Towards a First-Class Bus System

Metro Transit 2012 Bus Stop Sign

Metro Transit 2012 Bus Stop Sign

It is time to rail about the sorry state of bus stop signs in the Twin Cities again.

I have talked a lot on my blog about bus stop signs, and we have talked about this on Streets.MN.

My own prior posts are below:

  • On “A Streetcar Named Development”, Streetcars, Buses, and Signs Was probably my first post on the topic, and compared signs in Minneapolis with those in London (where I was living at the time). Minneapolis officials were arguing for rail saying “With rail, you know where you’re going,”, which is an easily solved problem with decent signage, but which nearly 7 years later has yet to be solved.
  • Towards an Urban Interface – Some Design Principles – argues we need to look at Visibility, Feedback, Consistency, Undo, Discoverability, Scalability, and Reliability
  • Seattle Metro’s New Bus Stop Signs – are very informative, with at least schedule, bus numbers, and some with maps. Seattle’s transit mode share is twice the Twin Cities.
  • An Assessment Scale for Travel Information at Bus Stops – allows us to objectively rate the quality of information conveyed on bus stop signs. Sadly the Twin Cities does poorly.
  • UMN Campus Shuttle Signs – use QR codes and identify stop #, which links to Next Bus. The signs are not well placed, and are ugly, but the system has only one route. These signs are nevertheless better than the regional signs which are co-located.
  • Metro Transit Sign Test – is a small glimmer of hope that Metro Transit would like to do something better with their signs, by putting a phone number, website address and stop number on their signs – which may be adequate if you have a smart phone, and are looking at it constantly. They still miss the basic information, and do nothing to reassure me that I will be able to get home from a new destination.
  • Feels like the first time: Transit interfaces and the first time user
Metro Seattle Bus Stop Sign Types

Metro Seattle Bus Stop Sign Types

Others have written about bus stop signage as well.

So why do I keep complaining, when clearly this does no good. I have raised this with the highest levels of Metro Transit and the Metropolitan Council, so this is not something they are unaware of. It is just insufficiently prioritized. The head of Metro Transit pulled out a smart phone when asked this question in a public forum. To be clear, smart phones are better than no smart phones, but they are not sufficient. For one, not everyone has a smart phone. For another, we shouldn’t need to look at a glass screen to get basic information, we should be able to focus on the environment around us. For a third, we don’t have evidence that these are reliable yet: My battery could die; My app’s cloud service could go down. For a fourth, that only helps users, and does not inform non-users.

Information and Marketing

Bus stop signs are information for travelers. They are also marketing to potential travelers. For every time someone sees a bus stop sign when making a trip, hundreds pass by who are not making a trip. They may still look at the sign and see information. Over time that information will sink in, and they will get a sense of what routes go where. People will begin to develop mental maps of the transit system. It will give them confidence to use the system that a simple “Bus Stop” sign does not.

I want the bus stop to have (in order of importance):

  1. Station name (legible from on-board)
  2. Routes serving the stop
  3. Destinations reachable from the stop
  4. Frequency of service
  5. Range (Hours) of service
  6. Schedule of service
  7. A way to flag the bus at night (a light at the top of the sign, e.g. a glowing red “T”, with a call button
  8. Map of routes serving the stop
  9. Map of the neighborhood around the stop, including other bus stops
  10. Real-time information on when the next buses will arrive
  11. Instructions for using the bus system (fares, transfers)
  12. Off-bus pre-payment
  13. A bench
  14. A shelter
  15. Heat
  16. A QRS code linking me to real-time information
Detail of London Bus Stop Sign (courtesy TfL)

Detail of London Bus Stop Sign (courtesy TfL)

I would promise to stop haranguing about this if I got numbers 1-9 above everywhere in the Twin Cities. These things are standard in many European cities, where transit is taken seriously. In London, all the stops have the information described. In Helsinki all the stops have this information and shelters.

Maybe there is other information we want as well. Feel free to comment below.


How much does this cost? Of course the answer is it depends. There are lots of factors. But let’s imagine it costs $2000 per bus stop to design, print, and install decent, London-level signage (not including benches or shelters).

For 13,000 signs, this would be $26 million. This of course would need to be updated as information changes, so let’s assume $100 per year (or $1.3 M) system wide (since not all information changes at every sign every year, most details remain the same. (Compare today’s bus route map with that from the streetcar era, it is eerily similar.) This is well less than the cost of 1 mile of LRT, or the cost of 2.5 parking ramps, and benefits the whole system.


