I remember when the first “bendy buses” (technical term: articulated buses) appeared in Calgary sometime in June 2007. They were larger than the rest of the Calgary Transit fleet, and their appearance in some ways marked a coming of age for transit in Calgary. They were brought in to service the new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) route 301, which began operations 3 years earlier. This express route, serving the north central and west portions of the city, had become so successful that the larger articulated buses could be used (and those who use the 301 in rush hour know, they could also be filled). It was clear that this new type of limited stop bus service was something that Calgarians needed.
More than just being larger than the regular buses Calgary Transit used, these buses were different in another way: they were red. In June of 2007 every other bus in the fleet used the white and the triple stripe motif, so the red stood out. And because the buses were only used for the limited stop 301 route, the red meant something. It meant fast.
But that same year, Calgary Transit made one of the biggest mistakes of its history: it introduced buses with the exact same colouring that served regular bus routes (and not the 301).
Why was this such a big mistake? From an operations, maintenance, scheduling or capacity perspective, the new look didn’t mean anything. But from a branding perspective, it meant everything.
Red buses had an opportunity to be something different. It could have been what set apart the rapid, frequent and reliable 301 route from regular bus service. If you saw a red bus coming down the street, you would know that that bus would take you where you wanted to go faster than other buses. As the BRT network expanded, so too would the red buses. The red buses would become a symbol of rapid and reliable transit.
Last week, when we discussed simplifying the transit system and providing clarity, part of our point was simply how the vehicles looked. Using different coloured buses can simplify the system for the rider. They don’t need to remember which routes are fast, they only need to remember it is the red buses that are fast. The buses can even use the same design and just change the colours (imagine the buses with blue instead of red). More importantly, by creating two different colours of buses, another distinction could have been made: the red buses could have been the routes on the network map.
Imagine a simplified map that only shows LRT lines and frequent bus routes. How much easier would it be for someone on the ground to identify the buses serving those routes?
Using different coloured buses to identify different types of services is something that many cities that offer enhanced bus service do. In Bogota, Columbia red buses signify the rapid Transmilenio BRT, while green buses signify buses for feeder service. Seoul, South Korea, uses four different coloured buses for four different types of service: blue for trunk lines, green for feeders, yellow for circular lines and red for intercity buses. In both cases, the design on the bus is the same, it is just the colour that changes. The colour of the bus tells the rider what kind of route the bus will take, and also how often it will stop. This is important information to a passenger.
It may be too late to easily change the bus colours for the high frequency, rapid routes in Calgary, but the distinction is still important. Perhaps the colouring on existing buses can be changed, or new colouring can be introduced. Whatever the method, using different colours to identify rapid vs regular bus routes is an important step in creating a rapid transit network in Calgary.