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I was discussing the looming labeling problem for Link with my friend, Scott. I was explaining to him how Metro’s RapidRide uses letters and how Community Transit uses colors. I mentioned that this could create confusion, as the RapidRide signature red color creates confusion with a proposed red line labeling for ST’s Link, and how having Community Transit’s color-coded lines will lead to confusion for the eventual ST green and blue Link line labeling. Scott noted that he was recently in London and that don’t use colors at all; they label each rail line with a name.

I reviewed what other systems do. In the US, the most popular among new systems is the use of colors. For example, there are Blue Lines in places like Boston, Dallas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, Atlanta and Washington DC, like what Sound Transit has proposed.

A few systems rely on numbers or letters. Denver uses letters. Paris uses both (numbers for city lines and letters for the regional rail system). New York uses both (a legacy of the days when the subways were owned and operated by multiple companies). Along with London, Tokyo and Vancouver have labels for each of their lines.

As reflected in these numerous examples, there is no standard way to define lines. Even in cases where one primary scheme exists (such as colors), there can be primary and secondary references (numbers or letters) often applied to each line.

Choosing Label Names

If we did choose label names, I wondered would be the best labels. There are many ways to choose label names. My scheme begins with two additional principles that could be applied to line labels that could enhance the messaging:

1. Choose a label that implies an obvious primary color. In this way, the name can be interchangeable with other signage that riders would see, and respect the current ST approach of using colors.

2. Choose a label that would lead to alphabetized lines. While not as important as a color linkage, this would provide riders with one more way to interpret the order of the lines.

In other words, rather than have to choose, Sound Transit could adopt an integrated labeling strategy that would allow for users to identify lines in several ways! I have even created an initial suggestion for labels based on this idea. The ordinal letters, colors combined with symbols could make it particularly clearer for non-English speaking travelers, kids and others who can’t yet read English well.

My Initial Labeling Scheme

Red Line. Line letter: A. Label name: Apple Line. Specific color: Medium/dark red (as a red delicious apple). Symbol: an apple. An apple is often associated with red.

Tacoma Link. Line letter: B. Label name: Bear Paw Line. Specific color: Medium brown (as a grizzly bear). Symbol: a bear’s paw. Curiously, Tacoma Link has not been slated for a line color; it may be useful to do this for a number of reasons. Bears are often associated with brown.

Blue Line. Line letter: C. Label name: Cascadia Line. Specific color: Sky Blue (as a sky color above the silhouette from the Cascades). Symbol: snow-covered mountains (Mt. Si or Mt. Rainier?) against sky. The term Cascadia has often been used in local slang.

Green Line. Line letter: D. Label name: Duwamish Line. Color: Bright Green (perhaps similar to the color of Sounders, Seahawks and evoking a green river). Synbol: native American symbol or silhouette as appropriate. Since our region was home to the Duwamish tribe including Chief Sealth; honoring their legacy is wholly appropriate.

Fifth Line. Line letter: E. Label name: Eagle Line. Color: Darker gray (as in bald eagle feathers). Symbol: an eagle’s head or body. With major colors already assigned; the next label can be flexible on color choice. Honoring the many eagles in our region seems a good label for “E”.

I’ve devised even more initial line labels using these same principles.

 F — Forest Line, with dark green. Symbol: tall evergreen trees in a forest

 G — Grapevine Line, with darker purple. Symbol: grape bunch attached on a vine

 H — Husky Line, with gold (UW color). Symbol: a husky head

 I — Independence Line, with navy blue (US flag color). Symbol: a star

 J — Jazz Line, with black (piano keys or sheet music staff). Symbol: a grand piano, a keyboard or notes

There are merely initial labels, colors and symbols. I would suggest that ST create a professional artistic process using seasoned marketing professionals and trademark attorneys to develop great proper labels. Still, I do think there is quite a lot of merit in developing a labeling scheme like this one for a multi-line system in our multi-operator transit region.

9 Replies to “Integrated Labeling Scheme for Link”

  1. Clever idea, but I don’t think it is necessary. There is bound to be overlap with every labeling scheme, as all the various agencies overlap. But buses are buses, and trains are trains. It is far more confusing to have the Community Transit 101 and the Metro 101. OK, it isn’t too confusing, because they manage to be in different parts of town, but imagine you are headed north, towards someplace on SR 99. You take the E as far as it will go, to Aurora Village. Every bus stop you’ve seen so far has said Metro, and someone earlier said you should take the 101 north from there, so you look up “Metro 101”. Next thing you know, you are very confused (Renton? I’m not from around here, but isn’t Renton to the south?).

    Still, that isn’t a big problem, because the agencies do a very good of avoiding overlap by area. It is even less a problem with Link. You really have to be sleepwalking through life to confuse a bus with a train. I know they sell a lot of legal pot along SR 99, but even the most stoned rider out there should be able to tell if the vehicle they are boarding has rubber wheels or steel ones. Besides, there are very few rail lines in our subway system. Unless you are on blogs like this discussing the system, you can ignore the names. My guess is most people will have no idea which line they are on, but merely know the destination (e. g. Lynnwood). We aren’t Chicago or New York, where this is an issue.

    For example, Snohomish County will have only one train line. So Community Transit can name their buses with the same colors and be OK. If you want to take the train while in Snohomish County, you just take “the train” (there is only one). If you are downtown, you take the train towards Lynnwood. Pretty simple.

  2. This will be a good reference even if it’s not fully adopted. Many networks do have multi-dimensional line identifiers or line-group identifiers. Usually one identifier is primary but secondary ones hover in the background and people use them at least unconsciously. The London Underground lines have arbitrary names but they also have colors that have been stable for decades. The NYC subway has letters and numbers, but colors also show groups of lines that converge in the same Manhattan tunnel.

