Lines: A Line, Link, and the 150?

Branding is always an exciting topic to discuss, largely because we can exercise our imaginations without having to spend lots of capital money.  One of the finer points about branding that Jarrett Walker touches upon in his book Human Transit is transit’s associated terminologies and nomenclature.  Choosing between whether to use line or route, for example, can reveal a lot about your service or at least how you want your service to be perceived.

The most clear-cut example of this across North American transit agencies is the fact that we usually reserve “routes” for bus transit and “lines” for rail transit.  Jarrett’s excerpt at Human Transit really deserves a full read:

…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…

Obviously there’s existing cultural and institutional inertia behind the conventions of transit nomenclature– people use certain terms because they’ve always been used in that way, which helps produce the semantic vernacular of locally accepted definitions.  You’re likely to use the term ‘bus route’ because people know what you mean and you know what they mean, not because you have a value judgment to make against bus transit.

Nonetheless, I think there is a solid argument to be made in reorienting transit’s vocabulary around its physical and practical qualities, like service levels, frequency, utility, etc.  While I don’t think the word “route” will ever disappear from common usage, there should be a strong delineation between the level of service a “line” will reflect, as opposed to what a “route” will reflect.  RapidRide, for example, does just that, by branding what is really higher quality bus service as lines (e.g., A Line, B Line, etc.) instead of routes (e.g., Route A?).

If you want to really follow that criteria, however, there are a lot more routes in the regional network that should be rebranded as bus lines– the 41, 150, 255, 511, 545, and 550 to name a few.  To be sure, there are even finer nuances in classifying service levels beyond what “route” and “line’ offer us, like stop spacing, vehicle type, boarding operations, etc.  But if we really want a good place to begin in promoting our high-quality frequent transit corridors, then we should start referring to them as “lines” irrespective of the mode.

35 Replies to “Regional Branding Revisited”

  1. I agree entirely with your point, although your choice of bus routes that would be eligible is a very different set from what I would have chosen. All of those bus routes are infrequent in the evening and Sundays (and that’s not going to change soon), and only three serve a corridor that could be considered urban, and the urbanized part of Seattle is the place where Metro is missing gobs of low-hanging ridership for reasons that could be mitigated by improved branding.

    Riders in Redmond or Kingsgate don’t suddenly feel a hankering for some nice coffee, or spontaneously decide to go grocery shopping and hop on the 545 or 255 to Seattle. Regional transit routes have much less spontaneous ridership demand than high-frequency urban routes, and spontaneous demand is what is stimulated most by the guarantee of service so high-quality (e.g. frequent, direct and reliable) that you don’t need to worry about a timetable.

    I would have chosen the 120, 48, 7, 41, 150, 550, and post Fall ’12 restructure 3, 5, 13, 18. You’d get far more ridership if you improved the branding of that set of routes that the regional routes. While we’re at it, Metro can have a ritual bonfire of all the current godawful system maps and come up with another awesome one for central Seattle like they came up with for the Eastside.

    1. Everything on Oran’s frequent-service map should be called “lines” and branded like RapidRide. The routes on those corridors should also be consolidated and straightened out, and evening/Sunday frequency added to ensure 10-15 minute service until 10pm every day, and half-hourly night owls on many of those corridors. Part of the problem is money, and part of it is the political will to allow Metro to do it.

      Both urban routes like the 8 and regional routes like the 150 need this treatment, although the regional frequency would be less than the urban frequency. The 41 and 550 will “soon” have 10-minute frequency when they’re converted to Link, so they deserve at least 15-minutes evenings & weekends now. The 120, 150, 101, and 255 are regional access routes like the A and future E, so they should get the same level. (Of course the 101 could be truncated at Rainier Beach off-peak as part of the deal.) The 522 and 555 should have lesser increases so that they can build up ridership to eventually join the others. A set of non-Seattle routes like the 180 and 169 should also be strengthened to complete the network.

  2. I think one thing Metro really needs to clarify and redefine is “Express” service. In my mind, “express” implies that a given route is a faster (or even the fastest) way to get to a specified area. Knowing nothing about a route, if I’m presented with an Express bus and a Local bus going to the same destination, I’m taking the Express.

    The problem is that Metro defines “Express” as any route that skips some stops along the way. This results in oddball situations where the 358 is labeled as an express route because it skips a few stops around the Aurora Bridge, while the much faster 301 is branded ‘local’ because it makes two extra stops at the freeway stations along I-5. Even when the 301 is running as an ‘express’ it is branded as if it is on equal footing with the 358, which is as slow as ever. They both have the same terminus, but the branding implies that the slowest route is actually the fastest in most cases. It doesn’t make sense.

