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A transportation blog.

Making better signage for when things go haywire.


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February 28, 2024

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Cole Dev

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Imagine, when a transit link you depend on shuts down, and when you try searching for information, all you see is a sign that contains a huge wall of text. How frustrated will you be? In a time where pre-pandemic ridership recovery hovers around the 80s, it is even more imperative to retain ridership by providing clear and concise signage. This is especially important when there is a network shutdown, and riders are already frustrated. Signage should serve as a relief, not an aggravation. That is why in this article, I focus on how to improve signage for planned service closures. It is the sole situation where transit authorities have some level of control over the situation and therefore, some level of power over the outcome.

Updated.

Clarified the stance on the bus network redesign process of the STM vs. MBTA and removed a paragraph containing several unclear statements. Added comparisons to the SEPTA and Winnipeg Transit bus network redesign.

Updated March 2nd, 2024.

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Skip to the downloads.

Skip the rationale behind creating these signs.

Issues with the current situation.

It has been a common theme over the last few months, that the Réseau Express Métropolitain (REM) has been under fire for ill-communicating service shutdowns (Journal de Montréal). It has even come to a point, that the line's operator, the CDPQ, has admitted that the communication has been deficient and that they are working on improving it (LaPresse). Admittedly, some of this press is overblown as well, as the REM is on-time 98.8% of the time, a somewhat similar level to the Métro (which also gets its often-non-fair share of complaints) (LaPresse). Anyways, one thing makes consensus, the urgent need to improve communication. Communication is not just better vocal messaging, more people on-site, improved web presence and the like, but also improved signage. In fact, signage is the most important part of communication, it is the first thing the travelling public sees. This is why signage and wayfinding has to be right, the first time.

Pre-updated text (several unclarified statements in yellow)

Despite the news being all over the REM for the lack of communication, it is not only them who struggle. For example, when the STM redesigned its Île-des-Soeurs bus network, it only published publicly the redesigned map three months before the REM opened. This offered very little time to learn about the new routes and give time for people to learn about the changed network (STM). Most people probably found out these changes through the news (LaPresse). Inevitably, when the redesigned bus network launched, it was faced with staunch criticism (Journal de Montréal). Therefore, in response, the STM added more service on the 168 Cité-du-Havre, extended the 168 back to its original starting point at McGill and introduced a new route, the 872 (LaPresse). All of this could have been avoided, if the STM announced earlier the changes, and consulted with the public beforehand. The former is exactly what the STM is doing, as the next network redesigns will launch six months before the changes, instead of three. However, the latter is still missing. In fact, the biggest piece of the puzzle is missing. This piece is an entire network map. Comparing the STM's process to the MBTA's, which is doing the network redesign in roughly an identical timeframe as the STM, there is already a public bus redesign network map, where users can test how much faster/slower their trips in the future will be (MBTA Remix), along with seasoned updates, depending on the public feedback. All of this done, years, not months, before implementation. In fact, the number of comments that the STM had received in 2019 (when it conducted solely online consultation for its bus network redesign), pales in comparison to the number that the MBTA had received. The STM has no public number, but on their public consultation page, it is generally a hundred per redesign sector (STM), while the MBTA has over 20,000 comments. The MBTA also ensured that outreach was done in multiple languages, as well as audio announcements in buses, advertisements inside and around the transit system, met with front-line staff, and 12 open-house events at major bus interchange points (MBTA page 11). This raises concerns about equity in the STM's approach to a bus redesign, but also the efficacy of their redesigns. Therefore, the STM seems much more reactive, rather than MBTA's proactive approach.

