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.