Monday, June 26, 2017

How successful are the Baltimore Link graphics?

While experts will debate for a while whether Baltimore Link is going to be a success or is just a repackaging of the same old problems of unreliable, bunched buses that don't always go where one needs them to go, the new livery and graphics can be assessed as they are now.
The Maryland flag, the theme for the buses

For sure, in the big scheme of things, riders wouldn't consider the bus colors, the color of the seats or even the design of the bus stop signs as overly important, especially if the basic services turn out to be a problem.

But given that transit is an important part of the iconography of metropolitan areas  and that this blog is centered around architecture, design and urban issues, the most visible part of MTA's new bus system deserves a second look, especially
Baltimore flag
since the MTA transit planners themselves considered design and branding important enough to make it an integral part of the heavy lift of their June 18 Baltimore transit revolution.
The elements of the MD flag on the Local Link bus. The roof rail shows
various shades of yellow

With Paul Comfort fired less than two weeks before the launch of Baltimore Link the personification of Baltimore Link and the dynamo behind all the changes is absent now to speak to the issues. Without him it is difficult to see why it was necessary to repackage 750 bus 5,000 bus stop signs and  hundreds of schedules and maps, websites and even the LRT vehicles all without having enough money and resources to even hire graphic designers. Much of what was done with the graphics was nevertheless positively received chiefly because of enthusiastic in-house talent which worked creatively to make the full branding overhaul happen. There was also a lot sounding off MTA staff in the decision making process with dozens of stop sign variations up for comment..
City Link colors: No clear yellow and a bleached red

Especially the new radial system map designed by Marc Szarkowski of MTA is widely lauded as a creative new way of depicting the bus system.

Now that the heavy lift of reorganization of the bus system is in effect and the sun is still rising in the East, the graphic redesign isn't regarded any longer as one of a million things that needed to be
The line above the windows is painted and not taped and presents a nice
bright yellow
done by an incredibly tight deadline, but as something that needs to pass muster for years to come.

Schedules, routes and bus stops can be tweaked, but the graphic design will have to be what it is for some time.

There are a few observations that point to some weknesses and self made problems:
Iconic Berlin double decker buses in yellow and black
  • Blue as a transit color is deeply entrenched in MTA's history and people's associations with the MTA. (even though, historically, Baltimore transit has had many colors). Still, the departure from blue is comparable of Coca Cola selling their Coke all of a sudden in blue-green-yellow cans instead of red ones.
  • A new branding scheme that would have included blue in some form would have been easier to implement. An example is the New York MTA, their traditional blue and their new bus design ire-incarnation. The complete departure from previous color schemes means that the blue of old has to be eradicated down to the last corner which is very expensive and energy consuming. 
  • For example Metro and Light Rail used the old MTA blue not only on their vehicles but on station signs, pylons, ticket vending machines, seat colors and station architecture such as shelters. Even mobility vans need a redesign.
    MTA's new bus stop signs are full of
    good information but lack the graphic
    clarity  to become icons in the landcsape
  • Since Maryland's and Baltimore's flag share black and yellow it would have been easy to stick with those two colors, but MTA decided to add the red of the Maryland flag into a three part color scheme that from the onset created more complexity  than is probably advisable for effective transit branding. A fairly convincing yellow and black bus design can be found in Berlin, Germany. Those buses are iconic and hard to overlook just like London's red buses.
  • The three new bus colors are not paint applied but consist of vinyl wraps that are applied over the basic white bus body, a method that began with bus advertising. That is cheaper than paint but adds the basic white as another "color" and doesn't allow solid colors in the same way paint does. The vinyl tends to fade and blend with the color of the substrate. Plus, for whatever reason, MTA selected to transition each color from a saturated tone into mixes with black that look murky at best and add even more variation.
  • Further complexity comes from the fact that the Local Link and City Link buses come in different flavors. Additionally, the various coaches have different shapes and surfaces so that the surfaces for
    the various colors vary as well, depending on the
    London's iconic stop signs
    model year and whether it is a standard 40' bus or an articulated bus. Lastly, advertising taped over parts of the multicolor dreamcoat adds additional clutter.
  • The bust stop signs apparently weren't tested in an actual urban setting and were also subject to cost restraints. Originally envisioned as flag signs so that the front and the back could carry information (riders approach a stop from either side) which could be larger than the old signs and still maintain the required 18" curb distance, the signs are the same size as the old signs and screwed onto the same old unsightly perforated knock-away posts that much more often lean than stand straight. As a result, the new signs which carry a lot of useful information are very hard to make out from some distance and have no info on their back.
  • A more elaborate bus stop sign for prominent high traffic areas such as transit hubs like the West Baltimore Station was eliminated for cost reasons. Successful bus hubs have real time displays on each bay  with clear bay designations and route numbers so one can see from a distance where to go without having to walk up to each bus stop sign. 
  • The printed schedules and maps are much better than before and show what MTA can do with its in-house graphic abilities
    The new colors of Baltimore light rail
There are other elements that round out Baltimore transit in the urban landscape, some are new: Red bus-only lanes on various downtown streets, new coaches with fire-red seats instead of the previous blue seats and LCD displays screens that can hopefully one day show the route and upcoming stops. There is also a slew of additional shelters picked from the black framed shelter design pallet with clear glass which was previously in use, a ticket vending machine for buses only at the West Baltimore bus hub, the West Baltimore bus hub itself which joins Mondawmin as a second central bus facility, and large electronic real time bus departure signs at Mondawmin, Penn?North and West Baltimore.

New York MTA: new bus colors
Hindsight 20/20 isn't very helpful now, although one can't help to think that riders would have an easier time if they would have been allowed some graphic continuity here and there.

Small graphic improvements improvements, especially signage in the transit hubs, should still be possible and considered.

The wrapped buses, though, present a large temptation for another administration to once again tinker with the colors of Baltimore's transit. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

See also: The changing colors of the MTA

The creative new regional bus map highlighting the radial Baltimore development pattern

WMATA bus color plan

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