16? 2? 53A? &%@**#!!

NumbersIMPORTANT NOTE: In this post I may use ART and Metro as examples. That's because--being in the DC area--I know more about them. The points I am making are intended to apply to mass transit in general and are not intended as criticisms of these particular systems any more than transit systems anywhere else.

In Arlington (and many places) streets are numbered, which can be pretty useful: 10th St. is between 9th and 11th, which can be a huge help to those trying to find an address. In Arlington, the buses are also numbered: 41, 51, 52, 53 (A?), 61, 62, 67, 74, 75, 82. But what do these numbers mean? Like the streets, can I use the numbers to help me find the bus or figure out where it's going or derive any useful information at all? No. As a rider they are entirely meaningless. I asked around in Arlington County Commuter Services and virtually no one knew the "system" behind the numbers. Eventually I found one person who had a clue about the system but readily admitted that it was, in essence, arbitrarily contrived.

Metro is even worse. Not only are the numbers essentially arbitrary (I'm sure there's a system, but if it'sRoute_2 opaque to the rider then it is no better than no system). Take the #2 bus. It comes in 6 varieties (2A, 2B, 2C, 2G, 2W. . . and 2T on a separate timetable). The 2W and the 2T are so different from the other 2's, they need a separate map and timetables. Why even call them # 2's? I'll bet you there isn't a single rider who can explain why those buses are called #2, why there are 6 different ones, why those particular letters of the alphabet are used, and why the 2W and 2T are somehow paired with the other 2's. The numbering is worthless to the rider (who is, after all, the customer). So here's a system that not only provides zero useful information but actually provides the disservice of confusing customers.Confused
Imagine the streets were numbered like this: 8th, 11th, 5th, 1st, 4th, 9th, 2nd, 7th, 6th, 10th, 3rd, 12th. The numbers are meaningless (actually there's a "system"--revealed at the end of this post). If you tell someone you live on 5th Street you still have to describe where it is: "I live on 5th, which is between 11th and 1st." The numbers have become meaningless. Actually, this "system" is even worse than that; it creates more confusion than purpose. Better that the streets were given names like colors or trees.
"But how do you tell the buses apart?" Yes, of course they need to be identified. Everything needs some sort of identification: streets, animals, our friends, schools, devices, food. They all have names, and those names evoke meaning. Imagine if all the food in the grocery were just numbers. Milk_carton_2"Be sure to pick up some 22, 135, 16 and--oh yes--311 on your way home, honey." I find it hard enough to remember bread, milk and artichoke hearts, and--oh yes--toilet paper!
Eventually I would learn that 22 is milk, but it's so much harder. Our brains are not wired to apply numbers in an arbitrary way like that. We don't remember our friends by their phone numbers.
From early childhood we are taught that numbers are most usefully used as ordinal or cardinal identifiers--they help us put things in order or quantify them. But on buses they serve neither purpose (these are called "nominal" numbers), and so we have to deliberately undo a lifetime of learning and try to understand the number on the bus as nothing more than an abstraction that equates to a name. Better the bus be called the "phor" than 4; it would actually be easier. In fact, the metrorail lines being identified with colors is easier to remember than if they were numbered. And, although the colors are also essentially arbitrary, it is easier for the brain to bring meaning to them.

"But transit systems have been using numbers for generations, and it's been working." Thanks, Dilbert. Just because something has been done for decades doesn't make it good or leave no room for improvement. In fact, just the opposite: often it's the things that we assume ought to be a certain way are the things that should be questioned the hardest. Also, how do we know it's been working if we haven't tried something different to compare it with?
Dash_small_2Boulder Colorado is one place I know of that has thrown out the number system (at least partially). Many of the buses have names: Hop, Skip, Stampede, Bolt, Dash, etc. The more complete names are things like "Skip Along Broadway" and "Dash down South Boulder Road." Skip_smallNow that's useful info to a customer. Personally I like the Jump (also called the Short Jump) and the Long Jump (which is the extension of the Jump--now there's a name that really works).
If the goal of transit is to help people get around better and more easily, that goal needs to consider everything: ease of use, cost, convenience, etc.. The names of the buses are a key piece of information critical to people using the system. Is what Boulder's done the best system? I don't know, but it's a lot better than everywhere else. In any event, the only system I can think of that would be worse than the arbitrary number system in common use is a system in which the buses have no identification at all.
(originally posted November 10, 2007 on CommuterPage blog)
(Answer: the streets are listed in alphabetical order)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for that essay - in NW DC, I've noticed that, for example, the 40 buses travel on Columbia Rd, west of 16th, the 50 buses (52, 54, etc.) correspond with routes along 14th St, the 60 buses correspond with routes along 11th St, and the 70 buses go down 7th St/Georgia Ave. But I've often wondered the relationship between 50 and 14 and 60 and 11 - and why, as the number of the street gets lower in this particular area as you travel east, the number of the buses gets higher.

    Boulder's system seems pretty good, because it does assign names, and because it gives fun, friendly sounding names to its buses, also probably does not a little bit to decreasing the stigma of riding the bus.