Sunday, 29 May 2011

Letters of Confusion

Back in the days of Birmingham City Transport (before my time - but I've seen the pictures), there were all sorts of letters added to route numbers to distinguish small diversions or short runnings, etc. Whether the travelling public ever fully understood them is of course open to debate.
But public transport - and buses in particular - needs to be as simple to use and understand as it can possibly be to attract new users.
That's why I sometimes despair when I see displays on the front of buses that appear to be a code that forms part of some puzzle book challenge.
Over the last couple of weeks here in the West Midlands, I've seen the following:
96_X, E222, A297 and a 257E with no destination blinds at all.
What does this all mean?
"96_X" should be "X96". Despite the fact that whoever wound the numbers up was looking back to front (or was too idle to correct it), "X" gives the impression that it's some sort of express service. Except that for much of it's journey, the X96 actually observes every stop.
"E222" should also be the other way around as "222E". But what does "E" mean? Actually, I'm told it means "exception" and usually is a short working of the full route. But does anyone really understand this? "222E" operates from Dudley to Halesowen, but "E" journeys terminate half way along at Merry Hill. So why not differentiate with "221"? And with buses operating different journeys along different lengths of route throughout the day, the side and back displays are often opposite to what is on the front.
"A297" should be "297A" - but what does the "A" do apart from potentially confuse intending passengers? "A" sometimes means "anti-clockwise" (in the case of the famous Outer Circle route) - but in this case means that it goes slightly off-route on a Saturday. The users of the 297 also have to contend with a 297B on Sundays - extending to Stourbridge on one end of the route, but missing out Dudley and instead serving Sedgley on the other! Are you still with me?
And what about "257E"? Well, if you're lucky enough to know that "E" means "exception" and will be terminating somewhere short of its destination, you won't be able to see where, as the bus had no blinds.
Of course, as buses gain digital displays, this will become less of an issue, although the use of some letters in some areas will still exist. In Birmingham, on the 50 route, the digital destinations now show "short journey", which is probably more understandable, but there are still an awful lot of traditional roller blinds in operation in the Black Country.
Why does all of this matter?
It's a bit like my other rant - branded buses on the wrong route.
You might think that as long as passengers get to where they want to go, what's the problem?
On the face of it, fair enough. But to me it gives the impression of an industry that doesn't care.
Invariably on my Saturday nights in the pub over my cheese cob and pint, people will tell me that they don't understand buses and that the car on their drive is there to be used.
I'm going to have a job convincing them to try using the bus, but it isn't made any easier by the sight of jumbled up letters and numbers on the front of buses, nor having a bright orange bus telling me I can go to Birmingham Markets on it, when quite plainly I can't.
Some bus operators have great networks that are easy to understand and are simplicity itself. But here in the Black Country, we still have a long way to go if our drivers can't even get the numbers and letters 2,9,7 & A in the correct order......

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