In February, I wrote a piece detailing my thoughts on how to name the Link lines. In it, I prioritized usability and conformity with international best practice. The verdict is in, and Sound Transit have announced that Link lines will be numbered moving forward. In my opinion, this is great – they’re universal, and avoid a number of pitfalls that come with other possible schemes (as discussed in my previous article). Sound Transit have also released documentation detailing the reasoning behind their choices, which demonstrates their comprehensive approach to the process, and a willingness to engage with community feedback. I think it’s worth going over some of the background of their choices, which, while broadly a good job, does leave some room for constructive criticism.

Above: the original ST color scheme for lines 1-4. Below: a depiction of the same colors as they might appear to a red-colorblind (protanopia) user.

First things first, the new scheme is clear, and easily understood – take the 1 line to Ballard. Take the 2 and transfer to the 4. This is how many of the best networks are organized, and it’s really good to see that Sound Transit are mimicking that practice. They also reference the use of similar schemes in Toronto, Paris, Santiago and Madrid. As our system expands, a lot of critical decisions will be made in the design process, and it’s a good sign that ST planners are considering the practices that make other networks work so well.

The scheme is not without a few weaknesses – the colors they’ve chosen for the train lines, while bright and vibrant, aren’t the best for colorblind users (the 2, 3, and 4 colors are pretty similar in some of the more common presentations of anomalous color vision). Moreover, they dismiss criticism that numbered train lines will be mistaken for buses. I think this is unwise – ST themselves explain that clarity for first time users is a priority – hopefully their partners at Metro accommodate the new nomenclature and can change the numbering of bus lines without too much hassle. In my first post, I suggested the use of L to avoid exactly this overlap, but it’s also reasonable to keep the train names as short as possible, as long as the bus network can make accommodations.

Taken together, there’s a lot to like in the new Sound Transit line naming. The new system is bright, clean, and easy to explain. While the original color-line rollout was less-than-ideal, it’s encouraging that Sound Transit have responded by soliciting feedback from a number of organizations, and it’s a great sign that they’ve listened to that input. Of wider note, it’s reassuring to see such improvements in Sound Transit’s decision-making process, something especially critical as we move into a decade marked by such dramatic change.

34 Replies to “Reviewing the new Link line names”

  1. Is it something to do with color-blindness that I’m not seeing red, yellow, blue, or green at all? True, I know that green is derived from yellow and blue.

    Prejudice, but the colors shown here seem to be emblematic of the worst about bureaucracy itself. Primary consideration being fear of confrontation.

    Bob Wills’ “Faded Love” is a beautiful song, but its message is definitely that “faded” is not a condition to be sought-after.

    Also, to differentiate modes of transit, can’t every number simply be confined in a frame shaped like the front of the vehicle being used?

    Mark Dublin

  2. It’s not hard to change routes 1-4 to be other numbers. Metro changes route numbers regularly with any route restructure – just a couple days ago we saw the complete revamp of the Kent/Auburn routes. I’m sure there is some cost associated with it, and rider education is needed, but in the grand scheme of things it clearly would help and could be executed easily by the opening of North Link if they started now. There are plenty of open numbers between 10 and 99 that could be used for those routes :)

    I think they actually should think a bit broader though and:
    – All three counties (and Everett) should reserve single digit numbers for rail, and thus stop using them for busses
    – All fixed rail should either be a single digit or single letter. For example, the first hill streetcar could be the “F line” or “H line”, the monorail the “M line”, the South Lake Union the “L line” or “U line”

    If we just do these two I think that’s good, and could be done with minimal cost. However, I think there’s one more thing we need to do – BRT rationalization. Right now there are three distinct BRT approaches: colors (CT), single letters (KCM), letter+number (ST) – and PT is coming up with a new brand.

    I would suggest that longer term all of these should align to a single approach that all transit riders can understand, something like:
    (Letter for agency) + (Low number)

    So the Blue line would be C1 (community transit + 1), RapidRide D would be like K4 (king county), the new pierce county BRT could be P1 etc… Given the investment in BRT brands, this one would take a while to implement, but established as a region-wide strategy could guide future investment.

