Suggestions for a redesigned schedule

November 28th, 2012

Transit schedules: built by planners for librarians. …that’s not right.
Transit schedules: but why does it do that??
Transit schedules: hand me my reading glasses!   Yes, I think that’s the right tagline

Generally speaking, transit schedules are an almost unmitigated shitstorm of bad design. I’m going to take a very quick stab at fixing some of their more offensive errors in our own schedules. First, let’s see what we’re dealing with.

all the schedules

Acquire ALL the schedules!

The good:

Colors: I’m assuming the limited colors(It’s only blue for both agencies) are a constraint of affordable bulk printing but I quite like the effect. Imagine if this were garishly rainbow coloured and you might start to imagine how bad these could be.

Proportion: This is nice. Lines are clean, things don’t feel like they’re hanging or sitting, either too heavy or too light on the page. I particularly like the lines and blocks around the schedule tables. They have a confidence about them. They aren’t trying to entertain us. They’re here to get a job done.

SORTA schedule table design

Branding: SORTA is doing reasonably well here. I’m actually not the biggest fan of their logo, but I will say that they have consistently applied their brand across the buses, schedules, website and everything else. It takes discipline, but the effect is stronger than the potential disorder. The brand’s colors are solid if a tiny bit oversaturated for my taste. The blue is dulled a bit in the matte schedule though, so I like it there.

Fonts: This does not displease. At worst, it stays out of the way and leaves the schedule clean and inoffensive. It’s easy to read. It’s not a serif.

TANK schedule font

Tiny 2X: How cute! It’s business card sized and no more difficult to read. Why aren’t all the schedules in this format?

The tiny TANK 2X schedule cover

I swear I didn’t cross out the “under”. It came like that. When it comes to fare increases, it’s the agency’s little personal touches that make me smile.

tiny TANK 2X schedule

Paper choice: They could all be glossy. I thank god they aren’t.

South Bank Shuttle table color-blocking: A lot better than most schedules I’ve seen, the one for the SBS has consistent times that simply extend some days. Instead of duplicating the table, TANK has clearly showed that the darker extended portion is Saturdays only. This gives us a better sense of the temporal shape of the line.

South Bank Shuttle schedule timetable

TANK schedule saturday color blocks

Vehicle cues: TANK has a subtle indicator of the type of transit vehicle on the bottom cover of their schedules. They only have one route with a different type of vehicle, but it’s a good start and a syntax that could be useful and well extended if ever their services are.

TANK vehicle distinction

The bad:

Decontextualized maps: These always get me. When I was putting together the frequency map, these maps were all I had to go on, and let me just tell you….It’s really hard to figure out where these lines actually go. Switching back and forth between this and a street map, you have to try to fit the route into the rest of the city like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle.

decontextualized schedule maps

This one by TANK is not only decontextualized, but pretends to geographic accuracy while substantially distorting scale in unclear ways. And where does that river go? Where is North? What in the name of cartography is going on here??

schedule map for the 2X

schedule map for the 2X

Gigantic tables: With no visible logic or pattern, these tables are good for looking up specific numbers, but don’t allow for reading at a glance or discerning service patterns, speed or frequency. We’re not able, through repeated use, to transcend the need for the table by recognizing patterns or underlying logic. Rote memory or dependence is required, never understanding.

long schedule tables

Enormous size: If the bus goes off a cliff, I’m using this one as a parachute.

massive bus schedule

The foldable poster for SORTA’s #17 measures 23.75″ x 17″.

Huge list of destinations: This is another sort of decontextualization. It really doesn’t tell us anything, and to the extent that it does, gives us another task: to actually find the place on a map and on the line. These places, if they are to be highlighted at all, should be shown in order and where they are in relation both to the transit line and their surroundings.

destination text

An alphabetical(of all possible orders) list of all the places the #1(Just for fun!) goes.

This also suffers from a problem that I see in the naming of DC’s Metro Stations: The names are way too long. Why can’t “Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden” just be “Zoo” Might we get confused by thinking it’s the other zoo?

Cereal box stars: How do schedules declare they’re new and updated? The same way General Mills speaks to the base instincts of children.

TANK star




3D ClipArt city: Need I say more?

3D future Covington

A glimpse into the bold, blue 3-dimensional future of Covington, KY, presided over by the eminent Lord Streetsign, Mighty Destroyer of Bi-directional Travel.

