The Red Bus Goes Fast: Mistakes in Branding

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.

An articulated “red” bus.

A regular Calgary Transit bus

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.


17 thoughts on “The Red Bus Goes Fast: Mistakes in Branding

  1. While they could have kept the Red branding to artics and LRT only, the fleet flexibility it running artics on the 3, 1 and others is likely worth the difference.

    Now if all the BRT stops were going to be rigged up with ‘connect’ vending machines and unique shelters (more unique than what there is now) along with all door boarding, that could provide enough difference in service to provide branding opprotunities not tied to the vehicles themselves.

    • Good points Kyle. Your suggestion to keep the “red” branding to LRTs and the articulated buses does make sense. Perhaps the same motif, but in blue, could have been used for the regular buses and shuttles. As the “BRT” network expands, as it has with the 300, 302 and 305 (and soon to be 306 from Westbrook to Heritage via Mount Royal University and Rockyview Hospital) separating the two types of buses will become easier, as there will be more of each, and therefore greater flexibility in providing the right coloured buses for each route. I would imagine Bogota is able to do it with Transmilenio, we can do it with the BRT system.

  2. I think that while on the topic of branding, the “BRT” designation needs to be dropped altogether from these services. They aren`t BRT, and they shouldn`t be labelled as such. As BRT becomes more and more prolific, conventional and shall I say standardized, there are certian common characteristics that will be expected of such systems across the board. Namely, things such as off-vehicle ticketing, true station infrastructure, seperated ROWs or at least ROW level Bs with essentially full prioritization and most importantly, a service that is thereby actually rapid, not just express.

    I know I`m not really sticking to the exact topic of discussion here, but I think this is a rather important issue. What were to happen if Calgary were ever to actually get actual BRT? Bus Really Rapid Transit?

  3. Interesting perspective Peter. Not something I’ve ever thought about, but it definitely makes sense to differentiate the buses according to type. I always thought that they just changed the buses because red and white are Calgary’s official colours. Did you know Calgary has official colours?

  4. I agree with all of these comments. These are all things that we should be doing. However, the reality is that in order to keep our costs reasonable, our fleet must be interchangable and buses must be able to operate on multiple routes during the day. When we start to role out our “Primary Transit Network” as it pertains to bus services – maybe another colour could be used to identify more frequent service both on the bus stop signs and in the windshield of the bus or in the destination signs.

    Peter, if you have these ideas, please share them with us, we’d like to have these discussions with Transit Camp. Neil (mgr, transit planning, CT)

    • Thanks for the reply Neil. The naming can be improved with little cost or operational impact (IE Route A is more intuitive than 301).

      As many of these comments indicate, Calgary Transit is making a mistake by branding a BRT system that satisfies almost none of the criteria of true BRT systems: dedicated lanes, pre-payment, all-door boarding, stations not stops, signal priority and real-time info.

      These things cost money. But transit is diminishing the BRT ‘brand’ by calling a limited-stop bus a BRT. Call a limited stop bus something else (Toronto uses the term Rocket). I recommend reserving the BRT name (or another more intuitive name) for a true high-frequency service with all of the amenities of true BRT systems. It will take time to develop a true BRT service and we shouldn’t diminish the brand and confuse customers from the get go.

      Jeremy Barretto

      • I agree that before we have a true BRT system, it would be a good idea to call what we have Express or limited stop services. As Peter mentions, once we have a more robust BRT network in place, perhaps that’s when we can look at branding differently.

        Thank you Neil for your comments, the TransitCamp group welcomes any opportunity to speak to Calgary Transit about ideas etc. Please keep engaging here and letting us know how we can be involved.

        Kimberly Jones

      • Once again we are in agreement. The key is resources. Agreed that our BRT is not what it could be but it is what we can afford and operates within the contraints that we have in terms of buses, infrastructure, etc. However, name, etc aside, it is still very successful and popular with customers – particularly along Centre St N. Whether we call it BRT or Express bus is more of a marketing issue, while important, our main focus is delivering a service that meets customer needs. The other aspect is what are we moving towards and how do we get there…..Neil

      • I believe our role at TransitCamp is to educate the public about what a good transit system needs to be and foster constructive discussion. Through that, we build support for such a system, so that Calgary Transit can implement it. Part of the reason for this blog is to inform others why each part of the transit system is important, including branding, so that we as Calgarians see its value and demand that the resources are there to provide it.

  5. This is pretty common around the world – 99 B-Line in Vancouver (along Broadway from Commercial Drive SkyTrain to UBC) is one example that come to mind – and successful from my perspective. Definitely would be a welcome addition to Calgary.

  6. From an operational standpoint, having two separate paint schemes simply for branding doesn’t allow for good fleet utilization. After all, if one of those artic busses breaks down, you could substitute a couple 40′ busses in their place, but oops, they don’t have the right paint scheme so they can’t be used and another artic is required to come from who knows where to fill in for it.

    Remember when Air Canada was wanting to have separate aircraft for separate levels of service and how badly that flopped for the airline? Having multiple aircraft costs huge amounts of money. Same could go for Transit, by removing flexibility. The 101/104, 3, and many other routes can definitely make use of the articulated busses, but since they’re not BRT routes, they shouldn’t use it as they don’t go fast. Try calming down the oodles of patrons who want to ride and get home on time (and possibly in a seat), but can’t because the bus that would work for them isn’t available.


  7. Neil and Jon

    Excellent points from both of you. Using two sets of buses can be an operational nightmare if the numbers are too small. Just using these, for example, on the 301 is almost impossible. However, if we implement what Neil referred to as the “Primary Transit Network” with multiple (say 10) high frequency routes, the fleet may be large enough to ensure good utilization.

  8. To all:

    There has been some interesting discussion on this topic. Neil Mckendrick highlighted some of Calgary Transit’s thoughts. As well, the issue around fleet utilization is “real” and is always a challenge for any transit property.

    When Calgary Transit started the chang of the colour scheme on the fleet to red, the move was to change the “look” of the system but also to partially demonstrate to customers and Calgarians that new equipment was being put “on the street” as quickly as possible. As people may recall, the new colours were introduced during the last boom when ridership and system usage was increasing dramatically and CT was struggling to keep up. At the time, CT was unable to hire transit operators given the heated economy. Then, of course, the global economy “tanked” and the last number of years have been a challenge for CT.

    There are definitely things that could be done differently – the term BRT may have been a stretch for the service being provided. Branding could have been done differently.

    I’m sure much of this can be considered in the RouteAhead process, but ultimately what happens in the future will come down to resourcing.


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