    1. “– All three counties (and Everett) should reserve single digit numbers for rail, and thus stop using them for busses”

      Community Transit doesn’t use single digit numbers in it’s scheme. So you can check that one off.

    2. It’s not hard to change routes 1-4 to be other numbers.

      I wouldn’t bother. If you can’t tell the difference between a train and a bus, having different numbers isn’t going to help.

      The bigger issue is the numbering system with the buses. People will tend to ignore the “S” and just take the “1” (just as they often ignore “RapidRide” or “Line” and just call the bus the “E”). Fortunately, the Metro and Sound Transit routes don’t overlap, in the same way that Metro’s 1 and Pierce Transit’s 1 don’t overlap or cause confusion.

    3. It’s not hard to change routes 1-4 to be other numbers. Metro changes route numbers regularly with any route restructure

      That’s the thing–they only do it with restructures. Given that all four of those routes are trolley routes they’re incredibly expensive to reroute.

      The numbers are really a problem. Imagine explaining how to get from the airport to the Seattle Center. “Oh, just take the 1, then at Westlake transfer to the 1 or 2”

      1. No, you say “Take [the Link|subway] train 1 and transfer to [trolley]bus 1. But of course you wouldn’t say that unless they’re going to a house in Kinnear. You’d say, “Take [the Link|subway] train 1 and transfer to the monorail” or “Take the light rail” (the only line at SeaTac) “to Westlake and transfer to the Ballard train”. They would never go to the surface and see that a bus 1 exists. Or they’d just look on the map at SeaTac station and see that they’ll transfer to another subway line (one of two, all of which are in the underground station, far away from the misleading bus 1 on the surface).

      2. Yeah, Mike is right. In much of the city, you wouldn’t even mention the number of the train. For your example — and every example involving the airport — you would start with “take the train into Seattle” (or Tacoma). The number is meaningless, and an extra complication. There is no chance they will take the wrong train (they only need to focus on the direction).

        It is worth noting that New York City — which has an extremely complicated system — has buses and subways with numbers. There is no reason to assume that having something similar in Seattle and Tacoma will blow our little minds.

      3. It is worth noting that while BART uses colors, there is no visual hint when you are actually riding the train (https://pty.pe/attention-visitors-bart-trains-are-not-colour-coded/). To quote that article, “If you are trying to get to 12th Street in Oakland, look for the train that’s going to Pittsburg/Bay Point or the Richmond train. The signs will say the destination.”

        That may be outdated (it has been a while since I’ve taken BART). I’m pretty sure that Toronto, for example, now uses numbers and letters (very similar to ours) but only recently. My guess is most people continue to navigate by street names (on the train). I think it is quite likely that lots of people will just go by what it says on the train. If they are headed to Redmond, they will take the train labeled “Redmond”. Others, of course, won’t have a choice (there will only be one train).

    4. I’d rather have L1 than reserve single-digit numbers just for Link. ST may warm up to L’s later. An “L1” logo is no more difficult to produce than a “1” logo, and it’s easier to read and instantaneously realize it’s Link line 1. After a couple glances the mind will perceive “L1” as a single unit, like a Chinese character or your mom’s phone number. When there are only a few of them, “L1”, “L2”, “L3”, and “L4”, the mind will associate the entire digraph with the appropriate line, so when people see the digraph they’ll visualize the line and vice-versa.

      Pierce Transit uses one-digit IDs for its enhanced routes. Metro uses one-digit IDs for a handful of core early-Seattle routes. The 2040 plan may change the route numbering completely: all routes have 4-digit placeholder IDs for now. Although there would be major pushback. In Bellevue Metro revived the numbers 226 and 235 for routes close to their traditional corridor, probably due to public pressure. And while some neighborhoods have had to get used to new numbers after splits (especially 36, 47, and 49), I think most people would like the traditional numbers to remain, even if the routes move slightly in reorgs.