Is this worthwhile? The evidence suggests yes. The paper “EFFECTIVE WAYS TO GROW URBAN BUS MARKETS – A SYNTHESIS OF EVIDENCE” by Currie and Wallis in the Journal of Transport Geography (free earlier version) suggests revenue grows more than twice as much as cost from bus stop improvements and high quality signage (Figure 1 in the free version of the paper), and that this was more important than real-time information or new buses. This produced a 6-17% increase in ridership. Is this the only thing agencies should do? Of course not, there are lots of strategies. But using economic reasoning, everything with a benefit/cost ratio above 1.0 should be done.

Network effects suggest this needs to be done everywhere to be fully effective, not just at origins. While some stops are better than none, I need to have confidence that not only I can get on the bus where I am starting, but get back on at my destination for the return.

Paying for it

How to pay for this? My simple answer, put a sponsorship sign at the bottom. (This stop sponsored by Streets.MN, proudly providing the best forum for transport land use information in Minnesota). Given the rates people pay for bus shelters and benches (which are much bigger and costlier of course), there should be lower rates people would pay for smaller signs for a longer period which cover the cost. A private firm should be willing to take over bus stop management in exchange for the advertising revenue. Hopefully they would do this while paying for the privilege rather than demanding a subsidy. (Certainly the busier stops would be profitable for them, and less busy stops unprofitable, hopefully the profitable stops outweigh the unprofitable.) I realize people don’t want more ads in their environment, but the alternative is paying for this from fares, or public coffers, or not having it at all, and the evidence to date is that not having it at all is the outcome.


There are lots of design details. There is no guarantee that London or Seattle has the perfect answer. But before we can argue those, we need to have the commitment to do something rather than nothing. We can’t do it everywhere at once, but that doesn’t mean we cannot do it anywhere ever.

16 thoughts on “Towards a First-Class Bus System

  1. helsinki

    Phenomenal post. Your prioritized wish-list is excellent. Proper signage would go a long, long way towards increasing the attractiveness of the system for non-dependent users.

  2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Prioritizing consistent design and user interface is something that smart businesses do well. You’d think that this would be the kind of issue that free market Republicans and transit-supporting Democrats could agree on…

  3. Pingback: A week of history in the first person (5×8 – 11/18/13) | NewsCut | Minnesota Public Radio News

  4. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I very much agree. When I first moved to the Cities, I had no idea that I lived within two 15-minute bus routes. My sister lived in Richfield for seven years in the same house, and had no knowledge of this either, for either local or express.

    I’d seen the signs, but I wasn’t sure of the route numbers, where they want, or how long it took. And even though you can get real-time info on your smartphone, you have to know the stop number, which currently requires looking on the (smartphone-incompatible) online map. Even with the stop number, my data wasn’t working on Saturday night, when I last took the bus…

    So yes, permanent, reliable, understandable information is key.

  5. Walker

    Great post. I think another advantage signs have over cell phones is permanence. Somewhat like steel rails embedded in the street, signs feel more permanent. They give people a sense that this is something that will be here for a while and can be depended on and won’t change very often.

  6. Jeff Klein

    This is great, and I think you were even probably over conservative on the cost of the signs given the other data points you mentioned.


    Great, great post. I completely agree. My wife and I were talking about this just this weekend (not in nearly as much depth). “Why don’t bus stops have the bus numbers on the sign?” We live close enough to both 46th St and Chicago Ave that we have great access to the whole system, yet we never use it. Lack of knowledge of the routes is far from the biggest reason, but it certainly plays a small part.

  8. Adam MillerAdam

    1-9 would sure make it a lot easier for infrequent riders to use buses and do a long ways toward recreating some of the value of rail for substantially less cost.

  9. Matt SteeleMatt

    I’ve also wondered if simplifying the route structure, at least on maps, would help attract choice riders. Honestly there seem to be too many express/ltd routes in the city that run just a handful of frequencies per day.

    First, these should be off the “primary map” – Bottineau is already using the Kyril/UrbanMSP crowdsourced map for their materials. Because it’s simple. Then, we should figure out if there’s a way to supplant the need for these routes by providing better quality service on trunk routes, and then we can simplify the route network overtime. Thoughts on this?

