One important usability enhancement for transit services is branding. Indeed, a difficult-to-quantify benefit of rail is that it immediately communicates to the average North American frequent, limited-stop, all-day service, and dedicated right of way*. Conversely, buses mean indeterminate service hours, frequency, and operation in traffic. For all the differentiation that one can achieve between buses, for people who aren’t paying attention, any sort of bus stop is a totem of service uncertainty.
That said, it’s worthwhile to help out people who are paying attention, and proper bus branding can tell people a lot without requiring encyclopedic knowledge of the bus system. Los Angeles County has a complex but clearly defined hierarchy. Here in King County, we have basically three bus brands**:
- RapidRide: all-day frequent service, limited stops, fare inspection. Other once-promising aspects (off-board payment, especially) have been significantly diluted.
- Sound Transit Express: Limited-stop, long-haul, freeway based, (generally) all day. For the most part, not particularly frequent.
- Metro: Everything else. It might be more frequent than RapidRide or come by twice a day.
I think there are a lot of problems with the way this is set up. For one thing, ST and Metro seem more concerned with getting credit for what they’re paying for rather than establishing service levels with their brands. So, for instance, the peak-only, largely freeway-based 555/556 is an ST route while the peak-only, freeway based 212 is not. The 255 and 550 have very similar character and yet are served by different agencies. I’m open to persuasion as to what service threshold should split the brands, but basing it entirely on the revenue source is nearly useless to the customer. It’s not totally useless due to different fare policies, but that’s a whole different rant (and off-topic for this thread).
At the same time, there are occasional proposals to add still more bus brands. There are quite a few routes in the Metro system that are just a fare inspector away from the RapidRide level of service. A few years ago, there was talk about separately branding the trolleybus network. There are mutterings that Seattle’s pending investments in priority bus corridors should spawn a new brand to highlight the new level of service. And the frequent transit network would be another good basis on which to highlight certain service.
What do you think? Have we reached a saturation point with bus brands? If not, what should be the service level definitions?
* The resurgence of streetcars may dilute some aspects of this brand; we’ll see.
** Leaving aside Community Transit, private lines, and other randomness.