      1. I would agree that “L1” makes more sense. I could see a secondary identifier (like adding a smaller light rail train image or a smaller “L” in the upper left corner of the ball, for example) as other useful ways to also accomplish this.

      2. Oh, I would imagine signs (on the outside) will definitely have a little Link train symbol. Maps that mix train and bus information should be pretty obvious as well. I like what Oran does (which I imagine is common) which is to have double lines, resembling a track.

      3. Yeah I think on a regional map there are other ways to indicate the different modes and thereby avoid confusion. For local way-finding, the different modes should be obvious plus there will the brand of the actual agency to differential.

        Being confused on whether you want to take the Bus 1 or the Train 1 is a bit like being at an intersection of 1st street and 1st avenue and saying, “shoot, did she say she was on the street or the avenue.” It’s a possible mix-up, but not a reason to rename the streets.

      4. Or 130th Station on Link! Is that street or Avenue? Oh ST left that out of the station name!

      5. “130th Station” is just a placeholder name for planning. The one in Bellevue I think is called Bel-Red Station. The one in Seattle doesn’t have a final name yet.

      6. Let’s see…

        Spring District/120th….. then…
        Bel-Red/130th… then…
        Shoreline South/145th? I don’t think so!

        Given ST normal naming practice, it looks like whatever name is chosen for 130th St Link Station, it will be ?????/130th.

        Yeah I’m aware that station names are pretty trivial in the grand scheme of things — but it is a rather curious conundrum.

  3. I never thought we’d all someday be arguing about the political-correctness of colors. Especially colors associated with every one of the world’s great transit systems. But we are so much woker than everyone else I guess.

    The color blindness issue is another thing, and a good reason to supplement color with numbers or letters or names or patterns. There are lots of ways to address that if we’re not tied up in knots worrying about how twitter will react.

    1. It’s a hazard of living in a liberal county where politicians overreact sometimes. But it’s a tiny issue compared to the fact that said liberal county is committed to voting-rights freedoms.

      1. Questionable how much difference that made if you needed to vote absentee in Wisconsin, which is especially discouraging since that State fought on the Union side of our Civil War. Which when the troops departed in 1877, lost and let lawful slavery be restored.

        Especially since the Democrats forfeited our last Presidential election by winning the popular vote by three million, our Chief of State is really most comfortable in company like the King of Saudi Arabia.

        Whose most recent cure for the liberal problem was to lure a perpetrator holding US residency into the Saudi embassy in Turkey and have a team of surgeons dismember him.

        Which I’ll continue to note every time Seattle’sDying(tm)Inc. cites visual evidence of contagious nondestinationality as to keep down the correct number of people from riding the transit many of their taxes have paid for.

        That pinstriped-suit wearer with a certain national airlines’ ticket in his pocket that just sat down in extremely anti-social proximity as our train cleared Sea-Tac inbound.

        When the King’s liberalism-preventing doctor gave him one of those real long hugs common in that culture…where’s my proof the Doc had washed his hands?

        When DNC Chairman Tom Perez gets off my case about wanting the de-Copaid medical care that’s standard center right in Europe, I’ll look at that “redlinitis” like my nephew the Sheffield talent scout looks at “Flopping”:

        An un-hurt home-team player rolling around moaning and pointing an accusing finger at the Argentinian who just murdered him by playing soccer. Any liberal you like, tell them to put a sock in it.

        You want my $18, Tom (you been in Seattle talking to the inventor of the 24 minute Link headway)? Just man up and after a real hard swallow, face it that a liberal IS a moderate. Trust me you won’t lose any worse.

        Mark Dublin

    2. It was also a sudden issue that came up in a time of flux. One activist message was particularly effective, and ST made a decision kind of off the top of its head.

    3. I lived in Chicago for six years and never once did I hear a single complaint regarding the fact that the L lines are designated by colors (and destination names). There was no mass discussion regarding confused travelers, colorblindness, or that the Red Line is supposedly offensive. And, I guess miraculously, people figured out how to use the system and get where they needed to go.