    That also shows differences in what is a line. Some London lines have several branches that look like New York’s distinct lines. The biggest example is the Northern Line: it has a huge branch in the middle with 8 stations on each branch, then they come together for one station and one nominal station (where they have different platforms), and then separate for 9-11 stations each. One of the end branches even has a branch of its own. And in the evening the central Charing Cross branch trains terminate at Kennington, where the other train waits to go the rest of the way to Morden. And the entire Docklands Light Rail network with some five lines is all just DLR and the same color. The London Overground is also all one color, although the seven lines have distinct letters.

    The Moscow Metro names its lines after a major neighborhood it runs through. However, they also have stable colors, and more recently they’ve added numbers. A comparison to Link would be the SeaTac-Lynnwood line (even if it continues to Federal Way and Everett).

    Germany uses letter-number pairs, where the letter indicates the type of service. So S7 is S-Banh line 7, and U3 is U-Bahn line 3 (which in smaller cities is light rail rather than metro-like trains).

    Russia extends this system to all modes except the metro. T1 with a 3-legged Cyrillic T is streetcar (tramvay) line 1. T1 with a 1-legged Latin T is trolleybus line 1. A1 is autobus line 1 (these routes are in the outer suburbs). And the numbers do overlap just like that, so people will say “Take trolleybus 3” not “Take the 3”.

    BART just goes with the final destination. “Fremont Train”, Daly City Train”, Colma Train”. However, again each one has a distinct color on the map.

    I guess I like names best. But Joseph is right that there should be integrated secondary schemes too. A sign in the distance may not have room to say “Northern” or “Red” (and colorblind people have trouble distinguishing some colors), but it may have room for a picture of an apple. However, given that Link has state-mandated station icons, having line icons too may be confusing.

    The most important distinction is the level of service: local (stop spacing every 0.25-0.5 mile), limited-stop (every 0.5-2 miles), and express (longer than 2 miles). That allows people to look for expresses to cover large areas, limiteds to go between urban village centers and other significant locations, and local for everything else. Link fits in the middle category, as does Swift, 405 BRT, and 522 BRT. Most bus routes fit into the local category, as does RapidRide, Seattle Streetcar, and — Tacoma Link!

    Tacoma Link is intended to be the start of a 5-6 line system in Tacoma, the way the Monorail was intended to be in Seattle. So Central Link branding really doesn’t apply to it. I asked ST about this in my last feedback on Tacoma Link, and pointed out that it’s really a different kind of service from Central Link. ST said they haven’t decided what Tacoma Link’s branding will be yet. I think it really needs to be renamed to Tacoma Streetcar now. Especially with the MLK extension mostly in mixed traffic. Calling it Tacoma Link may have made sense in the 1990s to make it look like Tacoma was getting something of quality. but it’s going to collide when the two kinds of service meet, and even further when Tacoma Link adds more lines.

  3. Our region is too diverse for a completely unique scheme.

    Numbers: Metro 1-399, and special uses of 6xx and 7xx. Community Transit: 100-299 and 400-499. Pierce Transit: 10-502 for regular routes, and 1-9 for RapidRide-like routes. Sound Transit: 510-599. Everett Transit: 1-30, plus route 70.

    Letters: Metro RapidRide.

    Colors: Link. Swift.

    Geographic/directional names: Sounder. Streetcar.

    Symbols: Link stations.

    Unknown: ST BRT. Tacoma Link.

    There’s no way to fix this without getting one agency to change its scheme. That would run into the normal resistance, plus what works on a metropolitan scale may not work as well on a county scale. As I’ve said, Link, Swift, and ST BRT are similar in their function. Swift looks very much like a “poor man’s light rail”. But while one Swift line could fit among Link’s 5-6 ultimate lines, that breaks down when Swift has 5-6 lines of its own. (“Why are there six metropolitan lines and six Snohomish lines, but no corresponding King or Pierce lines?”)

    However, both Metro and Community Transit have major reorganizations coming and will renumber a lot of routes then. That would give an opportunity to change the numbering scheme and eliminate the overlaps between them.

    1. There is value in adding a letter in the front with a number after that for any service that isn’t a local bus, like what several European cities do. Users would easily know what to expect by the letter, regardless of where they are in the region.

      L – light rail
      R – rapid bus
      S – streetcar
      T – regular or commuter rail
      X – express bus
      F – freeway BRT

      After that a number could be used.

      I like the naming idea for Link a bit better though. It gives the system some character and would make it easier for visitors to remember.

    2. We badly need a branding working group! Each operator creates what they want in a vacuum. This process will increasingly lead to rider confusion as so many new elements get introduced like more Link, streetcar lines and freeway BRT.

      I think this could be headed up by PSRC because they aren’t an operator. They would instead have the perspective of a user. They could simply require any grant for transit to be approved by a new regional branding review process.

      The group could then establish some consistency guidance for us riders, which is badly needed.

  4. Do not like. Seems pretty extraneous. How’s about we give each line a cool greek letter? Alpha line for the central line, beta line for east link, gamma line…

  5. Once a line is operational, it should not be renamed without a compelling reason. Renaming a line means all the existing references to the old name, all over the internet, much of it beyond Metro’s direct control, become invalid. This results in confusion, in and of itself. Even if the original naming scheme could have better, sometimes, it’s best to leave things as is, when the change itself causes more confusion than it solves.

    1. That’s exactly why deciding on a label now is more critical. The second line stations will have signage designed in the next 2-3 years.

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