Montreal by Bus: Is Your Route Legible?


Photo by Kurt Raschke

To refresh you: in my last article, I talked about the names of bus lines, and how they can be used to help transit users navigate the city. I mentioned, among other things, that buses might be named for the paths that they follow or their end points, and that the strategy varied between different cities. I finished by raising the case of the 104 “Cavendish” bus, which I described as having four segments, only one of which actually is Cavendish Street. The point was that it is hard for users who aren’t in the know to predict the path that this bus is going to take.

Now, it may be that the only people who ride the Cavendish bus are in the know. Although this bus starts at the Atwater Metro station, it quickly peels off of downtown, running more or less along the western extremity of the prewar West End. The people who take the 104 most likely do so frequently, and probably don’t need to be reminded every day of where it goes. And we all know about Côte-St-Luc’s burgeoning tourism scene – you know, alcohol flowing in the water and all that . . .

So for the sake of this article, I’ll need to ask your indulgence. If the STM were to implement my suggestions on real bus lines, they would probably do well to start with busier routes, routes which carry more tourists, and routes which run between key points in the city but aren’t marked as such. In other words, the routes where more navigational help could do more good. The only reason that I’ve chosen the 104 is that it exemplifies many of the problems I’ve observed. I’ll enumerate these problems here, and then I’ll try to solve them to the best of my ability.

Where am I going?

Here’s an idea: let’s rename the 104 to “104 to Côte-St-Luc.” This has lots of advantages! Everyone riding the line from one end to the other will know where they’re going. Riders will know that the general direction of their line is northwest. Côte-des-Neiges and Ville Saint-Laurent residents will know that the line won’t help them. And the closer the bus gets to its destination, the more obvious it is how it’s going to get there.

But then – I said this in my last post, and I’ll say it again: what good is it to know that your bus is the Cavendish bus if you’re only taking it along the two thirds of the route which have nothing to do with Cavendish Street?

And yet, maybe you are going to Cavendish Street. For what it’s worth, some proportion of people will be both starting and finishing on Cavendish Street. For them, there really is no better way to label this bus route than “Cavendish.” So we can’t ditch the name totally!

So we’re in a bind. If we name the route “104 to Cote-St-Luc,” we alienate a large portion of riders on the southern and eastern parts of the route, and totally confuse everyone taking the bus within the municipality.

And imagine coming the other way! Is it the “104 to Downtown”? the “104 to Atwater”? (Where on Atwater – is this bus taking me to St-Henri? Or did we mean the station?) That being said – either of these two options are probably better than expecting riders to somehow intuit that a bus marked “Cavendish” will actually bring them all the way to the old Forum. So we have a start.

Photo by caribb.

How will I get there?

First, some food for thought.

Idea one: The farther the end point is from the beginning point, the more potential routes a bus might take to get there from here. Compare the long trajectory of the 51 to the relatively short one of the 105, for example.

Idea two: In a city like ours which is dominated by a grid street layout, diagonal routes which reach across both directions of the grid are bound to be more complicated. Compare the straight-line 55 up Saint-Laurent to the irrationally convoluted (but very short) 46 Casgrain line.

Idea three: Controlling for other factors, the longer a route is, the less likely people will be to ride its entire distance. Can you imagine riding the 51 from Montreal-Ouest all the way to Laurier station? What a waste of an entire morning!

Idea four: There must be some points and some areas on bus routes which are more heavily-used than others. This has to be true, because if not, the bus would clear out at every stop. (Think about it: 30 people get on at stop 1; 30 people get off and 30 on at stop 2; 30 off and 30 on at stop 3, and so on.)

We can exploit these ideas to strategically provide information to riders. If a route is long or has well-defined segments, we needn’t provide absolutely-complete information to riders at all moments. If the route is convoluted, we ought to tell riders where we’re going to turn. If the bus is going to go past particularly attractive locations, we ought to suggest what they are.

Here’s where I return to Paris. The Paris Métro is one of the most heavily used rapid transit systems in the world, and stations are heavy attractors of riders. So, as I already once mentioned, the sides of Paris buses list all the Metro stations that the bus is going to pass. There’s a problem though: while the Paris Metro has an incredibly dense network of stations, Montreal doesn’t. We’ll have to think of other landmarks.

Los Angeles bus schedules list lots of information about their routes on the front. Photo by Marshall Astor.

So, back to the 104! Here’s my list of landmarks. (Yours might not be the same; intelligent minds may differ!)

  • Metro Atwater
  • Sherbrooke St. through Westmount
  • Metro Vendôme
  • Upper Lachine St. through Lower NDG
  • Cavendish St. through Western NDG
  • Côte-St-Luc (finishing near the Maimonides Hospital)

In other words, what we might call the “104 – Metro Atwater to Côte-St-Luc” on its schedule. We might also note on the front of the schedule that it runs via Sherbrooke, Metro Vendôme, and Cavendish.

And as for the front of the buses? I’ll be generous and assume we have two lines of text on those digital displays, and can show as many frames as needed on the second line. (If anyone knows the actual technical limitations of those signs, I’d love to hear them.)

Going west, we might start with something like:
104 vers Vendôme / via Sherbrooke

Followed by a message whose second line oscillated between two separate lines of text:
104 vers Côte-St-Luc / (via rue Upper Lachine / via rue Cavendish)

And finally, as we close in on the end of the line:
104 vers l’Hopital Maimonides / (via rue Cavendish / via rue Kildare)

I’m interested to hear if you agree or disagree with my thoughts. And I’ve left the eastbound direction as an exercise for the reader.

This entry was written by Sam Imberman , posted on Monday February 09 2009at 07:02 am , 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: Is Your Route Legible?”

  • Fagstein says:

    The problem with 104 Côte-Saint-Luc is that the 104 doesn’t take Côte St. Luc Road.

    The STL in Laval uses a landmark system like you propose. The displays cycle through names of neighbourhoods, streets, metro/train stations. The only problem is that it takes about 30 seconds to go through it all, far too long to determine as a bus approaches whether to get on it.

    Really, though, this information needs to be learned at the bus stop, not on the bus. So you have indications on the bus stop itself of what metro and train stations the bus stops at, and a map of the bus’s route. Some bus stops even have complete maps of the entire network.

  • Kay O. Sweaver says:

    One thing that’s always bothered me is numbering routes the same regardless of direction. For instance there’s a 211 east and a 211 west with no differentiation at all on the marquee. One could easily end up in the west island when trying to get downtown (like me my second time in Montreal).

    Something as simple as changing them to 211 and 212 would solve the problem. Imagine, odd numbered routes are all more or less north/west bound and all even numbered routes more or less south/east bound. Or something to that effect.

    This is just like the first digit indicating express service, night service, etc.

    Of course the number of routes might limit this technique, but damn wouldn’t it make sense?