Feedback is gathered at every key step. Not just the beginning. (MBTA page 4)

Despite the news being all over the REM for the lack of communication, it is not only them who struggle. For example, when the STM redesigned its Île-des-Soeurs bus network, it only published publicly the final redesigned network April 25th, 2023 (STM page 1), while the REM opened July 29th, 2023 (REM). A consultation was held in May, which resulted in a modified route 168 (Journal de Montréal). There were several draft network combinations proposed (STM pages 8, 9 & 10), but this did not include any final decisions, route numbers, stop locations, specific frequency details, etc. This is already in stark contrast to MBTA, SEPTA and Winnipeg Transit's redesigns, where of all of them proposed an entire network map, including route numbers, stop locations, specific frequency details, personalized online maps so that riders can estimate their new travel times, etc, at least two years before the final redesigned network. SEPTA and MBTA used innovative tools such as Remix, so that the public can easily establish differences between networks, and gauge travel times, something that the STM did not do. STM did provide an ArcGIS storyboard, but this just presented images of maps of the new routes, not a dynamic map to predict travel times. SEPTA, MBTA and Winnipeg Transit all proposed their final redesigned network at least a full year before first implementation. This allowed the general population to comment on the changes, and for those agencies/authorities to communicate these changes to their customers (See table below).

The other issue is that the STM did the vast majority of consultations online. The other consultations were formal town hall style consultations, which are not the most effective (A future article is coming soon). SEPTA and MBTA did a variety of consultations, such as canvassing door-to-door, setting up workshops at major interchange points to understand the day-to-day issues of riders using the system but more importantly to share the changes. The STM, therefore, should look into such consultation methods, such as presenting network changes at major bus terminals, like at Henri-Bourassa, Côte-Vertu, Dorval. For example, all of STM's 18,712 survey respondents were online (STM page 5). SEPTA specifically mentioned the issues with online consultation:

"SEPTA and its consultants are well aware that internet surveys don’t provide accurate information. As it writes, “We (SEPTA) recognize the need to account for a significant digital divide, a range of literacy levels in our region, and an increasing number of people for whom English is a second language.” SEPTA does not state how they interpret the responses to control for the digital divide" (The Philadelphia Hall Monitor)

Therefore, it is notable that many of the people who have lower literacy levels, and those who's French and English is not fluent tend to be part of the transit-critical population, or captive riders of a transit system (J. Miller et al. 2018, page 20). Those, that a transit system should be consulting the most. These captive riders typically also have different travel patterns and different transit experiences than the 9-to-5 commuter. This is especially important, as the current network is very much geared towards that type of commute, as buses come very often during peak weekday periods, such as every 5 to 12 minutes, and that same route, during nights and weekends comes every 30 minutes, a period that transit-critical populations tend to ride the most.

"Transit-critical populations are more likely to ride and rely on transit—making them the system’s most reliable users. But they also have preferences and needs that are different from the standard “9-to-5” commute that has historically informed much of the MBTA’s service planning: they make multiple trips while riding transit, they use transit throughout the day, and they travel to non-Downtown destinations" (MBTA page 20).

The STM did do a portion of consultations in-person or by webcasts, but these are often under the "town-hall" or public hearing format. This format is often criticized for several reasons. A 2004 study claims that "citizens may speak their mind, but officials do not listen and usually have their minds made up before the public hearing. [...] Public hearings frequently degenerate into the worst sort of debate: Rather than citizens stating their opinions and offering supporting argumentation, they will employ sound bites, hyperbole, and falsehoods to criticize and demonize opponents—hardly a model of citizen deliberation" (Adams et al. 2004, page 2). An article in the news had mentioned that during the presentation of the redesigned bus network, the STM faced criticism from many citizens, and probably this restricting method of doing public consultation is partially the reason why the debate was heated (Journal de Montréal). On top of that, these hearings are not attended by a representative portion of the population. "People who show up to meetings are more likely to be extremists on the issue being discussed because they have greater personal incentives to participate" (Adams et al. 2004, page 2). This is even more reason for the bus redesign team to present the future network outside, in front of average transit customers. For example, the STM planning team could have gone to the busiest boarding and debarking stops of the existing Île-des-Soeurs bus routes, and ask riders a few questions, a survey to fill out, maps of potential networks, distribute flyers and postcards to better inform the population of the changes and obtain a more representative population. These talks and discussion points could be announced at advance, on their Parlons-en page, STM social networks, STM bus network redesign page, Transit App header notification, etc.

