Information Design and Public Transit

City BusThe Washington, D.C. public has an aversion to public buses, particularly Metrobus operated by the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority.

Does the region have an inherent bias against buses? A few bus routes are extremely well used in both high and low income neighborhoods (the 30s accomplishes this in one line). Furthermore, the DC Circulator, Georgetown Blue Bus, and other bus services have shown commuters, tourists, businessmen, and others will take a certain type of bus. The reasons most often cited for not riding the bus generally include irregular service, infrequent service, inferior user experience, and uncertainty about route paths and schedules. Unfortunately, the Metrobus system needs improvements in each of these areas.

Successful modern bus systems (Whether known as bus rapid transit or other names) are designed to address precisely these concerns. They generally feature frequent, regular service with new buses along clearly defined routes. Metrobus itself rolled out one of these routes on Georgia Avenue: Metro Extra. While the regular Metrobus service clearly needs comprehensive improvement before many of the routes see additional ridership, there is one part of the package that is relatively cheap to implement: information.

The quality of information made available to the public about Metro’s bus service is exceedingly poor. Data available to the riding public comes in several categories, and a brief survey will demonstrate its severe inadequacy.

First, the online Trip Planner on will suggest bus routes based on times and addresses, however it is based on buses scheduled arrival and departure times. The knowing Washingtonian will rarely use these schedules and know intuitively that even if on paper the bus should be faster, in reality walking or Metrorail is frequently be quicker. Furthermore, the Trip Planner provides little sense of frequency: is the bus it suggests the only one that hour, or do they come every 10 minutes? Such details must be provided to the riding public. This lack of context problem also plagues technical systems like NextBus. The limited data prevents rider judgement and if it is broken or the bus comes off schedule the rider is out of luck. Nextbus also reports each bus route separately, even though by design many separate routes overlap for long distances.

Second, Metro publishes a systemwide bus map that is available as a PDF on its website and distributed at stations. The distribution of paper material at Metrorail stations is seemingly random – station managers seems to stock whatever they’ve got lying around. The webpage where Metro publishes the bus map contains not one but six different types of maps showing the much simpler Metrorail system (which itself contains in stations and trains far more maps than exist on buses). Most buses do not contain a map of the route you’re on, let alone the system. Clearly, part of the solution must be distribution: every bus must have route and system maps available. Metrorail stations should always have bus system maps available. Even if you get your hands on one of these things they may not help. Try to keep your eye on one route in this detail of the systemwide map:

Metrobus Map

The suburban portions are often no better, leaving off many minor roads. This detail of a map will illustrate their limited usefulness: where does the bus turn at those intersections? Which lines are for the F4 and which the F6? It’s little wonder this particular route runs frequently with empty or near-empty buses, despite high demand along the corridor.

Detail F6 Map

Contrast those with this detail from the Circulator:

DC Circulator Map Detail

While it is true the amount of information displayed is much less, the difference in quality is striking. The Circulator map tells riders where the stops are, which direction the bus travels, and exactly how the route relates to Metro stations and landmarks.

F6 Timetable DetailThird, Metrobus publishes a pamphlet containing the timetable and a route map. The Express’ Mike Grass recently rightly called Metrobus’s timetables “perhaps the most user-unfriendly piece of paper known to man.” Only a transportation engineer could find the mind-numbing lists of numbers like the one at the right meaningful. Even experienced riders like myself sometimes get confused. Metrobus also only publishes bus times for a handful of points along the route – riders in between must rely on experience or mental extrapolation to know when the bus might show up if their stop isn’t on the table.

F6 ScheduleIs there a better way to convey this information? Design guru Edward Tufte thinks so. Tufte has built a career on three lavishly illustrated books describing what he describes as “information design.” His book Envisioning Information compares a traditional timetable of the sort shown above with one from a Japanese train schedule. Unlike conventional timetables which seek to contain too much information and thus convey none, this schedule was for just one station. The hours ran down the center and a series of numbers corresponding with the minutes past the hour the train left were stacked to the left or right of the hour, depending which way the train was going. The technical term for such charts is a stem and leaf, but regardless it brings meaning to the times.

To the right, the timetable shown above is converted into this type of chart. On this route, there are generally more buses during rush hour. Furthermore, once the viewer figures out the layout it conveys the information much more efficiently than the tables – if you’re traveling after 8 p.m. to Silver Spring it’s immediately apparent there’s only two more buses.

The more frequent the bus service the more useful this type of display becomes. For example, the University of Maryland Shuttle from the Metro Station to campus timetable is below on the left. To the right, a redesigned version.

