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The Future of the City

Mental Anguish Is a Cost, Too

Conor Friedersdorf

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In response to yesterday's entry on buses, and my complaint that municipal maps of bus routes are so much more complicated than subway maps, I received a rather hostile flurry of e-mails saying that my insight is so obvious as to be worthless, and pointing out that the complication of bus routes is due partly to the fact that they serve far more areas than your average subway.

Obviously I failed to adequately make my point, so let me try again. Complicated maps are the enemy of more people riding buses. Simplified maps, routes, timetables and numbering systems will increase ridership. It is worth spending money on good graphic design, running routes that are easy to understand if slightly less optimal, and otherwise making things cognitively easier if the result is a lot more people finding it marginally easier to start riding the bus, navigating the system, and explaining it to others.

There are some of you who won't understand this post. You're the folks who find bus systems easy enough to figure out, if only people are willing to invest a bit of effort. The fact is, however, that a lot of people aren't willing to invest effort, and if they did they wouldn't figure out bus systems with ease. 

It is probably worth pausing here to describe exactly what it is I feel when I look at a complicated bus map. I've never been intimidated by road maps, or subway maps, but hand me a bus map and I get that feeling like I'm lost in my calculus homework, or confused about some quirky aspect of my taxes, or find that I've put together my Ikea furniture and there are extra pieces left. 

There are problems I relish solving, like how to organize a long essay, or the best freeway route to get from Orange County to Silver Lake in rush hour, or how to wire the various components of a home theater system together, but certain kinds of math, taxes, furniture assembly, and bus maps make me want to pay whatever amount of money is required to never have to think about the problem again.

I am no expert at designing bus maps. But come on. Look at this PDF of the central DC bus system. See the buses that run north and south on 14 Street? Do you know what would be better names than 52, 53, and 54? "The 14 Street Bus." If you wanted to get really tricky, you could have the 14th Street Local and the 14th Street Express. There must be some reason for the naming system as it exists, but it certainly isn't intuitive!

In my next post on buses I am going to address the issue of safety. After that I'll turn my attention to how bus systems can be improved, the case for investing more public transportation dollars in them, and the question of whether private buses are a better option in some places.



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