Legibility and the Bus System
Russell Degnan

In times gone by I have been quite open in my belief that Buses Suck. There are many reasons, some can be fixed, some cannot.

Often cited reasons that can be fixed are that they are too infrequent, too slow, never go in a direct line, stop running too early in the evening, and don't connect with other forms of transport.

Reasons that cannot are mostly aesthetic. A bouncing bus, swinging into the gutter with the engine rumbling, has none of the appeal of a gliding tram. Neither before or after getting on the vehicle. But aesthetics doesn't rate nearly as well as time and convenience when people make transport decisions. A tram could not be justified on those grounds alone.

However, trams do have an enormous advantage over buses when it comes to the ease with which people can perceive the system, and how it is capable of taking them from one place to another. A story from yesterday should serve to demonstrate.

In front of my house runs the 402 bus. From Footscray to East Melbourne. Yesterday, when nearby, a lady asked me where to take the bus to Kensington. I was reasonably sure that the 402 would go there, and told her as much, but this was not sufficient for her for two reasons.

One, there was no sign of a nearby stop, nor the exact place that the bus route would follow. I could only say where it went within the area immediate to my residence, and I didn't know where the closest stop was.

Two, I didn't actually know if that bus goes through Kensington (it does). But there are many ways to Footscray and no guarantee that the bus would take any one in particular.

Neither of these problems occurs with a tram. In the first instance the lines in the vicinity give a clear signal that public transport is available and (at least initially) heads in the required direction. The stops are far more visible because of their size - regardless of their aesthetics - and there is a consistency with stop placement (near intersections) with the tram system that the buses lack.

In the second instance, being able to perceive lines further afield, and remember that there is a tram in that area gives a user much greater knowledge on unfamiliar trips. I know that there is a tram that runs up and down Burke Rd. even if I am not familiar with the timetable, or the start and end points of the line. I can only guess that there will be a bus up and down Middleborough Rd. (there sort of is) and I'd need to find a map before I left the house to see my options.

The ease with which a bus route can be laid is almost a product of its inactivity. In order to attract riders a system needs to be clear. No user wants the frustration of extensive route planning, and maps are hard to translate to the city-scape proper in a way that the visual cue of a set of tram-lines isn't.

We could do worse with the bus system than to paint route outlines on the road, with the bus numbers displayed on the road at the stops. It may also demonstrate how ludicrously over-complicated many of the current bus routes are, and encourage authorities to fix them.

Sterner Matters 14th October, 2004 01:35:56   [#] 


*gets out the paint brushes*
Oh... I love the idea of painting the routes on the road but how would people be entirely sure where the bus would go after it left that particular street.

In Perth (which has a large amount of buses) they have a central "Bus Port" in the city, and has two circle route buses - travelling clockwise and anti-clockwise around the city, with other buses mainly linking up with the train system and run until approx midnight every night. Most bus routes also have a logical pattern to them.

I agree that bus routes aren't particularly legible, especially in Melbourne, but if the state government doesn't wish to replace the entire network with trams, it'd be best to heed Perth's example.
Aaron  14th October, 2004 17:02:42  

Flexibility is a bad thing...
I don't know whether I you've seen this piece (warning, 75-page PDF) before, but it's not just the difficulty of figuring out where a bus goes. This guy (and he's a right-wing nutter on most other issues apparently) argues that because buses are so flexible, a developer has no confidence to design around them. Light rail, by contrast, is going to be there for the long haul, so a developer can plan based on its existence.
Rob M  14th October, 2004 17:24:43  

If you build it...
...they will build next to it.

Rob, you had shown me that before. It is good to see the right approaching the issues. Regarding flexibility, I said as much myself in my piece. Given how transport infrastructure has been, and will continue to be, a major driver of where people want to live, it seems ridiculous to even expect flexibility. We want people to live in concentrated nodes around major public transport hubs.

Which brings me to trams. Aaron, I would like to see more trams in the outer suburbs, connecting the activity centres together. In fact, I think that the concept is doomed (again) unless it can be driven by major transport infrastructure. The incentives to build away from activity centres are too great otherwise.

On how to find routes beyond the street. Few people know a street from start to finish. Normally you are familiar with a few parts: the shopping centre, the part near your house, the school perhaps, or a restaurant. If you know though, that it is the same bus at all those points, you can join the dots visually on how they are connected to give you a good sense of the system itself. As it is, buses come so infrequently and have so little to distinguish them, that you don't have enough dots to join them.

You are right though, that a logical system is an important first step. Melbourne is a bit bigger, and a bit less linearly structured than Perth which is why the activity centres are important. But in terms of p/t they are still not central to the way it is laid out.
Russ  14th October, 2004 21:05:14