Stop marker for Metrobus service at Rosslyn Metro station in Arlington, Virginia by Ben Schumin licensed under Creative Commons.

The Bus Transformation Project is a regional consensus-building exercise led by WMATA. We identified seven ways we hope the study team and regional partners will seek to improve buses in the Washington area, and will post about each. Here's #3, simplifying the bus numbering and information.

Previously, DW Rowlands discussed the complex and interesting history of how Metrobus’s two-digit-number, one-letter-one-number, one-letter-two-numbers, and numbers-then-one-letter routes all got the names they have. This is cool if you’re interested in local history, but is fairly useless for the average transit rider trying to plan a trip.

Other cities have found ways to make their bus route numbers more useful for riders. For example, Los Angeles County’s MTA (LACMTA) operates five types of buses, which operate alongside various networks run by local jurisdictions. Route numbers are assigned differently depending on the type of bus:

  • Metro Local, which stop frequently (your standard city bus), are 1-299.
  • Metro Limited, which stop less frequently and mostly run only at rush hour, are 300-399. Many of these have been phased out and replaced with Metro Rapid lines.
  • Metro Express, suburban long-haul routes along freeways with higher fares, are 400-599.
  • Metro Shuttles and Circulators, special, short-distance routes, are 600-699.
  • Metro Rapid, city buses with signal priority and more widely-spaced stops that run all day and often run on weekends, are 700-799.
  • Metro Busway (or Metro Liner), BRT routes that serve Los Angeles’s dedicated busways, are branded with colors (Orange and Silver) rather than numbers, as are the light rail and subway. (Internally, the light rail and subway have numbers 800-899 and the BRT routes have numbers 900-999).

An orange Metro Local bus running route 40 in Downtown LA. by Matt’ Johnson licensed under Creative Commons.

LACMTA also gives each type of bus a different color (orange for Local, Limited, and Shuttle; red for Rapid; and blue for Express. Metro Busway buses get the color of their line.)

Metro Local routes that serve downtown are 1-99, ones that run east-west are 100-199, and ones that run north-south are 200-299. Metro Express routes that run radially from downtown have numbers 400-499, while routes that don’t go to downtown have numbers 500-599.

Not only does the first digit of a bus route in Los Angeles indicate which type of bus it is, but (in general) the second two digits for a Metro Limited or Metro Rapid bus will be the same as for the Metro Local service which runs along the same route. For example, Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles’s busiest bus corridor, is served by the Metro Local 20 and the Metro Rapid 720.

A bright red Metro Rapid bus in Downtown LA running route 733. by Matt’ Johnson licensed under Creative Commons.

Should Washington follow Los Angeles?

It’s easy to say that it would be nice if we had a systematic bus route numbering system like Los Angeles, but whether we should do a system-wide renumbering of routes to get one is a harder question.

A complete renumbering of bus routes is a short-term inconvenience to riders, who have to learn the new system, not be confused by any overlap between old and new system numbers, and deal with the fact that some information sources (like websites that mention the bus line an institution is on) may not get updated quickly.

There are two cases, though, where a renumbering would definitely be worth doing. The more extreme would be to throw out the old bus routes completely and redesign a new network from scratch, as acclaimed public transit planner Jarrett Walker famously advocates. That's what Baltimore recently did — among other changes it gave major lines a color instead of a number, and assigned more local buses new numbers.

Image by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

In the case of such a redesign, new route numbers are needed, anyway, and it makes sense to try to make the system as consistent and meaningful as possible.

A less severe case would be if WMATA were to develop an organized network of frequent routes with long hours of service, as we suggested in part 1. In that case, it might make sense to give these routes new numbers with the same format, so riders could easily pick them out.

More generally, if the system’s wide diversity in frequencies and hours of operation is reduced to a few broader categories, it could make sense to renumber the system with formats that would make it clear from a route’s number what days and times of day it could be expected to operate, and roughly how often.

Integrate route numbering across the region?

A more bureaucratically difficult idea, but one that could be quite beneficial if it could be made to work, would be to have an integrated route numbering system across all the different bus providers in the region.

Some German metro areas do this. As far as we know, no metro area in the US has; even in Los Angeles, with its detailed numbering system for Metro bus routes, the numerous local transit agencies have their own route numbering systems unrelated to the Metro system.

However, having an integrated system would be useful in a region with as many different bus networks as ours has. It would avoid the potential confusion caused by the fact that many of the jurisdictional bus systems have routes with the same numbers as each other, or as Metrobus routes.

For example, Montgomery County Ride On numbers routes consecutively from 1 to 100 and Prince George's The Bus numbers routes consecutively starting with 11. That means there's a Ride On 32 (from Bethesda to Carderock) and a TheBus 32 (from Clinton to Naylor Road), not to mention the Metrobus 32 on Pennsylvania Avenue in DC. Or a Ride On 14 between Takoma and Silver Spring and a TheBus 14 between Prince George’s Plaza and College Park.

Fairfax Connector avoids this problem by using three-digit numbers for its routes, and the Circulator avoids it by not having route numbers at all (which is not a solution we recommend!), but DASH (1-10) and ART (41-92) also have many route numbers that match RideOn and/or Metrobus numbers.

Furthermore, if WMATA used route numbers to reveal information about the frequency and hours of service of bus routes, it would be useful for riders if similar jurisdictional bus routes did the same. The goal should be to make the region’s bus network as a whole as transparent as possible for riders, regardless of the logistical and bureaucratic reasons why they are operated by different agencies.

DW Rowlands is a human geography grad student and Prince George’s County native, currently living in College Park. More of their writing on transportation-related and other topics can be found on their website. They also write on DC transportation and demographic issues for the DC Policy Center, where they are a Fellow. In their spare time, they volunteer for Prince George’s Advocates for Community-Based Transit. However, the views expressed here are their own.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.