In the next Link expansion, riders will have another shorthand way of identifying stations and navigating the system. The rarely used station pictograms will be retired in favor of a system of station codes based on international best practice. Similar to bus stops, airport gates, and freeway exits, stations will have a 3-digit code consisting of the line number and a sequential station number. Sound Transit staff presented the new approach to the ST Board’s Rider Experience & Operations Committee last Thursday.
For background, please read my 2020 post where I wrote about the pictograms’ shortcomings and proposed station numbering/coding as an alternative. Although not reported at the time, ST staff took note and was in the exploratory stages of considering such a system. After extensive outreach and user testing of concepts earlier this year, staff arrived at a preferred option that will be incorporated into wayfinding for the East Link and Lynnwood Link expansions.
The Stop Codes numbering system
Here is my breakdown of the system based on materials ST has publicly released. Each stop on a line will have a three-digit code. That means stations served by more than one line will have multiple codes corresponding to each line. The first digit represents the line name. The next two digits represent the position of the station along the spine with higher numbers in the north and lower numbers in the south. You count up when traveling toward Everett and count down when traveling toward Tacoma. The numbering continues along branches from the spine.
The system designates International District/Chinatown (IDS) as number 50. Since it is served by the 1, 2, and 3 lines, its stop codes are 150, 250, and 350, respectively. When ST3 is built out, the highest number is 70 for Everett Station and lowest number is 14 for Tacoma Community College. It is nice to see the T Line (Tacoma Link) integrated into this system, resolving the question of why it never had station pictograms of its own.
It appears that ST chose to start in the middle at 50 to allow for future outward expansion without renumbering every station or use directional indicators. However, the first digit for stop codes in north and downtown Seattle will need to be swapped when the 1 Line is rerouted to Ballard. There are gaps in numbering along the new downtown tunnel to keep the same numbers at three key interchange stations: Westlake, International District/Chinatown, and SODO.
Branching east on the 2 Line, numbers decrease (as it runs further from Everett) until reaching station 238 for Downtown Redmond. The 4 Line (South Kirkland–Issaquah) derives its sequence from the stations it shares with the 2 Line in Bellevue, resulting in a north to south sequence opposite to the usual south to north. Branching to the west, the future 1 Line will terminate in Ballard at station 159 and the future 3 Line in West Seattle at station 345. It seems that ST prefers to preserve the sequence even if it means that 45 on its own could mean two different stations. To prevent confusion, the line number should always be included like a telephone area code with its number unless context allows its omission.
The power of this system is its simplicity and flexibility. If you know the digits and you know how to count you can navigate just by numbers. Savvy riders can do arithmetic to figure out how far a station is in relation to another or its general location.
How ST got here
Crucial to developing a workable solution is engagement with a diversity of user groups for feedback. ST conducted focus group sessions in 5 languages for Low English Proficiency (LEP) populations, 1 workshop with 4 breakout groups for people with visual or cognitive disabilities, 2 workshops for people who are deaf or blind. The rider experience Sounding Board was surveyed in English and a public survey in 8 languages was distributed.
ST developed and tested three options. All use the same station numbering scheme as described above, differing in the first digit and visual design. Option 1 “Station Codes” assigns a single unique 3-digit code to a station, using zero as the first digit for the core section between downtown Seattle and Mariner. Option 2 “Stop Codes” assigns a unique 3-digit number to each line stopping at a station. Option 2 had two visual variations on how station codes are represented on maps and signage. Option 2A stacks the line number and code inside a circle of the line’s color. Option 2B keeps the standard line number in a color circle, adds the number code to the side, and encapsulates them inside a pill shape.
Test participants were tasked with navigating two trip scenarios, one involving a transfer at IDS. They were also asked to describe directions to the airport using the options, questions comparing the options, and questions about the current pictograms. The 5 languages in the LEP groups were Spanish, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Somali. These groups quickly figured out how to read the map and was successful in identifying a transfer. Option 2B “Stop Codes” emerged as the preference, scoring highest in all metrics for the LEP group and all metrics but “simple” for the Sounding Board group.
The survey and test results from all groups indicate that ST is moving in the right direction. Less than 10% of LEP respondents used the pictograms, less than half did not recognize the pictograms, nearly 75% did not find current pictograms to be useful, and 58% found station codes to be useful. As the pictograms were intended to assist people with LEP these are damning results. People with disabilities did not have a clear preference, though I imagine station codes that can be represented in concise Braille and simple visuals have a clear advantage over visually complex logos that are not obvious in their meaning.
It is encouraging to see that Sound Transit learned a lot of hard lessons from the Red Line and University Street Station naming controversies. Overall, this is a great example of borrowing from international best practices and adapting them to local context with the goal of excellent rider experience. With over forty new stations coming online over the years, this is a scalable and logical system that integrates well with line numbers and is more accessible to a broader group of users.