    1. Agreed. My current city (Minneapolis) at least has some consistency to the definition of an express route.

      The original rules were:
      Local: makes all stops
      Express: skips some stops, usually on a “cordon” basis, which usually meant no stops between the edge of downtown and the city limits except to drop off inbound and pick up outbound, same fare as local
      Express-Freeway: any bus that uses a freeway, surcharge applies

      Since the 1990s, this was made even clearer with the new categories:
      Local: makes all stops
      Limited Stop: replaced the old “Express” category; cordons are rarely used anymore, rather Limited Stop usually means no stops except at transfer points, same fare as local
      Express: any route or segment thereof which goes four or more miles without a potential passenger stop, surcharge applies

  3. I have a question in regards to this. When Metro refreshes their Trolley bus fleet sometime in the next few years….why not paint them a seperate color…sorta re-brand them. (kind of like the RR routes)

    1. The only difference between a trolley and diesel bus is the power source. There isn’t a significant difference in quality or speed between the two. The problem with creating lots of brands within a fleet is it eliminates flexibility within the fleet. The old Route 99 required a special fleet of buses. And if the new trolleys were painted with pink pokadots, then people would always expect pink pokadotted buses on their routes, just as there was a certain expectation with the 99. People probably aren’t too concerned with the power source either. And when the normal, drab diesels are substitute for trolleys, then there is a new source of confusion for the average rider. We’d have to have a fleet of pink pokadotted diesel buses or else we’d get this:

      “Why is my bus a normal Metro bus today? My bus has always been painted with pink pokadots. The number is the same, but is that right? Is this my normal bus?”

      If any of us were to see a normal CT bus on the SWIFT, there would be a moment of confusion. It still confuses me slightly when a Metro is on a ST route, ST on a Metro, etc., and I don’t like it. People do not like to be confused.

    2. “The only difference between a trolley and diesel bus is the power source.”

      And the quietness and smoothness of the ride. There’s nothing wrong with an in-between approach. Paint the trolleybuses a different color but don’t call it another “brand”. Now that any bus or train can have an advertising wrap in a completely different color, you can’t depend on buses or trains being a certain color.

  4. “I think there is a solid argument to be made in reorienting transit’s vocabulary around its physical and practical qualities, like service levels, frequency, utility, etc. ”

    OK, but then you have RapidRide. Which isn’t rapid, at all, not even remotely.

    1. It has the potential to be more rapid and frequent in the future. It’s an incremental start, and that’s better than nothing. It also tells people where to live and work if they want “good” transit service long term. That doesn’t happen when the 15, 5, 28, and 26 look equal on the map and you can’t tell which streets will get more transit in the future and which ones might be downgraded to less frequency or no bus service.

    2. I would argue that RR IS rapid. Sure a hell of a lot faster than what it replaced. Plus it offers amenities that normal buses don’t offer, but not quite the level that LRT or BRT offer. I sure would not label it an express bus, nor a local, nor BRT. Giving it the name Rapid, and never referring it to as “bus rapid transit”, accurately describes the RR service.

      Annoyingly, it creates another level of service and a new brand to get confused with!

    3. RapidRide isn’t called “rapid” because of vehicle speed, it’s called “rapid” because it at least attempts the service concept of rapid transit. It aggregates demand in a corridor using a single, reasonably direct service, and tries to get the number of stops “just right”.

      Compare Aurora (especially how it will be after RR’s incremental improvements) to I-5. You can catch a reasonably fast bus between any two places along Aurora with the exception of lower Fremont (which is separated from Aurora by altitude, which is to say by cheapness and a lack of imagination). The bus comes frequently, runs directly, and serves a wide variety of endpoint combinations. On I-5 the most popular trips (including all the downtown trips) are served by very fast routes. But for other endpoint combinations you’re stuck taking the slow bus. The overall service pattern is inefficient (because capacity has to be provided for each of these trips separately) and thus limited in frequency and legibility. When Link arrives it will be a vastly better service despite its lower top speed and longer total travel distance. Aurora used to be more like that; RR’s improvements build on the restructure of the 90s to bring a service pattern that’s better for a wide range of people.

      RR is certainly limited by cheapness, politics, and some weird beliefs about the necessity of schedules. There are some geographical difficulties that really require grade separation to overcome, and is a cheap program that won’t provide it.

      1. Most of our critiques of RapidRide result from cities not doing their part.

        I’m talking primarily about the City of Seattle.

        Sidewalk access, ROW, signal priority, and the snazzy Fremont Rapid Elevators are lacking not because Metro hasn’t imagined them, but because Seattle hasn’t. (But while building the FREs, we can encase them in mixed-use towers, including lots of apartments/condos with the best views is town. No, it won’t be terrible affordable, but building more housing of any type means less pent-up demand at the lower rents.)

        We need that MVET authority in the legislature so that these elements can happen. (The FREs would probably require private funding, but would pencil out well, IMHO.)

        Paint, at least, is cheap. If we paint symbols of articulated buses in the BAT lanes, people might feel more guilty about blocking them with their parked cars. Branding can be done with pictures as well as words.

        So, I owe Bellevue an apology for saying the B “Line” got Belleviewed. I think it is fairer to say the B Line got Seattled.

  5. “Branding is always an exciting topic to discuss” Then why does this stuff always put me to sleep? I’m trying to care if a bus follows a “route” or a “line”, but can’t quite get there.

    1. A “line” is called a “queue” across the pond. Of course, don’t call the people getting on the bus a “line” or a “queue”. It is actually a “stack”, as in first-on-last-off, thanks to all our buses being effectively one-door buses.

