Montreal by Bus: What Is a Bus Line?

This is part of an ongoing series about how Montreal’s bus system could be made easier to navigate.

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Photo by Christopher Dewolf

In many Montreal neighbourhoods–especially those that are underserved by the Metro–the bus is absolutely central to life. The 139 whisks Montreal-Nord and Rosemont residents southward along Pie-IX, and the 51 carries passengers from Hampstead and Montreal-Ouest all the way to Laurier station, hugging the mountain more tightly than the Blue Line does. I even suspect that there might be some emotional attachment to some lines: some friends of mine who live off the 80 “Parc Bus” are thinking about having tee shirts printed.

I am convinced, however, that buses are often popular largely in spite of themselves. Across the network, bus lines are often poorly marked and incoherently planned; unlike the iconic Metro map, the bus route map of Montreal is basically a birds’ nest of criscrossing paths. Where other cities have bent over backwards to make their systems comprehensible – colour codes, bright signs, terrific signage – it’s as if our system just became so complicated that everyone stopped trying to make it easy to ride.

My interest in this series of articles is to speak a bit about how we could help people navigate our city’s buses. As you’ve probably gathered by now, this will be mostly a critique! I’d like to explore some the changes that we could make to render our bus lines more “readable” by newcomers: not only newcomers to the STM buses, but also newcomers to individual lines or neighbourhoods. In this article, I’ll begin by setting out just what a bus line is and how it works.

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A Rome bus stop. Photo by Christopher DeWolf.

Regardless of the bus line, regardless of who takes it and where it goes, every bus line has a number that is unique and not repeated elsewhere across the system. This is very similar to the way computerized databases work: each person, place, or item which is catalogued in the database has its own individual “key,” preventing it from being confused with any other similar item. Whereas a line’s name might have duplicates, the line’s number has no ambiguity attached. This is why we can say things like “oh, it’s right off the 55”: there is only one 55 line, and it works predictably. 55 is the bus line’s “key.”

Aside from the route number, a bus line might have any number of properties associated with it. For example, it might have:

  • a description of some sort (“MONKLAND” on the 103, “GOUIN” on the 205, etc.);
  • a list of stops, in some sort of order, that define the path that the bus takes on its way to its destination;
  • and perhaps a number of nearby places or areas of interest: for an example, consider the square marking the Centre Commercial Wilderton on this map.

Any of the above can be useful potential indicators to a bus rider. Bus numbers are important for the reason I’ve marked above: they are unique, so specifying a bus number closes riders off from any ambiguity as to which route to take. Bus descriptions can be useful in telling riders, in a general sense, what kind of path their buses are going to take. Stop lists can be used by riders (at home, presumably) for added precision. And places of interest are important on buses for the same reason that they are important in cities on the whole: they represent destinations that have significance to large portions of the population like hospitals or malls. There’s other information that could be added to the list: start and stop times, bus model numbers, road speed limits, and so on.

Nothing about a bus route is accidental. A bus route is a series of points on a map in a particular order: imagine Pac Man eating the dots in the same order every game. The points are service points: places where individuals can get on and off the bus. Stops, too, have keys: the five-digit numbers at the bottoms of bus stop signs. Some correspond to street corners, others to attractions. All are at locations that have been deemed important enough to merit service.

So consider the bus with a number (key) of “161.” Its description, “VAN HORNE,” tells us that this bus line, by and large, will be following Van Horne street. The bus has a predictable list of stops attached to it (59161 / Van Horne Eastbound at Querbes, for example), and is near certain attractions (such as the Cavendish Mall) and areas (like Côte-St-Luc).

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A Jerusalem bus. The word to the right of the number 30 refers to “Egged,” the name of the bus company. In Israel, several private bus companies jockey for customers. Photo by Farfuglinn and taken from Flickr.

For an example of how all this fits together, consider my friend M, who wants to go from my friend E’s apartment at Parc and Van Horne to the Wilderton shopping centre, on Van Horne in Côte-des-Neiges. She lives near Laurier metro, and once lived over in NDG, so she’s hardly a stranger to Montreal public transport; but still, the only thing that she likely knows about her trip is that there is probably a bus down Van Horne Street. She’s not completely uninitiated, so she knows what direction she generally has to travel in; if she walks far enough down Van Horne in that direction, she’ll eventually find a bus stop. The bus says Van Horne, which is reassuring. And if she’s vigilant, she’ll notice the shopping centre and get out in time. The system works!

Much of the above revolved around guessing, and involved a certain body of common sense unique to the city of Montreal. But on our city bus system, common sense won’t always lead to the best route for a particular ride. Let us suppose that dear M actually wants to go to the Côte-des-Neiges mall, at Côte-des-Neiges and Goyer. As it turns out, she probably should have taken the 160 Barclay bus from its stop at Bernard and Parc. But how should she know this? The bus is marked Barclay (a road which it travels down for all of ten blocks, and that only in one direction) and accordingly, has an almost completely unpredictable path. So it’s probably better that she take the Van Horne bus; God save her if she should somehow miss her stop!

In the next article, I’ll talk about how we can use bus route names and bus stops to make my friend M just a bit less confused.

This entry was written by Sam Imberman , posted on Friday June 13 2008at 08:06 pm , filed under Canada, Transportation and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

2 Responses to “Montreal by Bus: What Is a Bus Line?”

  • zvi says:

    The way you describe transit line “attributes” sounds like me in a training: each transit line has a name, description, and itinerary….

    Your story about navigating Van Horne reminds me of an anecdote of my own. My wife used to work at Victoria & Sherbrooke and she had a colleague who lived near the Wilderton shopping centre. One day I discovered that her daughter went to Ecole Querbes (over near us). I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out what her potential transit options might be (none of them particularly good). After a few minutes of me thinking aloud about various bus/metro combinations, she lowered her voice and said “Zvi – I’m not like you. I drive. Trust me, my route is not a problem.”

  • Daniella says:

    Thanks for the post. Actually it helped me a lot as newbie in Montréal. =D