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TransLink Podcast: How are bus routes numbered?

TransLink Podcast: How are bus routes numbered?

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Think about your bus route. Have you wondered why it carries that number? Well, there’s probably a story behind how it got that number. Michael Vena, who is the manager of service planning at Coast Mountain Bus Company, explains the principles they try to apply when numbering a route.

Come behind the scenes with us as What’s the T: the TransLink Podcast with Jawn Jang reveals the voices and stories that drive Metro Vancouver’s transit system forward. Subscribe and listen everywhere you get your podcasts, including SpotifyApple Podcasts, and Pocket Casts!


HOST JAWN JANG: Hey, welcome to What’s the T: the TransLink Podcast. I’m your host, Jawn Jang. Here’s what we’re checking out on this episode.

[AUDIO EXCERPT FROM CALL OF DUTY: BLACK OPS II PLAYS]: The numbers Mason, what do they mean? Where are they broadcast from? I don’t know anything about any numbers.

JAWN: How do we number our bus routes? Let’s tap in to What’s the T.


VOICEOVER 1: The next station is…

VOICEOVER 2: Welcome to What’s the T: the TransLink Podcast.

JAWN: Here’s a fun bit of transit trivia. TransLink has more than 230 bus routes across Metro Vancouver. Now, that might puzzle you, because you might regularly take the 502 in Langley or perhaps the 310 in Ladner, and maybe we’ll get there someday. But we don’t currently have 500 bus routes. So what gives? Why do these numbers seem to jump around instead of just going in order from 0 to 230?

UNKNOWN VOICE 1: That don’t make no sense.

JAWN: I get it. Everything seems random until you realize there is a pretty intricate system behind all of it. And today we’re going to make sense of it all because it’s all part of the plan.

UNKNOWN VOICE 2: There’s been a lot of different names for the transit system in Metro Vancouver over the years. BC electric, BC Hydro, you know, now it’s TransLink and operated by Coast Mountain Bus.

JAWN: Michael Vena is the manager of service planning at Coast Mountain Bus Company. He and his team play a key part in designing the routes busses run, which also includes coming up with the numbers.

MICHAEL VENA: A lot of the numbers that we have in the system, particularly in the Vancouver area, are our historical back to the streetcars, not perfect 1 to 1 match up, but a lot of the trolleys have route numbers that streetcar routes in that area had back, you know, in the 1920s, 1930s.

There are some anomalies in there because at the time there were actually different route numbers depending on the direction that the streetcar was going on that street. and now obviously we have a bi-directional number, so it’s not perfect, but there’s a lot of routes that carry those numbers. For example, the 14, you know, out to Kootenay Loop, there was a 14 Hastings streetcar at one point in time that used to be on Hastings.

JAWN: That makes a lot of sense to me. And I noticed as well certain patterns that you might pick up when you’re riding the bus all throughout Metro Vancouver is that certain bus routes seem to have, the number of the street that they generally operate on, like the, the 41, for example.

So is that done intentionally, just to sort of make life a little bit easier for customers who maybe aren’t exactly sure all the time, like where they need to get on a bus. And so when you see a 41, you’re like, oh, well, that seems to make a little bit of sense.

MICHAEL: Yeah. So the idea with route numbering and naming is basically to make it as memorable and intuitive as possible. So you don’t really have to think too much about about what that bus is going to do. It kind of tells you from the way that it’s numbered or named.

You’re absolutely right. In Vancouver, you know, we’ve got some routes that have numbers that match the avenue. They’re on 49th as the 49, 41st has the 41. King Edward is the 25 because King Edward is actually 25th in disguise. You know, Broadway’s the 9 because it’s 0th. That obviously only works to a certain point.The north-south streets don’t have numbers.

And so the route numbers are not really indicative of the street that they’re on necessarily. And at a certain point, you run out of numbers that you that you can use. There’s a lot of historical strings attached to this stuff, too, and decisions that were made in the past, which might limit the numbers that you could use.

In Surrey, for example, 364 is on 64th Avenue. Okay. That makes sense. 312 is on 112 Street. That makes sense. Why is the 319 on 120 Street? Well, it’s because somebody at some point used the number 320 on the route from Surrey Central out to Langley via Cloverdale. So that wasn’t available anymore.

And it can be a big undertaking to renumber something and change the number. Not to mention that people get used to using a certain route. So you need to balance. Is it worth switching those numbers, just to make it match the corridor? So we do our best to make the numbers memorable, but sometimes it’s not always possible to match them up.

JAWN: And you mentioned something that I kind of wanted to ask about as well, like Surrey seems to have bus numbers that are in the three hundreds.

