Branding: Why Transit Needs To Be Like a Good Restaurant

Simplicity is often the most effective way to provide clarity.

In a restaurant, when you open up the menu and find 80 different items, it can be overwhelming. Should you get a pasta, of which there are 8 choices, or a pizza, of which there are 20 choices? How about a salad? Or a chicken dish? You could ask the waiter, but what are the chances they have had all the different dishes? The number of options limits your ability to make a choice, as you are overwhelmed with information.

A good restaurant, on the other hand, will provide you with few choices. You may have 5 entrees to choose from, but the decision is simple. Don’t like the fish? Get the chicken. As well, by limiting the menu, the restaurant is telling you “these dishes are good because we put all of our effort into them.” This is why good restaurants have limited menus and not-so-good restaurants have so many. A menu tells you what is important.

A transit system is much like a restaurant. The transit “menu”: the maps, route names, vehicle styles, station designs and system name, all convey to riders what is important and what is not. They help the rider make a decision. Provide them with too much information, and they become overwhelmed, and have trouble understanding the easiest way to get from point A to point B.

Just as in a restaurant, simplicity can provide clarity. Simplifying doesn’t necessarily mean eliminating routes (although it sometimes does), but rather separating important routes and highlighting them. These routes, which Jarrett Walker calls a “High Frequency Network,” should form the backbone of the transit network. Highlighting and providing clear information for this network is important to creating clarity.

Take for example, the respective transit maps for Madrid and Calgary. Madrid has a metropolitan population of 6.5 million people, with hundreds of bus, light rail, subway and regional rail routes all intersecting at multiple points. Calgary, on the other hand, is a city of 1.2 million people, with far fewer bus and light rail routes, with no subways or regional rail. The maps, however, tell a different story:

The Madrid Metro Map: Clear and Concise

The Calgary Transit Map: Cluttered and Confusing

The Madrid map clearly highlights important routes, provides only the the most necessary information and uses simple colours to designate routes. The Calgary map, on the other hand shows every route, in fact every road, and includes as much information as possible. Routes are all the same colour and hard to follow from one point to another. The Calgary Transit map is like the menu with 80 items: so much information is provided that making a decision is difficult. Madrid is the menu with 5 items, the process is simplified and decisions come easily.

Over the next few blogs we will look at the ways Calgary can create a better transit menu. We will look not just at maps, but also at route naming and numbering, station design and signage, vehicle appearance and, finally, the name of the system itself. Our goal in this is to help Calgary create the kind of simple and effective transit network “menu” that makes the entire transit experience better.


2 thoughts on “Branding: Why Transit Needs To Be Like a Good Restaurant

  1. While I agree that improvements in usability can be made, I’d argue that you’re comparing apples and oranges. If there is a Madrid map which shows all bus routes as well as the Metro and lays it out over the physical street layout I’m guessing it would be similarly complex and confusing. The Calgary LRT map ( would be our equivalent of the Madrid Metro map and as you’d expect given the size disparity between the cities it is even simpler than theirs. If you want to create an expanded version that includes certain bus routes it may be a worthwhile exercise and obviously should start by abstracting the physical geography – remove the scale representation and roads and arrange lines as needed for readability and only hint at relative locations. With most of our bus routes being feeders to the LRT stations I’d suggest only the BRT and similar cross-town routes would be worthwhile to show.

    • Great points Brian. You hit the nail on the head! What we really need is a map that focuses on the LRT plus high frequency bus routes, which would consist mostly of BRTs (both crosstown and downtown-oriented buses), which is really a balance between the LRT map and the full network map. In future posts, we will examine what this map may look like, and what routes would be included. Thanks for your suggestion.

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