      But consider the negative ramifications of adopting the word “line” to describe bus routes: Think of all the poor, mislead tourists trying their darndest to find the entrance to the D-Line subway to Aurora Village.

      1. Ugh. This. We need to build build real rapid transit, not rename our buses stuck in traffic.

        (I’m fine with improving buses – more power to them. But let’s not pretend they’re real mass transit.)

      2. Well, Matt, since most of your critiques of Jakarta BRT seem to apply to the Central Link line, maybe we’ll have to start calling it Train Rapid Transit. Okay, Link has elevators, shorter waits at lights, and only gets queued up behind the buses once or twice per route. And no crushloads, except after games.

        But if they can do signal priority, dedicated ROW, and off-board payment stations in Jakarta, where the sidewalks, such as they are, cover sewers (or did you mean drainage?), the “curb cuts” simply mean where you step off the sidewalk into the street, and they haven’t invented elevators, they can figure out signal priority here, too. Just, please, don’t ever refer to it as “traffic light timing” (a phrase SDOT sloppily threw around on their surveys last year), or private automobile drivers will complain about broken promises when they don’t get a cascading series of green lights.

        One question on Jakarta BRT: Which side of the private cars does the driver sit, and which side of the buses do passengers get on?

  6. If you’re talking about the segment between Downtown to Northgate, the 41 might count as a “line,” but if you’re headed to Lake City, you’re much better off taking the 306/312/522, which unfortunately have much less (or no) service off peak. The 41 tends to get bogged down in traffic around Northgate, which when combined with a series of somewhat clumsy turns makes for poor local service. A normal person can beat the 41 from Lake City to Northgate on a bike without too much effort. I like that Metro reduced the number of stops, but I’ll be a lot happier when we finally have a grade-separated solution.

    1. It would make sense to upgrade the 41 to 10-15 minutes full-time now. Then when North Link is open, truncate it at Northgate and it’ll be the frequent Lake City – Northgate/Link route. That would resolve the dilemma of whether to increase the 522 from hourly in the evenings, when Lake City may require more frequency than Kenmore and Bothell. The infrequent Lake City transit makes it harder for working-class people to take advantage of the lower housing cost in Lake City. Half-hourly/hourly to downtown (522), hourly to the U-district (72), and half-hourly to Northgate (41 & 75 without overlapping stops) just doesn’t cut it for urban transit.

      1. A lot of the TOD along Lake City is too far south to be served well by the 41. Nor does the 522 serve it. The 75, IMHO, is a more worthy route for upgrading to RapidRide frequency. Those who live in that TOD who haven’t already bought cars must be counting the days until UW Station opens and the 372 gets them somewhere more than just campus, assuming we can convince Metro to get the 372 to drop reasonably close to the station.

        I’d actually like to see the 522 become peak-hour-only when UW Station opens and have the 372 become more of a BRT route all day, with weekend service thrown in for the poor stranded riders of south Lake City.

        But then, it may all get reconfigured once Northgate Station opens, anyway. By then, our elected officials may have taken junkets to Jakarta, and discovered transit lanes.

      2. I’ve been wondering whether the 41 or the 75 was a better trunk corridor for Lake City-Northgate. In either case, one of them has to be made frequent even if it means downgrading the other or axing it.

  7. Well, route and line are two different things.

    Rail tends to travel in straight lines.

    Buses can make 90 degree turns at a corner.

    A train will curve to negotiate the landscape, but mostly to get itself back onto a straight line.

    1. I agree with Brent, and would add that lots of 90 degree turns are part of what slows a bus down. Especially painful is the series of turns the 3/4 makes as it passes through the Harborview complex. One of the reasons I usually ride the 12.

      I bet there’s a correlation between the number of turns a bus route/line makes and the end-to-end speed. Rail not so much, because the rolling stock can maintain much more of their speed through the smoother, larger radius turns.

  8. the way metro is set up now perhaps a new term should be introduce. corridor, for instance, then we could label the ‘service area’ between downtown and the u-district a corridor. several buses make the corridor and offer service that could be respected as a ‘line’. I think that there are any metro buses should qualify as lines from a branding standpoint…they are never on time because they sit in traffic or get caught behind lights…they need to be grade-separated…the only example of a line right now (when the electric wires are ice free) is the link. let’s not OVER brand our buses…

    1. WTA in Bellingham does that with their GO Lines for buses sharing a common corridor that combine to provide frequent service.

  9. Whether a route or a line, who at Metro thought it was a good idea for the bus ad wraps to cover the side destination sign? Doesn’t matter what you call it if people can’t figure out what it is or where it is going.

  10. I am going to respectfully disagree; the general public is more concerned about transit getting them to where they need/want to go, at the time they need/want to get there. Considering anything else, IMO, is missing the point.

  11. Love the blog, love transit, love BRT, LRT, and even POB. And I’m all for branding when you’ve got something special.

    But line vs route? I shrug. Make it fast, frequent and on-time, and I won’t care if you call it the horizontal bubbleator.

  12. Some cities, like Portland, call all of their bus services “lines”. Their network is structured in a grid.

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