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Jarrett Walker talks to our staff about public transport branding (and more!)

Title slide from Jarrett Walker's lunchtime talk at TransLink.

Jarrett Walker

It’s going to be an impromptu Jarrett Walker week here at the Buzzer blog. Jarrett, who you all may know from his blog, has two talks on in Vancouver this week, so I have multiple posts planned with his always-insightful thoughts!

On Tuesday, Jarrett gave a lunch talk at TransLink on the topic “Public Transport Branding – What Matters to the Customer?” So here are my notes on what he spoke about. Briefly: the presentation part was relatively short (although of course thought-provoking) and the rest of the time was spent answering all of our questions about signage, branding, and more. Jarrett’s an excellent speaker and just can’t seem to stop offering insightful answers about transport planning. (By the way, if you didn’t know already: Jarrett was a consultant with TransLink not long ago, and had a big hand in helping put together our “Frequent Transit Network” (FTN) concept — the network of roads where transit service is so frequent you can just show up there to catch a bus without checking a schedule. So he knows our system quite well!)

Talk overview

While Europe is really lauded for its excellent transit systems, one thing that European countries are struggling with is branding. Many European systems are seeing a dramatic transition to private ownership, and so buses and trams now sport the logos of private systems, rather than information that says “This is your system” to the customers.

Jarrett identified three main uses of surface areas on vehicles and informational transit signage. They are:

1. the identity of the government funding agency in charge
2. the identity of contracting operator
3. the usefulness of the service to the customer

He said that #3 usually gets attention after #1 and #2 are taken care of, but Jarrett suggests that the third use is the best, especially to convey to the public that the system is THERE in the first place.

An example. Most people see the street in front of their house as theirs, and there’s not a large learning curve to figure out how to use it. So useful, customer-oriented branding on the transit vehicles could really help people see transit as another easily understood part of their world.

In places like Vancouver, where the city streets run on a grid, the transit system could be even as easy to use as the street system. Since the city is a grid, you can give directions for transit that are essentially identical to driving directions – for example, head down 41st avenue and turn right on Knight Street to reach Marine Drive. If you think of the bus as an intrinsic part of 41st Ave or Knight Street, it’s obvious how to get around (take the 41st ave bus, then the Knight Street bus, then you’re there.) Jarrett emphasized that we are lucky because we have a grid city, and that the Europeans often envy the simplicity of the North American grid. It’s amazing that we can describe a precise location in sprawling New York City just by using the cross streets.

So what matters to customers? Jarrett articulated three main categories of usefulness that you could brand transit vehicles with.

1) Frequency distinctions (frequent, infrequent, peak only)
2) Speed distinctions (local route vs express route)
3) Network function distinctions

Colour coded buses in Korea.

He gave a radical example of network function branding: that of Seoul, South Korea. There, the challenge was to organize a confusing number of private bus operators into distinct services. The solution was bus liveries in four distinct colours, similar in design but different in colour in a specific way:

Red – radial trunk services
Blue – urban local services
Green – feeder services
Gold – orbital services

The basic idea is that you’re teaching people about the system and making it familiar, by making smart branding choices that tell customers something useful about the service. Clues about how the city works are picked up as you do other things around the city, and transit agencies have opportunities in this space. A question to ask is how can we make transit easy for people to understand?

In the Seoul example, the colours help people figure out that there’s something distinct about the services. Jarrett also gave an example of Portland, where buses have very descriptive names. One Portland bus is called “#4 Division to 122nd Ave” — a complete description of the route is on the bus’s overhead sign. The information gets lodged in people’s minds, and helps the system seem familiar and useful when someone realizes they have to get to 122nd Ave and don’t know where to start.

Jarrett emphasized that the frequency distinction is the brand that most agencies will highlight. A frequent bus is one you can take without looking at a timetable — you just go to the street that the bus is running on and you know one will come along eventually. The discussion then turned to maps, and highlighting frequent bus services or corridors with frequent bus service on them. (It’s a discussion Jarrett has raised on Human Transit before, and one that we have explored on the blog here.)

Jarrett pointed out Berlin has a rapid transit network map that highlights the routes of both trams and rapid buses, as they’re by and large equivalent types of services. Bellingham had a system where a corridor with frequent service by many different buses had shelters all branded as the “Blue Line.” There was also an example of Minneapolis, where once a frequent service map was generated, a gap in east-west service became startlingly clear — but they couldn’t fix the problem with the network before the map helped identify the issue.


Question: The Seoul system of colours doesn’t seem to allow the flexibility for buses to be used on multiple disparate routes.

