Posted on Jan 15, 2007 in Weblog | 2 comments

Public transit — especially in Santa Clara County — suffers a very negative image because it’s billed as a form of transportation for the disabled, the impaired, the poor, or the senior who gave up driving. It’s billed as difficult to use. It’s billed as “ghetto” and unsavory. Though there are lots and lots of factors that make transit very unattractive, let’s focus on one thing: does it look sexy?

Our local transit authority, VTA, does not look sexy. And I have no control over its looks; I can’t beg MTV to "pimp my ride" and change the ad-plastered, sterile, uninspiring bus to something that looks cool. In fact, good majority of transit agencies have this same problem: their vehicles don’t invite riders the same way that the latest, shiny BMW cars do.

Los Angeles’s transit agency, Metro, has been undergoing a revamp for the past couple of years that has helped make taking transit more hip and cool. Their creative department have crafted graphic designs featured in the nation’s top design publications, such as Communication Arts. For example, one of their successful revamps lies in the way their buses appeared. A few years ago, their buses were decked out in orange-and-black stripes:

Now, they have full-color designations with clear lettering, eye-catching colors, and a very modern, easy-to-identify logo.

The creative department’s enormous influence on Metro astonishes me, because public agencies typically don’t delve into so much detail. Metro’s designs have extended to their station signage, which hint at its service type and clearly show the station name.

They have an impressive array of brochures and timetables, all with consistent branding and design, but distinctive to differentiate timetables from instruction manuals and service news.

Even their warning signs feature friendly icons with the same consistent design.

And, their designs incorporate Spanish in all of their published materials, which is not an easy feat. The local agencies in the San Francisco Bay Area serve populations that speak Vietnamese, Chinese, Spanish, and, oh yes, English, but they usually give little to no information in those languages.

Metro’s active approach to design enhances the experience by making their brand identity memorable, making the experience cohesive and leaving a lasting impression of quality upon the transit rider. The automobile and airline industries dominate brand identity and marketing thus far, so it’s refreshing to see public transit getting the attention it deserves. Metro’s design helps simplify riding the bus: for example, their website prominently features a very effective trip planner. Metro’s aesthetics makes riding much more appealing to the public and the press. They’ve pulled out all the stops when it comes to supplying press kits to the media with its Orange Line Press Kit, complete with stock photographs, news releases, and interactive demonstrations of the bus.

All of these are wonderful things, but are unfortunately rare among transit agencies. Why aren’t others following Metro’s lead? For starters, many agencies likely lack the budget to implement effective design. BART, for example, only had enough money to change wayfinding designs and signage for Powell Station, and they haven’t found other ways to scrape up money for other station redesigns. Some agencies, like San Francisco’s Muni, are plagued with high fare evasion, plummeting ridership, buses that trundle along at an average speed of 10 miles per hour, and 66% on-time reliability. There are plenty of more critical things to be fixed first. (Muni doesn’t even offer free, published system maps or timetables, so it’s nearly impossible to figure out your trip without the Internet.)

Graphic design is critical when presenting one’s own image. It’s about style — good style that the public can be proud of. It’s about substance — visual communication that tells people exactly what they need to know.

And, it’s also cool to ride in a beautiful, blue bus with the words "Big Blue Bus." :)