      Only Seattle would make this 10x more difficult than necessary… but at least we’re consistent with everything else we do around here.

      1. We have found no other city where “Red Line” was considered offensive. It’s a 2019 invention and reflects the evolution of identity politics. Other red lines predate 2019 so there was no chance for this objection to spread via Twitter before they were named.

        Chicago switched from a branch-name system to a color-name system in the 1990s. Color names aren’t exactly bad, they’re just not the best. Previous comparisons have been limited to North America and Europe and pre-2000 systems. Recent comparisons worldwide have shown that number-name systems are arguably the most universally recognizable. Even languages with non-Latin writing systems use Arabic numbers at least partially.

        Moscow had branch-name lines in the 1990s. But foreigners often used the map colors because they couldn’t make out the long Cyrillic names. In the 2000s Moscow switched to numbered lines, while keeping the traditional colors. This also brought the metro fully into the mode-number system used for other modes.

        Both Russia and Germany use the mode-number system. In Russia, M1 (metro), T1 (streetcar, with 3-legged T), T1 (trolleybus, with 1-legged T), A (autobus). In Germany S1 (S-Bahn, commuter rail), U1 (U-Bahn, either subway or a light rail with a downtown tunnel). It might use T (tram) now in some cities. This system works really well, and the number overlap is not an issue.

        The suggestions for L1 (Link) derive from this. After that there are differing opinions on what letter Sounder, Stride, Streetcar, Swift, RapidRide, Express, and regular buses should use. Metro is moving toward a four-name system: Rapid, Frequent, Express, Local. It hasn’t said what kind of numbering it will use or whether it will use mode letters.

      2. I think modern Seattleites need to be offended by something. We could call all 4 lines “Destinations Experiencing Usefullness”. And make all of the symbols a purple question mark.

  4. The problem flagged here about colors is exactly the reason that colors as the only identifier was a big problem. The numbers make color distinguishing relatively unimportant.

    A concern I have about the “ice cream” color tones is fading in sunlight. The tones are pretty light for the most part. I kind of wish that each number had a black border to help with that. It may be that the color ball even fades completely, leaving no label.

    The use of round balls for RapidRide is another potentially confusing feature. This is why I thought that having a RapidRide I and Link Link 1 as two major transfer options from an east-west route in South King was a bad idea.

    These are nit picky issues though — and easily solvable in the future without making a big pronouncement.

    I’d finally observe that Line 4 won’t open for another 21 years, so there are years ahead before a final color choice is needed for that. Even Line 3 is planned for 10 years out only as a spur, and isn’t scheduled to be fully operational for 15 years.

    1. Agreed. I was a bit off-put that their pdf boasted of their having chosen color-safe colors, given that their colors aren’t at all color-safe, but it’s fine in general.

      I wrote the original piece because I was worried they’d choose something less-than-desirable. They did well. These are fine. (though, given that they’ve sworn off the use of both red and yellow as colors, I am curious what colors they’d use for any subsequent lines)

    2. The colors are secondary. The whole point of the change is that the numbers are the primary identifiers. The main issue would be following the lines on the map. ST should probably change line 2 (Mariner-Redmond) because it overlaps with two similarly-colored lines (3 Everett, 4 Issaquah) in the second chart. And work on the map in the link more. I would attach the number logos to the lines rather than having them float alongside. So the termini would end in a lollipop, and the “2” at Mercer Island would be centered on the line.

  5. twitter probably deserves to be blamed for everything, but face it, colors have always been “fraught.”

    If Spokane had transit in WWI days, nobody would’ve dared go for a “Red Line”, which would only have encouraged the IWW to burn down more saw-mills.

    Really “Bogue” (1960’s for BO-gus) for racist bankers and, well, trouble-averse Federal bureaucrats, shame on you Franklin D., and Harry S., and Dwight D. to claim the color that originally dyed workers’ shirts after standard opening release of Napoleonic French crowd-control. Urban design fans, look up “Cannon-shot Boulevards”. Incidentally great for BRT!

