Four thoughts on TfL’s plans to colour code its bus routes

This one’s red. Image: Getty.

So, here’s a thing:

The short version: Transport for London (TfL) is trialling a new colour-coding system for bus routes. Each bus will get its own colour, which will be used on the “spider maps” showing bus routes around a particular area, as well as on signs at stops, and in big numbers on the side of each bus.

At the moment this is only a pilot. Initially, it’s been trialled on seven bus routes around Barkingside, out in the far east; in the summer, it’ll spread to Hayes in the west. But if it works, it could be rolled out further.

So – will it work? Some thoughts.


There aren’t that many colours

London has a lot of bus routes. A lot. Even excluding special services like night buses, school buses and so on, there are over 500 routes.

There are of course an infinite number of colours, so this wouldn’t be a problem – except that there’s a limit to the number the human eye can instantly distinguish. You can get away with a light blue and a dark blue; but throw in any more blues than that, and users have to consciously try to follow a line rather than simply see it at a glance.

One result of this is that no metro map in the world contains more than 15 shades; only a dozen use more than 10. (Lots more analysis on this stuff here.) So the implication that each bus will get an identifying colour like each tube line does is very clearly nonsense.

And buses cross each others’ paths

Not every bus needs a unique colour, of course: you can have multiple buses numbered in violet, providing they don’t go anywhere near each other.

The difficulty is they probably will – and TfL has started with an easy bit of town. There are only seven buses in Barkingside. It’s easy enough, then, to give them all a unique colour:

The Barkingside spider map: click to expand Image: TfL.

But five of those routes go to Ilford, where they cross paths with 12 more. Two of them go to Romford, from where they meet another 19 buses.

And the Romford one: click to expand. Image: TfL.

Even thinking about the maths does my head in – but it seems unlikely to me that every bus in London can be given a colour different from that of every bus it ever shares a stop with. At some bus stops, there’ll be two buses in violet.

The problem is the maps

That’s not necessarily a critical flaw: the big colourful numbers on the side of each bus will still help you when identifying buses from a distance. If a violet 25 and a violet 101 happen to share a stop at some point, well, those numbers look different enough that nobody’s going to confuse them. The colour coding will still be useful.

Except – those numbers aren’t just for the sides of buses, or the stop signs. They’re also meant to match those shown on spider maps, like those above.

I am unconvinced it will be possible to do this in such a way that no map needs to user the same colour for multiple different routes. In fact, I suspect it’ll happen rather a lot.

And I’m not sure a world in which three buses are shown on a single map in the same colour is one in which buses are more accessible than the world we’re living in now.

What about service flexibility?

There’s another issue. The whole point of rotating bus blinds is that the same bus can be used on several different routes. Historically, you’d turn a handle, and both the destination and the number shown on the front of the bus would change.

Old London bus blinds in the London Transport Museum. Image: Leif Jørgensen/Wikimedia.

This meant a degree of flexibility: if a bus broke down, another could be swapped over from a different route to plug the gap. Even today, when London’s bus services are provided by a dozen different companies, each of them generally runs enough routes to retain these advantages.

One quick way to remove this flexibility, though, is to paint the route number on the side of the bus in big colourful numbers, so that a 150 is a 150 is a 150.

I don’t want to be down on this idea. I think it sounds lovely: you’ll be able to spot your bus from further away, and giving bus routes colours should give them a stronger identity, something for people to latch onto. All this should make the bus network more usable to those who find it a bit intimidating.

But – I just can’t see how it’s going to work in practice. I’m sure it’ll work in Barkingside and Hayes. But how can it work in a network of over 500 buses?

I fear this may be one of those ideas where the theory is better than the reality.

You can read more on public transport map colour schemes here, if you so wish.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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This app connects strangers in two cities across the world. But can it tackle urban loneliness?

New Delhi, in India, where many of Duet-App's users come from. Image: Ville Miettinen

“You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people”. Olivia Laing, The Lonely City

Our relationship to where we live and the spaces we inhabit define who we are and how we feel. But how often do we articulate the emotional impact of this relationship, whether this be loneliness, frustration or even civic pride?

“When I moved to a new city, started living alone, wanted to drink less, stay indoors more, and when I realised that I cannot make any more best friends.”

A new social network, a simple app that connects two individuals from the UK and India, aims to counter some of these issues.  Over the course of a year connected pairs receive one question a day through the app and their responses are exchanged with each other. A simple interaction that gradually builds a series of one-on-one relationships and invites users to imagine, over time, the other person living their life.

Distant geographies are an implicit part of the experience, therefore many of the questions nudge users to explore correlations between their physical and emotional landscapes. The data shows us that many of the Duet-App users are located in populous urban cities like Delhi, Bangalore, Manchester, Leeds and London, places that can just as often discourage feelings of belonging and place-making as much as they foster them.

“I had thought I'd never be able to live here again. but here I am living again at home after almost a decade living elsewhere. Living in Mumbai is a contact sport, and I can't do without it's chaos and infectious energy.”

Mumbai, India. Image: Deepak Gupta

In general cities are getting bigger and spreading wider at the same time as our communications are increasingly being conducted online and via digital gateways.

There is a sense that much of our online personas project an idealised version of ourselves; we increasingly document and express our daily lives through a filter and we are not always comfortable with a spontaneous expression of ourselves. Duet-App seeks to foster alternative digital relationships that through their anonymity allow us to be more honest and free.

“I feel a lot of people assume that I always have a lot going on for me and everything's always happy and amazing. I wish they could appreciate... how much of my own anxiety I swim in every single day. I appear and behave “normal” on the outside, calm and composed but there are always storms going on in my head.”

In exploring the responses to the questions so far, those that often garner the most replies relate directly to how we feel about our personal position in the world around us. Often these questions act as provocations not only to share responses but to reflect and articulate our thoughts around how we feel about what we are doing in the here and now.

Manchester, another popular city for Duet-App users. Image: Julius 

“Sometimes I feel sad about it [getting old] because I saw how easy it would be to feel lonely, and the fact that the world is set up for able-bodied young people is a bit of a travesty.”

Although many social media platforms allow for distant engagement and access into the lives of others we are in the main still curating and choosing our friendship circles. Through Duet-App this is randomised (and anonymised) with the intention of bypassing the traditional mechanics of how we broker online relationships. While directly exploring the digital space as a place for intimacy.


“Where do you go for peace?

“Well the internet, really. I do some mindless browsing, peek into the fandoms, listen to a few songs. Calms me down.”

Snapshots into the lives of someone existing and playing out their lives remotely can highlight shared concerns that break down preconceptions of how life is lived by others. Prompted by the reflections of a stranger exposed to our lives, digital relationships can encourage us to address the physical space we inhabit and the effects that the cities we live out our lives in have on our own well being. 

Catherine Baxendale is director of Invisible Flock.

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