I grew up in, I kind of grew up everywhere, Michael. Also, I grew up in like Port Moody, Cloverdale, Langley, New Westminster, Burnaby. I’ve seen many different busses, many different numbers. My favorite bus line. I’ve shared this many times in this podcast. The 502. A lot of great memories on the 502 starting at Willowbrook Mall and then making my way all the way to Surrey Central so that I could eventually get downtown via the SkyTrain.

The 502. So what is the, convention that went into coming up with 502 specifically, and then maybe just expanding on like why we sort of cluster bus routes together? Again, maybe it’s just for the convenience of customers who planned to use it in those regions.

MICHAEL: Well, the reason, the reason why bus numbers are clustered together is to provide an idea to customers about where the where that bus is operating and the region that you’re in.

Vancouver is all under 100, the Burrard Peninsula, you know, and Tri-Cities are in the one 100s. The North Shore is 200s, Surrey and White Rock are the 300s, Richmond is 400s, Langley is 500s. And now the reason why the 502 has a 500 number and not a 300 number is because that route was really intended at the time that it was implemented to provide that connectivity out to Langley, where the rest of the 500 routes are.

The 600 routes are down in South Delta, 700 routes in Maple Ridge, Pitt Meadows and then the 900 routes are kind of the special ones, which we’ve started with the Bike Bus being the 900, they don’t really conform and we’re trying to say this is a special service, so we’re going to use a 900 series number.

JAWN: That makes a lot of sense. So then it brings me to the 99 B-Line. What does the B and B-Line really stand for? Because you know, we hit the streets, we were down at Commercial–Broadway station ask what do you think the B stands for?

VOICE 1: I’ve no idea, to be honest.

JAWN: Is it “A” it stands for the Broadway Line. Is it “B” it stands for the busy line? Is it “C” because it’s the best line, or “D” because you make a straight bee line to where you got to go? Which one makes the most sense to you?

VOICE 2: Sounds it’s a little bit of, A and D .

VOICE 1: I think it’s because on Broadway.

VOICE 2: Broadway.

VOICE 3: Broadway.

VOICE 4: Broadway works.

JAWN: Broadway does work.

VOICE 5: It’s B.

JAWN: The busy line?

VOICE 5: It’s busy.

JAWN: Michael, what’s the true iteration of what that letter really symbolizes?

MICHAEL: I mean, at the beginning, you said I had all the answers. I’m not sure I have every single answer. I mean, given that it’s was not just on Broadway and there were many other B-Lines throughout the network. The B-Line, it’s probably not Broadway line. My best educated guess is that, you know, B-Line is a colloquialism or slang term in English, you know, to get somewhere quickly, I’m going to beeline it to work, you know, get there really fast. And I think that’s probably what was going on. But I actually don’t know the answer to that question.

JAWN: Fair enough. Well, I think you’re bang on. That’s what we were telling the customers who were guessing. And I said, nope, it’s because you’re making a beeline, right where you need to go.

Perhaps one of the newer, bus routes that launched the route 80 from Marine Drive to River District, the route 80. Why did we choose 80 then? Because I don’t think, maybe I’m wrong here, but is Marine Drive technically like 80th? Is that kind of why we went with that?

MICHAEL: No, so what happened there was this idea that 80 numbers in Vancouver have been for quite some time a non-B-Line, non-RapidBus express service. 80 is similar to 100 and that it ends in zero. And it’s express, so it’s eight.

If you think about the 84 it more or less follows route 4. Except instead of going downtown it goes to VCC Clark and it runs on 4th Avenue. So it’s 84 because it’s the express version of the 4 in the section that it shares with the four. There was actually a time when the 44 was numbered 85, in recognition of the fact that it’s, express route.

So that was actually changed to the 44. I’m not privy to when that was changed or why, but I’m assuming that it was changed because 85, as we were discussing earlier, doesn’t really give you an idea that you’re going to be on 4th Avenue or whatever. So 44, 84 and the 4 all being on the same corridor, you know, take it, take a route with a 4 in it, and you’re gonna end up on 4th Avenue.

From that legibility standpoint, that’s probably what happened there. But that’s why the 80 got an 8 route is because it’s an express, but it’s not a RapidBus. And so it’s continuing that trend. I’m sure if there are other express services introduced in Vancouver, they will. You’ll probably see them with 88 something numbers, maybe 89 on 49th or something like that.

JAWN: That’s fascinating because like at a glance, if you didn’t know, you would just say, okay, that’s just the number, that’s it. But hearing you talk about it like there’s an actual system and it makes a lot of sense when you start breaking it down. And so I, I love that there is essentially a formula that goes into that.

