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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What do new business rates pilots tell us about government’s appetite for devolution?

Sheffield Town Hall, 1897. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

There have been big question marks about any future devolution of business rates ever since the last general election stopped the legislation in its tracks.

Not only did it not make its way to the statute book before the pre-election cut off, it was nowhere to be seen in the Queen’s Speech, suggesting the Government had gone cold on the idea. (This scenario was complicated further recently by the introduction of a private members’ bill on business rates by Conservative MP Peter Bone, details of which remain scarce.)

However, regardless of the situation with legislation, the government’s announcement in recent days of a pilot phase of reforms suggests that business rates devolution will go ahead after all. DCLG has invited local authorities to take part in a pilot scheme which will allow volunteer authorities to retain 100 per cent of the business rates growth they generate locally. (It also notes that a further three pilots are currently in operation as they were set up under the last government.)

There are two interesting things in this announcement that give some insight on how the government would like to push the reform forward.

The first is that only authorities that come forward with their neighbours with a proposal to pool all business rates raised into one pot across a wider geography will be considered. This suggests that pooling is likely to be strongly encouraged under the new system, even more considering that the initial position was to give power to the Secretary of State to form pools unilaterally.

The second is that pooled authorities are given free rein to propose their own local arrangements. This includes determining, where applicable, a tier split (i.e. rates distribution between districts and counties), a plan for distributing additional growth across the pool, and how this will be managed between authorities.

It’s the second which is most interesting. Although current pools already have the ability to decide for some of their arrangements, it’s fair to say that the Theresa May-led government has been much less bullish on devolution than George Osborne in particular was, with policies having a much greater ‘top down’ feel to them (for example, the Industrial Strategy) rather than a move towards giving places the tools they need to support economic growth in their areas. So the decision to allow local authorities to come up with proposed arrangements feels like a change in approach from the centre.


Of course, the point of a pilot is to test different arrangements, and the outcomes of this experiment will be used to shape any future reform of the business rates system. Given the complexity of the system and the multitude of options for reform, this seems like a sensible approach to take. But it remains to be seen whether the complex reform of a national system can be led from the bottom up. In effect, making sure this local governance is driven by common growth objectives, rather than individual authorities’ interests, will be essential.

Nonetheless, the government’s reaffirmation of its commitment to business rates to devolution and its willingness to test new approaches is welcome. Given that the UK is one of the most centralised countries in the western world, moves to allow local authorities to keep at least some of the tax revenue that is generated in their area is a step forward in giving places more autonomy over how they spend their money. That interest in changing this appears to have been whetted once more is encouraging.

There are, however, a number of other issues with the current business rates system which need to be ironed out. Centre for Cities is currently working on a briefing of the business rates system, building on our previous work in this area, and we’ll be making suggestions as to how the system can be improved.

Hugo Bessis is a researcher for the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.

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