Shuttle-UM Route 104 TimetableRedesigned Shuttle UM Timetable

The new table immediately communicates the type of information many riders are looking for but is hidden in the long list of times: frequency. It explains why it always seems to take longer when I get to the station around 11 a.m., and also makes immediately apparent the reduction of service after 8 p.m.

Of course, while such information improvements are inexpensive and would no doubt encourage ridership Metrobus has much more serious problems. Its bus fleet is old, the routes badly need rationalizing, and the “customer service” of many drivers leaves much to be desired. One local jurisdiction which seems to fully grasp the importance of information is Arlington County, which operates a constellation of various websites and host of offline efforts targeting county residents encouraging and explaining transportation choices.

The Washington, D.C. region has invested millions of dollars in extensive public bus systems. Isn’t it time we make them easier to use?

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. Great post Rob – very interesting to me.

    I’m a bus driver part time for the City of Ames, IA ( serving Iowa State University so I get to see first hand how important it is to present system information as clear and obvious as possible. Of course the vast majority of passengers are university students (who ride for free) but many adults and especially professors and ISU faculty use CyRide to get to and from work. Due to the City and the university collaborating on one comprehensive bus system (as opposed to two separate systems – such as ShuttleUM and the University of Iowa’s “Cambus”), CyRide is able to achieve an annual ridership of over 4 million to receive more federal aid and provide very good service for a city of its size, for both students and residents.

    Of course it is a much less complex system than Metrobus, but is nonetheless a modern, well-planned system. It recently received a federal grant to study implementation of bus rapid transit for a circulator route on the ISU campus, which has the highest ridership of any bus route in the state. CyRide was the smallest transit system to receive the grant, among others including Madison Metro (nearest in size), NYC and LA.

    In small markets, a large university presence is an obvious boost for the local transit system. Increased service for students ultimately results in better service for residents. I can’t say this is any help for the complex system of Metrobus or major transit agencies, but I agree, providing clear and understandable information is crucial for all systems, large or small.

  2. Where to begin, Rob?

    The idea of posting the local bus route maps in the Metro stations only arrived a few years ago. The fact that it took WMATA nearly 30 years to think of this proves that the organization tends to hire from the bottom of the job barrel.

    I ride two buses every weekday: a Montgomery County Ride On bus in the morning and a Metrobus in the evening and they both have their informational flaws.

    First is the fact that only the terminal stops have printed schedules. Though the Ride On has full schedules at the terminal, the Metrobus only has the weekday schedule printed. Furthermore, every time I’ve called the number on the bus stop to hear when the next bus will arrive, the system doesn’t recognize the stop or denies that any bus will arrive “soon”. Not only does the system fail to give the arrival of the next bus (and I know the bus is certainly no more than 30 minutes away), but it fails to define the word “soon”. First, why doesn’t the system work? Second, why can’t that function be SMS-based and just return the next 5 arrival times rather than just saying “There are no buses scheduled to arrive there soon”?

    I have noticed some improvements, though, at some of the Metro station bus bays. It appears that WMATA has started to post huge maps for each individual bay showing the routes of the buses at that bay. The Bethesda station has electronic sign boards that list the next departure time for each route, but that function is redundant, since each route’s schedule is already listed in the station. I have noticed that the next arrival feature does appear to work, though.

    One significant improvement would involve a live electronic map showing the exact location of each bus within a one-mile radius of the station. Such a map would not only illustrate the status of each bus, but also illustrate which routes run along which streets and the number of buses of different routes running along the same street. If I could see a real-time map of all the buses within one-mile of the Friendship Heights station, I could easily determine which approaching bus will take me down Wisconsin Avenue. Right now, I have to check which routes run down the street (probably 4 or 5 routes), then for each I have to check the schedules, and then check my watch to see which will be next. With one glance, a real-time map would solve this with little calculation.

    If real-time maps were posted online, office workers and residents could look online right before they leave for the bus stop and see whether or not the bus is running late or early. If you’re in an office downtown and you need to get across, only a single glance at such a map would tell you all you need to know.

  3. Rob –

    The Ann Arbor bus system has put in a mobile phone friendly “where’s the bus” service. You can see it at

    You’ll be able to see for each route where the bus is now and how far it is off schedule. I rely on this information to help me figure out if it makes sense to wait for the bus or just start walking.

    Like the route map redesigns – again if you are compact enough in these you should be able to make this into the sort of data that easily fits on the screen of a mobile phone.