    Also, curious if there’s an opportunity for a tactical intervention at bus stops similar to the Walk [Your City] signs.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      Matt, that last is a helluva idea. You design a basic sign tempplate, and maybe someone who makes smart phone apps can figure out a way to generate an automatic bus stop info program…

      Then we make these signs available online and encourage bus riders to tape them to poles near them, or make them available using a kickstarter crowdsource thing..

      I doubt it would turn out to be actually useful outside of a few areas with lots of activity, but it would certainly prove a point.

      Anyway, if you wanna talk more about this, we could get started.

  10. lls

    I just moved here from Evanston, IL, just north of Chicago. I in Linden Hills. It is one mile to a grocery store and almost 2 miles to get to the closest branch of my bank. When I lived in Evanston I did not need a car at all. I had access to CTA buses, the CTA Purple Line elevated train, and the regional Metra Rail. I could travel to downtown Chicago in 20-30 minutes easily on Metra, a trip of 26 miles. Tickets were purchased in advance and provided to a highly trained conductor. I could sit in a quiet car! Here, it recently took me 1.5 hours to get 4 miles to the Minneapolis Institute of Art on 2 buses. To go to the home of a relative, 3 miles away, it took one hour. If I had not had the ability to walk the 3 miles I would have needed 3 different buses to get to her house just east of Lyndale off West 56th. I chose to walk. However, I am not walking in January or in the dark. I will call a taxi until I have my own car again. Seniors, students, and those with disabilities do not have the option of walking or calling a taxi. I am fortunate.

    In Chicago, GPS tracking has been available for all bus routes for every single stop for at least 7 years. GPS tracking is also available for the elevated trains. All systems, including Metra Rail, issue alerts via email and Twitter if there are delays affecting your route. The signs are installed at each stop, indicating a list of which buses stop there, how frequently, and their ultimate destinations. Using GPS there is an automatic announcement on the bus or train of the next stop, every single stop. There are shelters. The “L” trains have heated shelters 5 months of the year. The shelters are supported by ads. Along Michigan Avenue, State Street and most other downtown locations the shelters now have GPS based signs indicating when the next bus is arriving. (For example, #151 Sheridan Road bus will arrive in 4 minutes.)

    Now, I noticed on a @SierraClubMN tweet just this afternoon, that @MetroTransitMN would like me to complete a survey. The results will be available sometime in 2014. Similarly, as reported in the Southwest Journal this afternoon, the City Council’s Transportation & Public Works Committee has authorized “spending up to $150,000 for environmental review and other development activities for the Nicollet streetcar line and another $205,000 to study the feasibility of streetcars on West Broadway”.

    People need improved public transit sooner rather than later. People need more Low Emission buses, which even Chicago has managed to purchase, and a vast improvement in signage, GPS tracking and other crucial information. Doing more surveys and studies is also called procrastination. With all the complaints from riders and all the promises made during the recent mayoral campaign, why doesn’t Metro Transit wake up and admit service is very poor, the signage essentially provides no useful information, and they are failing their customers in many ways.

  11. Nathanael

    It is bizarre and incomprehensible that the Twin Cities have zero information on bus stop signs. Almost *every* other city has the route number, even really small cities.

  12. Kyle Rosenberg

    A survey was just shared on Metro Transit’s Facebook page:
    (function(d, s, id) { var js, fjs = d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0]; if (d.getElementById(id)) return; js = d.createElement(s); = id; js.src = “//”; fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js, fjs); }(document, ‘script’, ‘facebook-jssdk’));
    Post by Metro Transit.

  13. Rick Wood

    Great article David and I couldn’t agree more with your premise that bus stops throughout the U.S. need better, clearer and more helpful signage. Your example of the London signage is right on the mark. Our London office designed most of that signage for TfL and does similar work throughout the UK. London’s is the best and should be considered a standard. Seattle’s signage is sorely lacking in my opinion for too many reasons to go into here. However, if you want to point your local agency toward U.S. transit operators with excellent customer information throughout the information process including at the bus stop level, I suggest you look at:

    WMATA: this is the best in the U.S. and is approaching TfL standards
    Chicago RTA’s Interagency effort combines CTA, Pace and Metra information for shared hubs
    Austin Cap Metro
    Hampton Roads Transit
    Porterville Transit

    Noticed I listed large, medium and small agencies. Small and medium size operators do not need to be excluded from this customer information improvement process. Good luck with your efforts in the Twin Cities. I’ll look forward to seeing how they progress.

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