Sunday, August 02, 2009

What's in a route name? (Part 2)

Part 1 listed the most common ways to identify bus and tram routes. In major cities all routes generally have a route number. In addition they have a word description, such as a street served, destination suburb or major landmark.

Different descriptions suit different routes. Three examples are given below.

Route 19 is a major north-south tram route in Melbourne. It is largely confined to Sydney Road which is a near-continuous ribbon of retail and commercial development. Trams come every vew minutes and the service is heavily used for both short and longer distance trips. The northern terminus at Coburg North attracts little patronage and contains no significant trip generators except for a school. While Coburg and Brunswick are major suburbs along Route 19 the route is characterised by a large number of small trip generators rather than a few large trip generators. Hence the 'Sydney Road tram' is probably the most apt description for this service. If you had more space, then a description like 'Coburg North via Sydney Road', 'Sydney Rd > Coburg North' or 'City - Sydney Rd - Coburg North' are all acceptable.

What a difference a zero makes. Route 109 is a major east-west tram route. It is fairly direct but the streets it runs along sometimes change name. Since it was extended to Box Hill the route's terminus is a major transport node and trip generator. Port Melbourne also generates trips, being near apartments, restaurants and the ferry terminal. Main intermediate trip generators include Victoria Street/Victoria Gardens and the Southbank/casino precinct. Most coming from Port Melbourne would be travelling towards the city rather than to Box Hill and vice versa. All this adds up to a route description that is more suited to including the terminus suburbs and CBD rather than streets. Workable choices include 'Box Hill via City' or 'Port Melbourne - City - Box Hill'. Street information has some use (especially in inner city areas) but could be provided on maps only.

The third example is bus route 900, or the Wellington Road SmartBus. Much of 900's popularity is between the major and closely spaced nodes of Caulfield, Chadstone, Oakleigh and Monash University (Clayton) even though Wellington Road is the route's longest portion. Chadstone, Monash University and, to a lesser extent, Stud Park, are 'special purpose nodes' with poor pedestrian access to the surrounding area. Hence these stops serve a particular trip generator or allow interchange to other bus routes but don't greatly add coverage to a suburb (based on number of homes within a 10 min walk). For this reason Monash Uni (Clayton) may be a better description of the route's service area than Clayton North. And note that Rowville isn't universally used either.

Route 900 is harder to simply describe than either of the above two tram routes. Calling it the Wellington Rd service ignores key stops so the best answer is likely to be a combination of suburb and trip generator given the importance of at least two of the latter. Emphasising trip generators can also exploit patronage promotion opportunities, eg encouraging lunchtime travel from Monash University (either campus) to Chadstone Shopping Centre. If there is enough room, descriptions like the following may be suitable: 'Caulfield > Chadstone SC > Oakleigh > Huntingdale > Monash Uni > Wellington Rd > Rowville'. This is probably too long, but removing any would de-emphasise a major trip generator (eg Monash Uni or Chadstone) or a train connection (eg Huntingdale, where 900 & 630 provide a frequent shuttle to Monash).

Another decision to be made when describing a route is syntax and punctuation. Descriptions may appear on anything from printed timetables, websites, bus destination displays (which could be static or scrolling), stop information, maps or a mobile phone display. Sometimes space may be strictly limited (eg signage) but elswhere more may be available. There is a trade-off between standardisation and customisation, and a fine line between desirable information and clutter.

The following timetables from various cities show different description formats used.

One thing noticed is the use of words like 'via' and punctuation such as '>'. The same route can be described in several ways, for example:

1. Port Melbourne - Box Hill via City
2. Port Melbourne > City > Box Hill
3. Port Melbourne - City - Box Hill

The first example emphasises the ultimate destination of the service, with the via almost as an afterthought. This has some sense, especially if the front of the tram is displaying 'Box Hill'. However because this is a through-routed route most passengers are probably more interested in the city than Box Hill. Another problem of 'via' descriptions is mental 'jerkiness'. In other words one pictures Port Melbourne and then Box Hill. But when we read 'via City' one is mentally forced back along the route to an intermediate point.

For this reason, I'm a big fan of the second ('progressive' or 'sequential') format, where the reading across effortlessly replicates the order of stops and provide a strong visual cue of the direction of travel (people know which way the city is, but they might not know Box Hill's direction). This is especially valuable at stop signage as it reassures passengers that they are waiting in the correct side of the road for buses going their way. Such a linear progression is good for scrolling bus destinations, which unlike a printed page relies on persistence of memory so has stricter requirements. It is also legible for longer descriptions involving various landmarks (such as the 900 example above) and has benefits for multiple routes that serve a common corridor (more in Part 3). On large signs 'progressive' syntax gives a fresh, clean look as it removes the need for non-content words like 'and' or 'via' as well as commas.

3 above is similar to 2 except for dashes instead of arrows which are used to lower the illustration of directionality. This is is good if the route runs in both directions but you are not specifically referring to either direction. Examples may include brief route descriptions on maps (such as some of the above pictured), indexes in local area maps and on the covers of printed timetables. Tracing a route against an arrow is counter-intuitive, so where this is permissible (eg when reading maps) we could use the gentler dashes (instead of arrows) to not block this style of reading.

A minor consideration (mainly desired for consistency and ease of use within the industry) is the order of locations in a route description. For instance, should a route be described as '844: Dandenong - Doveton' or '844: Doveton - Dandenong'? If we see the network as comprising a rail 'spine' with bus feeders then the former 'in-out' order may be useful since one can easily sort timetables according to the station they feed off. Also routes tend to be closer together the nearer they are to the CBD and may sometimes form a well-served common portion, as we see with 802/804/862. In this case a description of Chadstone - Oakleigh - Monash Uni - Dandenong has the common sections first, which provides a small amount of emphasis. The alternative starts where people live, and what they are more likely to ask for - ie 'a timetable for Doveton'. Overall this is the least important aspect covered but ideally consistency should be aimed for, especially between related routes.

How long should these sort of route descriptions be? The space limitations of various media has already been discussed. But if space is sufficient my answer is that they can be quite long. Five or six intermediate destinations might not be excessive provided they are all important (again as with the 900 example). Even if readers skip over reading some of the intermediate locations they will probably see the first and last place name. If the description is linear sequential (ie no via text) then the last place will be the route's terminus, which will sometimes be all they wanted to know anyway.

When people get to a particular bus stop they want to know where the bus is going, not where it has been. This has potential to simplify the information provided without reducing detail. In other cases the same amount of information could be provided but made more relevant for the customer. As an example, a city stop towards Box Hill might describe Route 109 as being to 'Victoria St > Kew > Box Hill', which would be more useful than 'Port Melbourne > City > Box Hill'. There is however a cost and effort trade-off between higher-quality area-specific information and a more general 'one size fits all'.

Part 3 will end this series, with a look at route descriptions for corridors served by multiple routes.

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