  4. Eric–

    WMATA had exactly these kinds of live, exact positioning of buses maps for a few months with the NextBus service, linked to in this post. The problem was that the locations shown and predictions for arrival were frequently inaccurate, so the system was taken out of service “temporarily.” I believe NextBus also had some kind of SMS friendly interface.

  5. Hello,
    I am the business development manager of Ikan Maas Media – a branding & design company located in Jerusalem. We are currently involved in the publication project which will address the re-planning of the bus system in the Tel-Aviv metropolin area (Israel). Our main obstacle is to present about 65 lines in central Tel-Aviv (coming from all over the metropolin).
    Can you recommend cities/counties that have effective bus information systems? We are mostly interested in maps since bureaucracy is going to prevent us from changing the call center, web sites ext.

    Sincerely yours –
    Yaron Toren

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  8. I see how simple and elegant the stem and leaf approach can be.

    I just have a question about it: When planning a trip along a certain line, how is this approach better at letting someone know how long it will be between the stop they board a bus and the stop where they depart?

    I can see how easy it can be to use the stem and leaf, but the older variety of a linear spreadsheet (as shown in the flckr image) seems better at helping people see what time it will be when they get to a destination.

    Of course, simply stating the scheduled time differences (showing that a successive stop is X minutes away, the following is Y minutes away, etc) is used where I live on maps at certain bus stops. It’s east math, but I wonder if people would much rather look at the busy spreadsheets than do some arithmetic?

    Any thoughts?

  9. To add to my comment above:

    Knowing the time when you might arrive at a certain stop is important for changing lines– a transfer from one line to another would be easier to figure out if you know what time you’ll be at a transfer point.

    It also helps in case you decide to get off before or after you intended.

  10. I find your New Carrollton / Silver Spring schedule confusing, and would not know what to make of it if I saw it for the first time; I couldn’t understand it at all until I saw how the UM schedule was laid out. I would put the hours on the left, with vertical lines separating the minutes for NC bound and the bound buses.

    Furthermore, I agree with what David Esparza Jr said – when I worked near Tyson’s Corner, I took the 3T from West Falls Church for the first few weeks; I didn’t realize that it took more than twice as long to get to my destination as a number of other buses from the same station. It would have taken me even longer to figure that out if arrival times had not been printed in the schedules for intervening stops.

    Mr. Esparza’s idea of printing travel times for common destinations would be helpful, but, unless I’m mistaken, the current grid format indicates the different travel times that passengers can expect at different times of day on certain lines.

    Finally, implementing this type of schedule system-wide would mean developing, printing, and posting stop-specific schedules for every single stop in the region (in order to remove any need to “rely on experience or mental extrapolation to know when the bus might show up”). The cost would be much greater than creating a just one complete schedule for each line and posting it at each important stop, as is the current practice.

    WMATA’s bus schedules are far from perfect, but your approach seems to improve only the rider’s ability to quickly judge bus frequency, and seems like a bit of a baby-with-the-bathwater approach.

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  12. Isn’t the same information available in the standard listing simply by the length of the “spreadsheet” listing? If it is really long, obviously the bus is a more frequent one, and I am not aware of any bus schedules that don’t run more during rush hour and less outside of rush hour (besides special event buses), so that information is really redundant anyways.

    That doesn’t mean that the stem-and-leaf presentation isn’t still better at conveying that information, but I’d be interested to know why, and I don’t think you’ve covered that.

  13. Herbie – the Munich time tables seem pretty straight forward, understandable, while providing sufficient information. If you aren’t at an endpoint all you need to do is add the number of minutes listed at the top to the beginning departure time.

    I personally like a timetable so I can see and comprehend the whole route / system as I’m used to … but for others this may be too much information or too complex to decipher. In that case I think the Munich time table is a great alternative. It still provides all the same information, but just communicates it in a more concise means, emphasizing the most critical information (ie. when does the bus leave). Quite interesting.

  14. When I lived in Bratislava in (then ) Czechoslovakia, every single bus stop had two plain sheets of paper stapled to the pole: one was a simple time table for that bus, the second was a simple diagram/map of the bus route, and where it intersected with other routes. If you knew the City or had a map you’d be fine. I think too much emphasis is placed on giving comprehensive information for people to make detailed plans. For spontaneous trips, all you need is the when and where to for this here bus.

    Knowing no Slovak, I got around just fine. It was also heavily subsidized so you could get a day pass for pennies.

  15. Well, I don’t think that there is the aversion you say to quite the degree, given that 500,000 people ride the bus daily, and the MontCo bus system is one of the most successful suburban bus systems in the U.S.

    Anyway, note that the timetable you came up with is how they do it in NYC. NYC buses have bus maps on ’em too.

    Good post.

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