After all the consultations were completed, the STM should have also posted paper network maps of the final redesigned network at several stops, instead of just QR codes leading to the webpage. The STM should have had employees at major stops, REM stations, Métro stations to inform riders about the changes and which bus to catch and when. The period of having these employees should have been in July and as well in September for the start of schools and university. In fact, this gap of communication is one of the main reasons why Île-des-Soeurs residents were unhappy with the changes as addressed in this open letter to the STM.

All of this combined, would have led to better communication, and likely would have minimized outrage, better understood the needs of the population after the implementation of the bus network redesign in Île-des-Soeurs, and would have improved the reputation of public transit.

However, a lot of these problems also are caused by the harsh environment that the STM finds itself in. Tough conditions such as a short timeline to implement the network due to the REM opening, and the severe lack of funding significantly kneecaps the STM's ability to be able to do a highly effective bus network redesign (mainly the latter). This means that the STM likely does not have the monetary resources to implement new software such as Remix, nor the ability to do rider on-street meetings.

STM (Montréal)
MBTA (Boston)
SEPTA (Philadelphia)
Winnipeg Transit
Metropolitain area population

2 million (The Gazette)

2 million (MBTA Service Area)

1.6 million (U.S. Census)

Bus network daily ridership

~752,600 average weekday ridership, October 2023 (STM)

312,358 average weekday ridership, September 2023 (MBTA)

307,127 average weekday ridership, August 2023 (SEPTA)

201,491 average weekday ridership, September 2023 (Winnipeg Transit)

Comments to understand existing conditions, set the scope of the redesign.

18,712 respondents (STM page 6)

Over a 4-week period

>3,500 comments from >2,500 riders and 2,854 surveys from stakeholders (MBTA pages 7 & 8)

Over a 6-week period

>7,000 surveys (SEPTA page 4)


Over the Summer & Fall of 2021.

3,318 respondents (Winnipeg Transit page 1)


Over a 4-week period.

Comments per area, to understand area-specific needs, propose possible route modifications and allow citizens to propose their own route modifications

1,500 comments and 700 respondents (Parlons-en)

Over 4-weeks per sector.

One-time virtual information meeting per sector (comment numbers unknown) (STM)

None. The MBTA decided to propose a network first then ask for comments, and then propose a second draft network.

None. SEPTA decided to propose two networks first then ask for comments, and then propose a second draft network.

None. Winnipeg Transit decided to propose a network first then ask for comments, and then propose a second draft network.

Comments received after first draft of network redesign

None. The STM did the majority of its consultation before presenting a network map.

>20,000 comments from 9,565 interactions (MBTA page 59 & 70)

Over a 11-week period

>20,000 interactions (SEPTA page 8)

Over a 2-year period

After first network draft:

>4,000 respondents (Winnipeg Transit page 2)

Over a 4-week period.

After second network draft:

>1,150 respondents (Winnipeg Transit page 2)

Over a 4-week period.

Public outreach events

Unknown

112 events (MBTA page 59)

178 events (SEPTA page 2)

21 events (Winnipeg Transit)

Frequent Network definition

Type A: Every 12 minutes, weekdays, bi-directional, 6am to 8pm

Type B: Every 12 minutes, 6am to 9am, uni-directional and 3pm to 6pm in the opp. direction (STM)

Every 15 minutes, bi-directional, 5 am to 1 am, 7 days a week (MBTA page 50)

10MAX: Every 10 minutes, bi-directional, 6am-9pm weekdays, 6am-8pm Saturdays, 6am-7pm Sundays

15MAX: Every 15 minutes, bi-directional, 6am-9pm weekdays, 6am-8pm Saturdays, 6am-7pm Sundays (SEPTA Remix)

FX: Every 10 minutes peak, every 15 minutes off-peak (except nights and weekends), bi-directional

F: Every 15 minutes peak, every 15 minutes off-peak (except nights and weekends), bi-directional

D: Every 15 minutes peak, every 20 minutes off-peak (except nights and weekends), bi-directional (City of Winnipeg).

Number of frequent bus routes

Unknown increase.

Currently:

9 Type A

22 Type B

(STM)

15 to 30 (MBTA page 50)

33 to 43 (SEPTA page 26)

10MAX: 17

15MAX: 26 (SEPTA Remix)

FX: 3

F: 6

D: 10 (City of Winnipeg).

