Prince George’s "TheBus" ridership troubles can partly be explained by problems with the bus network’s service. However, it seems that issues with the network’s branding and website also contribute to low ridership and poor public knowledge of the system.
The name “TheBus” can cause confusion
The county’s decision to call its bus service “TheBus” is itself a potential cause for confusion for residents, especially for residents who are not native English speakers or for anyone who is not familiar with the region’s transportation options.
Within Prince George’s County, bus service is provided by Metrobus, the Regional Transportation Agency of Central Maryland (in Laurel), and the University of Maryland’s Shuttle-UM (some routes are open to the general public) as well as TheBus. The generic name of the county-provided bus service makes it hard to distinguish, especially verbally, from these other networks.
The situation isn’t helped by the fact that Honolulu’s bus network, also called TheBus, has TheBus.org as its website, while other jurisdiction-run bus networks, such as the DC Circulator, Montgomery County’s RideOn, Arlington County’s ART buses, and Alexandria’s DASH buses may add additional confusion for riders who commute between Prince George’s County and other jurisdictions.
The name dates back to the system’s origin in the mid-1990s. Fortunately, replacing it would be relatively cheap compared to fixing some of the system’s other problems.
TheBus’s bus stop signs lack route information
One potential concern about changing the system’s name is the need to replace all of the network’s bus stop signs. This would be expensive, but it would allow for the signs to be improved in a way that would significantly benefit riders.
Right now, TheBus bus stop signs don’t indicate what routes stop at a given location, unlike Metrobus and RideOn bus stop signs, which indicate the route numbers of buses that serve the stop. This feature is very important for infrequent users, and for passengers who have to travel to unfamiliar areas.
In fact, this is a matter where Metrobus could stand to improve as well. While Metrobus stops display the numbers of the routes that stop at them, they do not — unlike bus stops in other cities such as Boston — include the destination of the bus.
Including both route numbers and destinations would make it clear to riders whether they are waiting on the correct side of the street, something that is particularly important with the region’s often winding and indirect bus routes.
TheBus’s website and online maps need improvement
Improving TheBus’s website is a relatively low-hanging fruit for improving the network’s legibility to riders. The system map for TheBus is linked to on its “Maps & Schedules” page, but the link is buried in a wall of text that includes descriptions of several-month-old service changes, and is easy to overlook.
Furthermore, the system map that is posted online has serious inadequacies. It is more than two years old (dated February 2016) and so is missing a number of service changes, including the opening of the Takoma-Langley Transit Center in December 2016.
Unlike the RideOn system map, TheBus’s map does not show Metrobus routes, a particularly serious omission given that the network is designed to primarily provide local feeder service to Metro. While WMATA’s Prince George’s County bus map does include both Metrobus and TheBus routes, TheBus’s website doesn’t link to that map, or even mention its existence.
The maps posted online for individual routes aren’t much better. Some of them, apparently for routes that haven’t been changed as recently like the 27, are missing much of the information provided on more recent ones.
Even worse, the maps that have been updated more recently (such the 18, 21, and 28) have significant parts of the file, either the map itself or some of the text, upside down. This makes these files very hard to read on a computer.
It’s possible that the upside-down text is intended to be right-side-up if the map is printed out folded into a brochure like a paper bus schedule. However, the fact that the image files are not the same size or shape as a standard piece of printer paper makes this impractical as well.
The way TheBus names express routes has potential for confusion
Two of TheBus’s routes, the 15X and 21X, have “X” as a suffix after their number to indicate that they provide “express” service with less than ten stops along each route. In the case of the 15X, there is no regular route 15 to distinguish it from. Route 21 has both 21 and 21X forms.
If the 21X was just 21 service that skipped some stops, this would not be a problem. However, the 21 and 21X are actually completely different routes. Shortly after departing from New Carrollton, and again on several locations in Largo, the 21 diverges from the route of the 21X to detour to destinations not on the main route. While the 21 runs all the way from New Carrollton to Upper Marlboro, the 21X ends at the Motor Vehicle Administration office in Largo, after having diverged from the route of the 21.
The differences between the two routes creates potential confusion for any rider not familiar with both of them, especially since the 21X stops well short of the 21’s final destination at a location with no transfer to the 21. Also, the presence of express routes that share parts of their trips with non-express routes makes it particularly important to add route numbers to TheBus’s bus stop signs, so it will be clear to riders whether express buses stop at a given location.
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