In Arlington (and many places) streets are numbered, which can be pretty useful: 10th St. is between 9th and 11th, which can be a huge help to those trying to find an address. In Arlington, the buses are also numbered: 41, 51, 52, 53 (A?), 61, 62, 67, 74, 75, 82. But what do these numbers mean?

Unlike the streets, a rider can’t use the numbers to help find the bus, figure out where it’s going, or derive nearly any useful information at all. To the rider, they are entirely meaningless. I asked around in Arlington County Commuter Services and virtually no one knew the “system” behind the numbers. Eventually I found one person who had a clue about the system but readily admitted that it was, in essence, arbitrarily contrived.

Metro’s numbering is even more opaque. Take the #2 bus. It comes in 6 varieties. There’s the 2A, 2B, 2C, 2G, and 2W. Then the 2T has a separate timetable entirely. The 2W and the 2T are so different from the other 2’s, they need a separate map and timetables.

Why even call them #2’s? I’ll bet you there isn’t a single rider who can explain why those buses are called #2, why there are 6 different ones, why those particular letters of the alphabet are used, and why the 2W and 2T are somehow paired with the other 2’s.

The numbering is worthless to the rider, who is, after all, the customer. Here’s a system that not only provides zero useful information but actually provides the disservice of confusing customers.

Imagine a town’s streets were numbered like this: 8th, 11th, 5th, 1st, 4th, 9th, 2nd, 7th, 6th, 10th, 3rd, 12th. There’s a system, revealed at the end of this post, but the order is effectively meaningless. If you tell someone you live on 5th Street you still have to describe where it is: “I live on 5th, which is between 11th and 1st.”

The numbers have become meaningless. Actually, this “system” is even worse than that; it creates more confusion than purpose. Better that the streets were given names like colors or trees.

Certainly the buses need some identification, as does everything else: streets, animals, our friends, schools, devices, food. They all have names, and those names evoke meaning.

Imagine if all the food in the grocery were just numbers. “Be sure to pick up some 22, 135, 16 and—oh yes—311 on your way home, honey.” I find it hard enough to remember bread, milk and artichoke hearts, and—oh yes—toilet paper! Eventually I would learn that 22 is milk, but it’s so much harder. Our brains are not wired to apply numbers in an arbitrary way like that. We don’t remember our friends by their phone numbers.

From early childhood we learn that numbers are most usefully used as ordinal or cardinal identifiers. They help us put things in order or quantify them. But on buses they serve neither purpose (these are called “nominal” numbers), and so we have to deliberately undo a lifetime of learning and try to understand the number on the bus as nothing more than an abstraction that equates to a name.

Better the bus be called the “phor” than 4; it would actually be easier. In fact, the Metrorail lines being identified with colors is easier to remember than if they were numbered. And, although the colors are also essentially arbitrary, it is easier for the brain to bring meaning to them.

Hasn’t the current system been working for generations? Just because something has been done for decades doesn’t make it good or leave no room for improvement. In fact, just the opposite: often it’s the things that we assume ought to be a certain way are the things that should be questioned the hardest. Also, how do we know it’s been working if we haven’t tried something different to compare it with?

Boulder, Colorado has thrown out the number system, at least partially. Many of the buses have names: Hop, Skip, Stampede, Bolt, Dash, etc. The more complete names are things like “Skip Along Broadway” and “Dash down South Boulder Road.” That’s useful information to a customer. There’s the Jump (also called the Short Jump) and the Long Jump, which is an extension of the Jump.

Recently, we discussed incorporating the Circulator buses into the Metro map. One commenter suggested that with more Circulators it may be necessary to start numbering them. Instead, how about the “Mall Circulator” for the one on the mall. Isn’t that way better than the #4 Circulator? We could have the K Street Circulator, or make it cute and call it The Lobbyist Loader. Or the Union George, to incorporate the termini.

If the goal of transit is to help people get around better and more easily, that goal needs to consider everything: ease of use, cost, convenience and more. The names of the buses are a key piece of information critical to people using the system. Is Boulder’s the best system? I don’t know, but it’s a lot better than everywhere else. The only system that would be worse than the arbitrary number system in common use is a system in which the buses have no identification at all.

(Answer to street ordering puzzle: The streets are listed in alphabetical order.)

Steve Offutt has been working at the confluence of business and environment for almost 20 years, with experience in climate change solutions, green building, business-government partnerships, transportation demand management, and more. He lives in Arlington with his wife and two children and is a cyclist, pedestrian, transit rider and driver.