Cost-neutral

Yes, for operations and capital costs (STM)

Unknown for operations, but probably higher with 30% more Vehicle Revenue Miles (MBTA).


500 million $ USD capital investment (MBTA page 125).

Yes, for operations (SEPTA page 62).

150 million $ USD capital investment (SEPTA page 2).

Yes, 25% increase in capacity, with no increase in costs of operation (Winnipeg Transit page 29)


Short-term: 500 million (Winnipeg Transit page 90)

Long-term: 1 billion $ CAD (Winnipeg Transit page 66).

Bus network redesign website(s)

End of changes.


Another example would be when the 439 Express Pie-IX bus was extended to Cégep Marie-Victorin. When this happened, a key bus route for many people in Montreal-North, the 69 Gouin, was rerouted to continue further along Henri-Bourassa. In its place, the 439 would run. The problem is that the 439 goes to a different Métro station, on a completely different line. Therefore, when I boarded the bus a week after the changes had been implemented, roughly half the passengers were confused about the bus they were on. This is despite the STM installing identical signs at every single bus stop along the 69. Users were frustrated to learn that their bus route had changed and thought there was no 69 anymore. If this situation happened in other boroughs, such as Île-des-Soeurs, there probably would have been news articles about it. However, many of these riders are captive, and have no choice to take public transport, or thought to be. In fact, Montreal North is one of the areas that the STM had lost a great amount of ridership (Nick C. et al. 2020). Therefore, even in areas where ridership is thought to be captive, good signage is still important.

The installed sign at every stop of the 69 Gouin announcing its reroute in Montréal North (STM).

However, the issue was that at a particular bus stop, Lacordaire/Henri-Bourassa to be exact, the bus stop was moved across the intersection with the same name. The problem is that there was no sign indicating that the 69 no longer stopped at that specific stop. Preferably, an arrow should have been installed to direct transit users across the intersection to the new stop. Ideally the sign would also have a zoomed-in diagram of the intersection.

Mock of a possible sign.

The issue is also not limited to that stop. In fact, it was not clear which alternatives were offered to users wanting to continue their travel to Henri-Bourassa and beyond. There were no signs inviting users to take the 439 at the ex-69 bus stops, and then transfer at one of the handful of stops to the 69. There were also no signs informing users that they could take the 49 to go to Henri-Bourassa Métro station. It was probably so bad, that a resident had installed this very informal sign on several stops along Maurice-Duplessis.

An ad hoc sign installed presumably by a resident indicating which bus to take that will go to Henri-Bourassa station.

Exo also has its fair share of problems. For example, it had shuttered its Twitter accounts announcing in detail which bus departures were cancelled, due to the lack of a member of staff, lack of available vehicles, etc. Therefore, if you go on their website and click on Schedules & Service Status, and then click bus under the Customer Notices page, it brings you to this page. It does not show the user any status, just upcoming notices about the exo network as a whole.

This page appears when you click on Service Status, and then under Customer Notices, click on Bus on exo's website.

To access the service status of the bus, the user actually must click on Schedules & Service Status, then click on Bus Schedules. Already this is confusing, because the user is not searching for the schedule, but the status of the service. Then on the left sidebar, the user must click on Service Status. Then, the user must click on Bus. The user will finally end up on this page.

This page appears when you click on Service Status, and then click Bus Schedules, and finally on Service status on the left sidebar.

But again, the issue is that the user must know their bus route in advance. The user wants to search by sector, and by list? No, it's impossible. On top of that, it's also poorly designed. If the user enters a route and presses enter right away, it will display an error. Instead, the user must wait until a dropdown list appears when they enter a number, and then click on the route. This caused me, to think at first that this tool did not work.

Again, this is entirely in the agency's control. They can improve this page quickly, and make it more user friendly, but also more accessible. At first, I didn't even notice that service status was available on the front page, since it was not prominently separated from the rest of the information. On top of that, the user has to scroll down to even see the service status page. At first, I thought it was only for trains, but then I noticed a small button for buses as well.