Montreal by Bus: The Names of Bus Routes


You could conceivably have a bus network where bus lines were identified only by their number. We don’t technically need bus routes to have names for them to be usable, as long as each bus has a key: something, probably a number, that makes each route individually identifiable to riders.

Still, it would be pretty silly not to assign bus routes to names. Firstly, and most superficially, we have the capability to show some clarifying text next to the route number on our buses and bus schedules, and it would be silly not to use it. But more importantly, giving riders a name to go with the randomly decided bus route number can pay dividends in usability. Almost all bus systems that I can think of have bus route names displayed prominently right next to bus route numbers, not only on the buses themselves but also on bus signage and schedules.

The way we choose the names we give to buses, however, is open to some debate. Should we name it after the bus’s end point? Points along its path? The areas through which it passes? Different cities come to different conclusions.


In Montreal, as you surely know, each line has its own name. This name, though it can’t always be used to uniquely identify a route (there are three Sherbrooke buses, two Jean-Talon, two Sainte-Catherine), is supposed to give the rider an idea of where their bus goes. Most Montreal bus routes take their names from that of the most important road along their routes; hence, we have the 55 on Saint-Laurent, the 129 on Côte-Sainte-Catherine, and so on. (Of course, like all rules, this one has its exceptions.) These route names appear on all bus navigation documents, the STM web site, and the fronts of buses, meaning that they are largely able to define how riders perceive these routes.

As it turns out, other cities have substantially different approaches to naming their routes. Where Montreal routes are named by the paths they take, Paris buses are named for their destinations; hence, the 27 is shown as the “Gare Saint-Lazare” bus going north, and the “Porte d’Ivry – Claude Regaud” bus going south. This approach is not without its problems either: there exist an astronomically high number of paths that a bus could conceivably take to go from the Gare Saint-Lazare to the Porte d’Ivry. To remedy this problem, the Paris transport authority has taken to listing all the Metro stations that the bus will pass on the side of the bus.

New York works more similarly to Montreal, in that buses are defined by the paths that they take. However, the fronts of buses have two-line digital displays that provide more information: in this way, eastbound M14A and M14D buses specify that they are going to the Lower East Side. North-south Toronto buses, if I remember correctly, sometimes specify which stop on the Bloor-Danforth line they will pass by.

Compared to these and other cities, then, Montreal’s system of naming bus routes is rather hit-and-miss. At its best, when bus routes conform well to the roads they are meant to follow, our bus route names can indeed be quite helpful; indeed, there really isn’t a better way to name the 161 Van Horne bus. But couldn’t we help out riders of buses like the 102 Somerled bus, which, after an eastward trajectory on Somerled, veers southward to the Vendome Metro station? And what of the 63 Girouard bus, which spends much less than half its distance on its namesake road?

What is needed, in my opinion, is a retooling of how the STM describes its bus routes to its riders. Where describing buses by their paths works well, we should keep them; where describing buses by their paths does not work, we should rename those lines. The messy hodgepodge that is the 160 Barclay bus should be first against the wall.


The front of a Paris bus, showing its destination. The slash through the 27 means that this bus is only running on part of its route. Photo by Brian Stokle as taken from Flickr.


The digital sign on this New York MTA bus in Staten Island shows the endpoint of the bus route. Photo by Kriston Lewis as taken from Flickr.

So, having decided that a bus route is poorly named, how do you fix it? Here’s where it gets tricky. Change the name too little and you haven’t increased the route’s comprehensibility much; change it too much and you’ve confused a slew of old riders. The trick, then, is to strike some sort of happy medium.

As an example, let me take the 104 Cavendish bus. I’ve copied in the STM’s route map below:


You’ll notice, first of all, that the line passes two Metro stations. If you know the city, you’ll have noticed that the line runs through Westmount, parts of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, and then Côte-St-Luc; maybe you recognize some of the cross streets and nearby points of interest. These are all navigational elements that I discussed in my last article, and if you’ve read any Kevin Lynch, you’ll surely have already made the jump to his vocabulary of districts, paths, and the lot.

Using the two facts that the 104 bus line passes two Metro stations and bears the name Cavendish, we can divide the line up into four sub-segments from East to West:

  • the portion of the line between Atwater and Vendôme (3.0 km)
  • the portion of the line west of Vendôme station, but not on Cavendish Street (2.2 km);
  • the portion of the line that runs on Cavendish Street (3.8 km);
  • and the portion of the line east of Cavendish Street (2.0 km).

Although the Cavendish Street segment of the Cavendish bus line may be the largest of the four segments, it is still makes up only a minority of the line. Or, to put it another way:


So why, if large portions of this line can be travelled without even touching Cavendish Street, do we force users to memorize that theirs happens to be the Cavendish bus?

We could do better. The solution, as I see it, is twofold: first, to rethink how we name buses and make use of their unique navigational elements; and secondly, to maximize our use of the capabilities that our buses’ screens already have. And this, ladies and gentlemen, will be the subject of my next post.

This entry was written by Sam Imberman , posted on Wednesday July 16 2008at 08:07 pm , filed under Canada, Transportation and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

5 Responses to “Montreal by Bus: The Names of Bus Routes”

  • Paul says:

    Just letting you know that I’m loving this series so far and I’m eager to see where it goes!

  • Jef says:

    In Providence the electronic bus signs scroll through two or three screens of information. For example, bus 26 outbound would say “RIC” (for Rhode Island College the final destination), “Atwells” (the main avenue the bus runs on), then either “Academy” or “Mt. Pleasant” (the buses alternate between those two streets to reach RIC from Atwells).

    There are two main buses running to Pawtucket (the city north of Providence). The 99 would say “Pawtucket” “North Main” and the 42 would say “Pawtucket” “Hope”, the destination, followed by the streets they use to get there.

    Boston is similar, except Boston uses the word ‘via’ differentiate the destination versus the route. For example, Route 1 would be “Harvard Square” “Via Mass Ave.”

    See this flickr photo:

  • Rossana says:

    I liked this too, Sam. More specifically, excellent use of a pie chart.

  • Cedric says:

    I agree with Rossana. This is an excellent article, especially with the enhancement brought by the pie chart.

  • Mathieu A says:

    Interesting, well documented and incredibly right ! Thanks for sharing your thoughts about one of the daily problems of montrealers.

    It’s already difficult enough for foreigners / tourists to distinguish EAST and WEST. Taking the bus is always an adventure in Montréal, fortunately we often can count on the kindness of bus driver to help us or just to scream out loud where we should drop off.

    I’m actually writing a short paper for school about it, and your article is really helping!

    Parceque le Bus c’est fantastique mais encore faut il savoir ou aller !