So then bring us into, I’m going to call it the war room. When you and the team are trying to come up with finalized a route number, like do you like have conversations about it the way that you and I are doing it now? Or is there one person that just says, this is what the number is going to be?

This is why. Deal with it. Like how how does that conversation work out in that room?

MICHAEL: Well, it’s not like we have a big committee or anything that decides these numbers. We have some conventions that we like to follow. Each of the planners, they have a portfolio of routes that operates from a specific transit center. And there’s a little bit of discussion that goes on into what the numbers are, but we generally tend to be pretty close to being on the same page about what the conventions are for the numbers.

So it’s not like we strike a big committee and have a big debate about it and, you know, pounding fists on the table or anything like that. It’s, you know, there is a little bit of discussion, but I wouldn’t say it ever gets heated.

JAWN: Fair enough, it’s not like you need like a Mr. Speaker, we must control the house. Something like that. Okay. It’s a lot more…

MICHAEL: No, it’s definitely not like question period.


JAWN: Okay. Fair enough. That brings us into the RapidBuses. So R1, R2, R3, da da da, all the way down to R6, which was launched this year. Very exciting stuff. But now I have to ask you, what’s the challenge like when you’re trying to come up with numbers for the RapidBus, and do they have any significance to the routes that they run on?

MICHAEL: So the RapidBus being a different brand, that was, you know, an elevated brand that was introduced by TransLink back in 2020. There was there was a much bigger process in determining the the route numbering system and the naming convention and everything for the RapidBus. Given that it’s a whole branding package we were less involved in, in that in the naming of those routes.

But that said, you know, there is some amount of compliance with those kind of conventions that I was talking about earlier. For example, the R1 was like the first RapidBus, in that it was kind of the 96 was already basically a RapidBus that just became a RapidBus. So it was kind of the first one. So it get R1.

R2 is on the North Shore with the 200 series routes, so it’s a two. R4 is on 41st Avenue. So it got a four. So there’s just some things like that. I don’t think that because you’re dealing with a single digit, you know, you don’t have as much flexibility to to make those numbers match the conventions.

So you know, R6 kind of just got the next number that was available. Not really anything special. It was the sixth RapidBus I guess, so it got R6.

JAWN: Are there any route numbers that sort of jump out to you as oddities, or maybe have an interesting story attached to them, like ones that you really think people should, I don’t know, take a moment to sort of realize, like, hey, there’s a bit of a story here?

MICHAEL: Couple, a couple kind of jump to mind. The 222, you might look at it and go, okay, well, Michael, you told me that the 100 series routes are in Burnaby and on the Burrard Peninsula. So why is there a 222 on Willingdon?

The reason that there is a 222 on Willingdon is because that route, similar to the 502 operating in Surrey in the 500 series, saying, hey, I’m going to Langley, use me to connect to the 500 routes and Langley, the 222 is sort of doing the same thing. There was quite a bit of debate at the time about what to name that route that was a basically a very express route during the peak periods between Metrotown Station and Phibbs Exchange. And the decision was to, go along the lines of the 555. So, you know, 555 222, we’re in this area. Okay. It’s kind of has a nice ring to it.

And its intention of that route is to connect you to the North Shore. It’s to feed people from the two SkyTrain lines along Willingdon to the North Shore. And that’s part of the reason why the 222 stops so seldom compared to the 130. The 130 being a 100 series route is intended to serve the local service in in Burnaby, and the 222 is a connection to the North Shore, hence having a 200 series route.

JAWN: Now that you know how bus routes are numbered, you might come to realize that the current system makes a lot more sense than just going in order from zero and upwards.

Going back to our previous episode, talking about wayfinding with Jada Stevens, bus routes follow a similar principle theory. They should make sense, they should be easily recognizable, and they should represent some kind of geographical identification if possible. It’s the subtle details that people don’t often think about that makes transit what it is a system that is designed to be accessible for everyone, and the ever changing, fluid nature of trying to improve on that each and every day.

Sometimes that means introducing a brand new bus route, like the creation of route 80. Other times it’s just finding that clever route number that just makes so much sense. So whether you’re on the 500 to the five or the R5 now, you’ll always know the difference between taking a bus and Langley, a trolley bus in downtown Vancouver, or a RapidBus in Burnaby.

My thanks to Michael Vena and the service planning team at Coast Mountain Bus Company. They do very important work behind the scenes. We’re very grateful for his time and insight. My thanks to producers Allen and Vince for simultaneously being the number one producers in the game. And of course, my thanks to you for listening and subscribing. I’ve been your host, Jawn Jang, and until next time, have a safe trip.


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