Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Transit Tuesday: Tipping the Balance

Transit Tuesday is a new weekly feature or profile on transit.

On October 1st, MARTA, Atlanta's heavy rail operator, switched from referring to subway lines by cardinal direction to color-coding. In making this change, MARTA has tipped the balance. Of the 13 heavy rail systems in the United States, a majority - 7 - now refer to lines by color.

Starting in 1965, Boston started referring to lines by color. When Washington's system opened in 1976, line colors indicated the route of trains. Cleveland renamed their lines to colors two years later, in 1978. When Los Angeles' rail system started opening, lines were referred to by colors - the first heavy rail line opened in 1993, the same year that Chicago started calling trains Red, Orange, and so on. Baltimore renamed transit lines after colors around 2002. Finally, just last month, Atlanta added their Red, Yellow, Green, and Blue lines to America's transit repertoire.

There are still 6 systems that don't use colors to identify lines by names. However, four do differentiate lines using different colors on a map: BART, NYC Subway, PATH, and SEPTA. Miami and PATCO each only operate one heavy rail line, so color is not an issue.

Colored lines seem to work in the places they've been implemented. They might not be best in all cases, however. As far as Atlanta is concerned, however, "Yellow" seems a bit clearer than North, Northeast, and South Lines (the Doraville-Airport train traversed all three). This was more of an issue on the East-West/Proctor Creek Line, since Proctor Creek trains only went as far east as King Memorial (later extended to Edgewood/Candler Park), but the blue line representing both did not make that fact clear.

But a system like New York's does not lend itself to colored designations very well. With 26 services, the rainbow just can't cope, and letters and numbers seem to suffice. Many European cities use similar numbering schemes. Paris, Berlin, and Munich come to mind, for instance.

In the US, Red seems to be the most common color. Six cities, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, and Washington all have Red Lines. Chicago tops the list with 8 colored lines: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Purple, Pink, and Brown.


Alex B. said...

Someone pointed out to me the value of how Metro's trains show not just the color, but spell out the word on the front of their trains - I hadn't considered the fact that using color as the sole identifier would make color-blind people less able to use the system.

I think that's a great reason to abandon color as the sole identifier. For one, you reach a limit - Chicago is probably at about the max. Beyond those colors, you start having to nit-pick between the aqua line and the teal line. That's not very effective, but having line 1 (also colored aqua) and line 2 (also colored teal) is much easier.

Santana said...

I also wonder if once the Metro reaches its currently planned potential (especially with the streetcars), if the alphabet system will be a necessity, like the Green line in Boston or the SF Muni.

Matt Fisher said...

I wonder: Is the use of colour as an identifier in Atlanta more of an audition for light rail (Beltline and NW Line)? Both should be LRT, as far as I'm concerned. In any case, in London, on the London Underground, many of the lines are comprised of multiple branches (ie. District Line, Northern Line), and colours are used. One of the hardest things, however, is that the Northern Line uses two alternate routes through Central London. It then ends up confusing.

Matt Fisher said...

Actually, Matt, in your Metro/Light Rail plan, it might not be bad to identify Metro lines as "M#", and light rail lines as "L#". Of course, the "M#" designation overlaps with your regional rail lines in Maryland in your plan. To solve this, I could designate them as "R#" like they do in Philadelphia.

The "L#" designation for LRT comes in: In Copenhagen, some people advocating for LRT are using this type of identifier for future lines. Metro lines are designated the same way as I suggested, and a city circle Metro line is underway. There is actually LRT proposed in Copenhagen; it's the same one labelled L1.

So about this, I think that all the Metro lines can be numbered based on which opened first. The Red Line is M1, the Blue Line is M2, and so on. Likewise, for LRT, the Purple Line would be L1. I would make the CCT as LRT L2 and your Westside LRT (which I seem to like) as L3. Just my two cents.

Jarrett at HumanTransit.org said...

Color, of course, refers to the limited number of lines, which is why you don't see it in big networks.

Small bus systems sometimes do this as well, and outgrow it in the same way. My rule: When you inaugurate the Teal Line, it's time to give up on colors.