Jarrett said the Seoul authority just organized the bus contracts so the companies would only run one line. He said that for organizations that run many services, like the Coast Mountain Bus Company, there would be a cost to implement such a system, but there may be a real benefit to the user that cannot necessarily be quantified. Which is a challenge!

Question: For our frequent transit network, we do struggle with helping people and businesses position themselves in good locations that are near to the network.

Jarrett said the simplest thing to do would be to change the map. The current one highlights the B-Line and the SkyTrain, with a big bunch of orange lines all around it. Some of these lines are 5-6 minute services, and some are not. The map should emphasize what’s frequent. City planners should have a long term FTN map, showing where the FTN will eventually head, but people making decisions right now about locating things should have a current FTN map. Maps are used not only for navigation but for location.

Question: Is there any research identifying an optimal hierarchy of colours to designate fast or slow services?

Jarrett said no: but typically people use a louder colour for fast, which tends to be red, although that’s counter to how our traffic light colours work. Minneapolis’s map simply highlights the frequent transit network roads with a band of yellow around it.

Question: What do you think about branding of bus stops?

There’s a debate. In L.A., when they launched their rapid bus brand, they needed to invent a brand for it. For the first two lines they spent a lot of money on special shelters and stops — but as the popularity of the lines increased they couldn’t afford to make more fancy shelters for the expanded routes. Jarrett suggested that assigning a route to a shelter is probably not a good idea in a place with complex routes. But in places like Bellingham where the service is more simple and straightforward, purpose-built shelters are OK.

Question: Thoughts on the role of nomenclature in transit, ie: exchanges, routes, etc?

Jarrett said this matters a lot. One thing he likes about Vancouver is the word “exchange” used for transit loops. In the U.S. the prevalent term is “transit center,” which to him says a place for transit, not a place that’s taking you anywhere. Another thing he dislikes is the word “transfer” — he prefers “connect”. Transfer implies laborious movement: connection seems more optimistic. He likened the feeling of “connecting” to the positive feeling you get when you see a destination board at an airport/train station, and you can see all the exciting places you can go from your current spot. (This is something Jarrett’s talked about in a Human Transit post before.)

Question: What are your thoughts on a minimum frequency to decide which routes/corridors make it on a useful FTN map?

Sensitivity to frequency is based on the length of your full trip. If your trip takes 30 days, you’ll be OK waiting 1 day to make a connection — if your trip is 9 blocks away you’ll be annoyed if you have to wait 10 minutes, since you could have walked that distance in the same time. This is obviously not something you can show on a map. But don’t let this sort of detail get you bogged down in making an FTN map.

Question: Is there no value in providing a complete transit map?

There is. But when you draw the FTN map you are drawing the map of your core city. In Minneapolis, the FTN map shows the core in downtown — the city is really 20 times that size. You start to have a clearer conversation on how much service is where and why. It’s a hard conversation to have, but it can show why some areas have less service for very logical reasons. There has to be a willingness to go there and this discussion has to happen at the popular level too. You know the general population understands when real estate ads say things like “Located on the frequent transit network.”

Question: What about span of service?

Whatever you can reasonably provide should be on your FTN, but have a long term FTN definition that is richer. It should ultimately reflect the commercial aspirations of the region. Aspire to an 18-19 hour network.

Question: About urban legibility — has anyone embedded the route into the environment, through painting routes on the road?

Jarrett said that streetcar tracks outline the route. That’s why many advocates like it. However the fact that the streetcar tracks were pulled up in the 1950s does demonstrate that they are not really permanent. Bus only lanes do have colours.

Question: By focusing so much on the FTN, how do you not undermine the other services?

Jarrett said 60-70% of people are on the FTN now, and 90% will be there in about 20 years. So the rest will become smaller services. The Community Shuttle service brand could exist as a brand for a suburb friendly service if we detach it from its current vehicle-specific reference. (Perhaps “Community Transit”?)

Question: variable pricing for services — any thoughts on this?

Jarrett offered a thought experiment which he was not suggesting seriously for implementation. Imagine you and your friends take a road trip together. You split the cost of gas when you fill up at a gas station. What if smart cards were smart enough that they would know how many other smartcards were on the bus with you? Divide the cost of the trip by the number of cards and you would have the cost of your service. That would mean a situation where riding the Community Shuttle might cost you $30 and the 99 B-Line would cost you three cents. The experiment calls attention to differentiated pricing, and how the expense of low ridership service might eventually need to be mitigated somehow. (Edit: In the comments Jarrett mentioned that there’s a Human Transit post on this very thought experiment.)


Phewf — that’s it! Hopefully my notes are accurate. If anyone has any corrections please do let me know.