It reminds me of WMATA‘s awful fare cards, also co-sponsored by an ungodly partnership between the inventor of gradients and the color blue.

WMATA SmarTrip card

No, this is not from the 90’s. It’s from now.

Here are some fitful starts at a more inspiring and lucid design:

Context: Maps need to have context. What streets and neighborhoods and major landmarks and other routes do they pass? This can’t be written in words on some other part of the schedule, it has to be located in relation to the path our potential transit user will be taking.

TANK route 3 map

Here is an exemplary #3. A geographically accurate river, streets, buildings, and non-express TANK transit lines have been added for context. A more nuanced understanding than I have of the #3 might allow me to pick out particular locations that many riders are going to. It would also be good to label intersecting routes, but in this case there’s no opportunity for a connection outside of one of the transit centers. Buildings are fairly prominent in this map as the municipalities the line visits lie in (thus visibly) dense clusters among the hills. Simple routing allows for the bold labelling of streets.

new route map design for the 51

The #51 here is somewhat more contextualized by a hierarchy of labeled streets and a vague inkling of surrounding neighborhoods.The inclusion of other transit lines in this case proved ultimately confusing, and was abandoned for want of time. A more diagrammatic approach, such as a more accurate version of that taken for the frequency map could be well used.

De-emphasise useless information: Continuing with the #3 example from above, it could be made even stronger if we cleared up some of the needlessly complex downtown routing both through Covington and Cincinnati. The main part of this line is actually quite simple, and the number of useful stops outside of that portion is limited. Downtown Cincinnati for example only has two stops, and the direction of travel is irrelevant since all the streets are one-ways. Why show the routing at all? In fact, why not only show the single most important stop on a separate map? You don’t see the exact path of a subway on a map of one. You see only it’s stops because the other information will be of literally no use to you. You can’t get off elsewhere in any case without threats to the driver or maybe a pair of bolt-cutters.

TANK map of downtown and Northern Kentucky

A new Northern Kentucky-Downtown map that highlights only the most essential stops.

The elegant thing about having all your transit come together in the same place, is that you only need to remember a relative handful of stop locations. In the case of TANK’s pass through Downtown Cincinnati, only two: one for each direction. Perhaps letting the geographically accurate map cross a clear visual line on the page before sliding into diagrammatic space could be helpful. In the case of the #3, we need only mention one stop in Downtown, the one here highlighted as “To Covington”.

Temporal Mapping: This is an old idea that hasn’t seen light since the late 19th century. I’ll show it here briefly just to tantalize you and go into more depth in another post. In a nutshell, transit moves predictably through both space and time, so why only map one of those?

diagram of temporal mapping of a transit schedule

Better use of space: Smaller schedules are almost everybody’s friend. They’re cheaper to print, easier to carry, less cumbersome to unfold on a crowded bus, and easier to stock.  There’s a lot of empty space in these schedules that could be saved by shifting things around more fluidly for different size schedules. I would guess though that there may be some constraint of the program they use to build the schedules(“Trapeze” I think it’s called) that makes it difficult to rearrange things and I wouldn’t want to be the one to adjust every single schedule every single time they need to be reprinted. But the savings on ink and paper alone could justify the staff time if they print enough. I suspect they might.

In the case of lines with sufficient frequency(which I don’t think we have just yet), space can be better used, and the schedule more intuitively read by having specific times only for the morning and evening when service is just ramping up and tapering off, then listing approximate frequencies for the times in between. Chicago does this:

Chicago Transit Schedule Sign

Something to think about for the future, I guess.

Humour: I know it would never happen, but I really would love to see just a little absurdist humour every once in a while. There’s no law that says government funded things have to be all stuffy and serious all the time. That’s merely a trend.

low fat transit

I hope I’m not the only one who sees this every time I look at one of these.

I’ve barely scratched the surface here, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

One response to “Suggestions for a redesigned schedule”

  1. Steve Lax says:

    As a retired bus service planner in another part of the country, I would like to comment briefly.

    1. For everything you admire in these timetables, there is someone else who dislikes each particular feature.

    2. For everything you dislike in these timetables, there is someone else who likes each particular format feature.

    That does not mean that the timetables cannot be improved. What it does mean is that much of what is on the timetables is there because someone made a case at some point in time for it to be there in that manner.