    “Blue State” come by honorably- wish Michigan would send us couple of its Capitol’s extra granite soldiers, Springfields and all-but “RED?” No Scots Irishman’s fault his neck turned that color farming in the South.

    After the Compromise of 1877 made the Union Army break and run back to Maine, , somebody prove those States haven’t been Grey and proud of it! So….

    Of COURSE every transit system deserves a Red Line, so-colored for its speed and/or other flamboyant complexity! Ballard West-Seattle, PERFECT! ST’s Blue is good regional statement of calm comprehensive order, in addition to fighting slavery.

    Green, Everett and wherever there are still the most pines, spruce, and fir trees, and grey or gray (let weather service decide) for Sound to Pacific Coast.

    Think Chicago’s got a brown line, no trouble since everybody knows Hitler just got those shirts on sale after by losing World War I, Germany ended up with a surplus ’cause it wouldn’t need to brutalize East Africa anymore.

    Black? Shoes, clothes, eyeglass-frames, Fascist eveningwear, transit lines…can anybody imagine an Italian creating anything brown?

    Mark Dublin

  6. I’m not sure this is where Sound Transit should focus. After all they’ve become a parking operator with sites connected by a commuter train

    1. Frank, can you give us any idea exactly how long anything about Sound Transit including its existence is going to last? Any thoughts about possibly-desirable laser points, floor’s yours.

      Mark Dublin

  7. I note that London and Tokyo (and several other cities) use a “color ring“ rather than a solid “color ball” in their branding. In London’s case, the name of the line is printed in white against a dark background in front of an open ring. In Tokyo, the letters are printed in black against a white background with the color as a ring around the edge.

    That adjustment could be advisable here. That way, it would look nothing like a RapidRide solid maroon ball.

    1. Al S., considering how much information is going to appear on-screen instead of on paper, ever larger amount of communication is going to be propelled into motion through automation.

      Letting buses and trains start announcing their own situation, including approaching delays and changed arrival times, literally in person. Or let their operator do it.

      Symbol shape or color become confusing or unpopular? Not a single tree, let alone forest, murdered when the old model gets tossed and replaced.

      As schooling morphs into its next dynamic incarnation, from students’ living rooms to Lake Washington Tech and the other CC’s, whole degrees and certificates, let alone class projects, can be done and certified without breaking Distance.

      And won’t it be a real anxiety-fighter to have your screen fill up with the viewpoint of a train that’s turned into a wolf when its speedometer hits eighty on the down-hill into Redmond?

      Just as the Ballard Beaver industriously deals with the somewhat tricky transversal of the hollow tree-trunk that the tunnel turns into a few blocks south of the Library.

      Huge amount of the groundwork for which- no technical reason it can’t start happening under this afternoon’s constraints. From here on, only thing that’s not going to happen is for nothing to change.

      Mark Dublin

  8. This topic might seem like a lot of fuss at times, but ease of use of a transit system meaningfully impacts rider experience and can be the difference between a casual rider choosing to ride again or not.

    I’m thinking of all the riders who have cheap fast transit access but choose to rideshare instead just because it’s easier.

    Political correctness isn’t the only reason, a letter/number based system is also easier to use because it’s more universal and less ambiguous.

    “Don’t differentiate by color alone” is an important tenet in several modern digital design systems used by Apple, Microsoft, Google and others.

    Love the direction away from color and towards numbers.. Strongly support the recommendations to go to L1, L2, L3, L4. And then take it further with L for link, T for tram, S for Sounder etc. as Mike Orr outlined in the original proposal. Color can still be a tertiary differentiator to help recall. Barcelona does this well.

    A further step towards ease of use would be to consolidate the overlapping offerings of various agencies (swift, st express, etc) into only levels of service that make a meaningful difference to riders, and eliminate extra branding. (all of which has a financial burden in addition to the cognitive burden on the rider).

    1. Yeah, I maintain that they need to be a lot more system oriented in their nomenclature, but at least numbers are a pretty solid base moving forward, and they can always “become” L1/L2 over time – either officially, or if people use L# colloquially.

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