  • By David M, August 3, 2010 @ 8:57 pm

    Fantastic notes Jhenifer. Really appreciate you taking the time to report. I’m really impressed with Jarrett – I like the way he thinks about the network from the user perspective. I really hope Translink planners took notes too, because there’s a lot they can learn.

    I agree with Jarrett that the current transit map really doens’t tell the storey the way it could. Not only should it be redesigned to show the FTN, but also the night buses routes too.

    I find it amazing how a city or region settles on a map style and then it never ever changes. Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto, Vancouver – the maps have not changed in over 20 years. Time for a shakeup.

  • By Richard Lenthall, August 4, 2010 @ 2:10 am

    Great article, Jarrett is certainly a leader in his field.

    Nottingham in the UK is also a good example of where a private operator (Trent Barton) has colour coded routes. This has been pushed by the company so that bus stop timetables, maps and the buses themselves are coded. The advantages are numerous but service recognition at different levels is a big plus. Trent Barton have won awards for their efforts, rightly so.

    The problem that I have written about recently at is intermodal changing or Connects as Jarrett says. In Amsterdam there is a need for one body or authority to oversee the signage of large stations to ensure there is a continuity and recognition of the proper directions. Without this confusion reigns and frustration grows.

    Branding is a big thing (quite rightly) for private companies, but this must not be prioritised over the basic needs of the traveller, in fact the two should be integrated wherever possible.

  • By Jarrett Walker, August 4, 2010 @ 10:16 am

    Thanks for the through and accurate summary! Readers who are interested in that “thought experiment” about fares will find a complete discussion of it here:

    Cheers, Jarrett

  • By Jhenifer Pabillano - Buzzer Editor, August 4, 2010 @ 10:17 am

    Thanks Jarrett! I’ll add the link to the post.

  • By Cliff, August 4, 2010 @ 10:40 am

    The TransLink (BC Transit) map of the system is by far my favourite. I hope it doesn’t change!

    The FTN can easily be displayed by using blue instead of red to denote a ‘premium’ service.

  • By Eric B, August 4, 2010 @ 12:10 pm

    Looking forward to seeing Jarrett speak tonight!

    @Cliff: What do you mean by “premium” service?

    An example of a good FTN map might be LA Metro’s: It’s an offshoot of its master system map, but still colour-coded for each of its branded services, including Metro Rail and Metro Rapid (akin to our B-Line). My point is that I love the system map; an FTN map and the (already-existing) NightBus map can be shown (and offered online) separately.

  • By David M, August 4, 2010 @ 12:15 pm

    Speaking of branding, two of the best I’ve seen is the London Underground “rounda”l and National Rail “double-arrows” logo.

    The Underground Roundal is now used as the symbol for Transport for London, not just the Underground. You’ll see the roundal used on all services operated by Transport for London. And colour is used in the roundal. For example, the standard roundal used on Underground and buses is red circle and a deep blue or black bar. Docklands light railway uses a light blue roundal, the Overground uses an orange roundal, the Croydon trams use a light green roundal, River boat services use a light blue roundal. The roundal is also used on all TFL products, including tickets, passes, oyster cards, etc.

    The British Rail “double-arrows” logo is now used as the symbol for the National Rail system. It’s very distinctive and every station served by National Rail is identified by it. It is also used on National Rail tickets and passes. No matter where you go in Britain, you’ll see the same symbol identifying the national rail network.

  • By Naomi, August 4, 2010 @ 12:46 pm

    I think branding transit is incredibly important. I looked at some interesting branding being done by LA’s metro and talked about some ideas to market our local transit. If you are interested feel free to take a look

  • By Jhenifer Pabillano - Buzzer Editor, August 4, 2010 @ 2:17 pm

    Thanks Naomi — a very thoughtful post!

  • By David M, August 5, 2010 @ 10:40 am

    Speaking of marketing, I used to love the old BC Transit advertisements (from the late 1980s) found on billboards on congested freeways. It showed two cold tablet-like capsules each with a bus in it with a slogan “Take twice daily to avoid congestion”. Brilliant!

  • By Jhenifer Pabillano - Buzzer Editor, August 5, 2010 @ 11:24 am

    Pictures! I want pictures of these ads, David M! (I’ll also see if anyone has pics of them around here :)

  • By Tristan, August 11, 2010 @ 10:02 am

    I appreciate translink’s attempt to have a cogent brand image, and trying to keep up on new developments. But what I mostly like is that everything feels 40 years ahead of the TTC!

  • By Eugene T.S. Wong, August 23, 2010 @ 3:23 am

    I also feel that Jarrett is right on. I often feel that Translink, and formerly BC Transit focused on making their systems usable, whereas, I think that they should focus on running “our system” efficiently and economically. I always feel like such a guest on the system, and I hate it.

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