us as evasive or bureaucratic is often the result of word choices that try to avoid all connotation.  Such language is precise but uninspiring, and long passages of it are just plain hard to read.

To keep our speech vivid and engaging, we have to use words with connotations, and do our best to choose those connotations consciously.  I’ll do that throughout this book, and note where there may be a connotation problem.  As for route and line, my broad intention is to raise expectations of transit rather than lower them, so I generally use line.  However, when I speak specifically of a service that doesn’t run very frequently, I use route.

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 –>

weekend distraction: colombian bus rapid transit

Commenter Adriana offers a feast of videos of Bus Rapid Transit systems in Colombia.  Not Bogotà’s well-promoted Transmilenio, but a collection from smaller cities:

  • A flashy video on Cali’s El Mio (“Mine!”) by Mauricio Alzate is a nice example of how all the techniques of marketing video can be applied to something as seemingly prosaic as BRT.  If you live in a wealthier country you my find this video easy to make fun of, but BRT can be transformative in a city that has known only a gridlock of collective taxis, pedicabs, etc., and this kind of flashiness has a role in building understanding and excitement about that.
  • From Bucaramanga, a video on how using your new smartcard system correctly will help you win the approval of pretty young women.
  • From Pereira, an informative nonflashy video showing how the BRT system looks from a driver’s point of view, with little text boxes capturing the viewer’s thoughts along the way.  This video is a good place to notice the South American preference for high-platforms with high-floor buses.  Most of the rest of the world prefers low-floor, partly because of inter-operability with ordinary street-running and also for ease of emergency exits between stations, as well as for the intrinsic qualities of vertical space within the vehicle.  So when you see a high-floor system outside South America you can be pretty sure that South American planning consultants have been there.

Email of the Week: Toward Aggregated Information?

A reader who works for a North American transit professional organization writes:

Often transit centers only provide access to one provider and exclude others, or only provide access to local providers but not to regional providers. That silo system carries over to the information that transit agencies manage or make available to their customers in most cases. Do you have some good examples where services and customer information is more regional ie all the options in the region whether public or private.

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Email of the Week: Dept. of Blindingly Obvious Ideas

From a frequent commenter:

I was thinking about transit websites, and I had a thought that struck me with how blindingly obvious it is, and I’m surprised for some reason I don’t think I’ve seen any transit agency do this before. On the main timetable page, they will generally have a menu to let you pick a route, and give you the timetable and map for that route. But those are leaf pages, they don’t link to anything other than back to the menu. My thought is, the web is all about links, so why not make the structure of the timetable pages reflect that of the route network, and for any route to which there’s a transfer, provide a link to that route’s timetable right there on the page? With fancy web design, I’m sure even more elaborate things can be made, like letting you see what transfers you can make for a particular run of a route.  But in general, this seems like one of those things that can greatly enhance the public’s understanding of how the transit network works, and I’m surprised that I don’t recall seeing this anywhere before.

If you know of a transit agency that does this, please comment with a link to a sample timetable page!

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 →

Public Surveying: The Quicksand of Hypotheticals

A recent post looked at the challenge of surveying the public and identifying what mixture of taxes and fees they would be willing to pay to fund a widely desired infrastructure plan.  In the Sydney Morning Herald‘s Independent Inquiry into public transport in Sydney, we did exactly that, using a survey team from the University of Technology at Sydney’s Centre for the Study of Choice.   One commenter caught the crucial point about why polling is so difficult, and why its results are often hard to trust:

There’s always a difference between what people say they want, what they actually want and what they actually do.

Continue Reading →