I’m moving to Indianapolis in a few days. Couple of reasons for that.
- Most of my friends live in the Midwest, either there or in Chicago, and the pandemic made me realize who I want to be with in a crisis. I feel stuck and powerless here on the East Coast, and I want to be able to support my loved ones.
- I lived in Muncie and Anderson a long time ago, in another life, so Indianapolis is the large Midwestern city I’m most familiar with.
- Indy is dirt cheap. To move to Philly the way I want to I’d have to make twice my current income, whereas I can manage living in Indy with what I make now.
I don’t plan on staying in Indy forever–I’d like to eventually wind up in Chicago or back on the East Coast once I’m able to do so–but it’s one of the few places in the Midwest I can stand living in, so it’ll do for now. And, again, all my friends are there, so there’s that.
Anyway, before I left I’d wanted redo the SEPTA map and wayfinding system, because SEPTA’s mentioned they’ve wanted to do a redesign so now that’s what we’re all thinking about. Much of the conversation I’ve seen revolves around this article proposing some basics a successful redesign could be built on. Here are my thoughts, some of which are responses to the stuff in the article, some of which aren’t.
The signage in general is a pretty shameless ripoff of the New York Subway wayfinding system, with some adaptations pulled from the TTC signage so it can work with Philly’s specific needs and also hopefully forge its own identity. I picked New York’s because it’s minimalist but precise in ways that are germane to the needs of a rapid transit network like Philly’s, and also because it’s quite frankly the only wayfinding system currently in use that looks good in a grubby, industrial early 1900s American subway. (Also white text on black is way more legible than white text on colored background, for the record.) My biggest concern is that SEPTA’s signage is generally weirdly verbose and redundant (e.g. “westbound to 69th Street instead of just “westbound”), and my draft signage strips away a lot of that additional information, and I’m not sure how much the average SEPTA user depends on all that extra stuff to successfully navigate the system.
To ensure travelers get on a train going the right way, for the subway and trolley lines I used cardinal directions because they’re already laid out on cardinal directions, so it was a no-brainer. The Regional Rail lines use “outbound” and “inbound” because that’s what they use anyway when it isn’t “to Philadelphia” or “to [outer destination].” Routes 100, 101, and 102 would get terminal names because their routes are just circuitous enough that cardinal directions don’t work, and 69th Street is too far away from Center City for “outbound” and “inbound” to make sense, and their identities are tied pretty heavily to their terminal destination.
In addition, I almost to a fault avoided using train pictograms under any circumstance. Three reasons why:
- Kneejerk annoyance at the existing signage’s overuse of indistinguishable train pictograms.
- The belief that if a train (or bus!) pictogram is used in one place it must be used everywhere for the sake of continuity, which given the existing signage’s aforesaid over-reliance on pictograms defeats the purpose of what we’re trying to do here.
- The existing signage is quick to distinguish between individual services, even before that decision is going to be made, if it’s going to be made within the station at all. The 13th Street MFL station has signage pointing toward “Routes 10, 11, 13, 34, 36 Trolleys,” for instance.
It is, in my defense, no less awkward than what’s already there.
Moving on, line names. If you try to officially rename Philly’s transit lines something other than what they’ve been called for years—like, say, their colors—you are going to fail. The thick orange line on the SEPTA map is the Broad Street Subway. Period. Problem is, “Broad Street Subway” takes up way too much space on the signage, so we need a shorthand.
You have three options, there: colors, numbers, or letters. I don’t like colors. Calling it the Orange Line is going to be problematic for colorblind users, and doesn’t address the other consistent issue with how the subway’s been depicted on the map: its service patterns. The subway has four tracks for most of its length in an express-local configuration; local trains use the outer pair, and express trains use the inner pair. In addition, there’s technically two express services: one which bypasses the North Philadelphia station, runs through Center City, and terminates at Walnut-Locust; and one which stops at North Philly, splits off from the mainline south of Girard, and runs down the God Damned Spur to 8th and Market. This needs to be communicated quickly and easily in a way that doesn’t make people’s head spin, and calling all of that the “Orange Line” and letting people sort it all out once they’re actually in the system doesn’t help.
(Also that thing I see on SEPTA’s #transitmaptuesday redesigns where the subway’s local service is red-orange but the express and spur services are yellow is, to put it delicately, hideous.)
This leaves identifying individual services with numbers or letters. I used letters on my map, to emphasize that the rapid transit lines are distinct from the largely numbered bus and trolley lines. I went alphabetically based on each line’s opening date, not caring so much if the assigned letter corresponded to anything from the line name, although the “B” for “Broad” is a nice touch. This is because a few of SEPTA’s further-afield bus lines are lettered, starting with G and going up, and if I want to avoid conflict there, that limits the available letters I can work with.
(One could argue that “D” is already taken by the branding for the Boulevard Direct bus to the Neshaminy Mall, but I don’t think that’s embedded itself into the Philly Native’s consciousness the way some of the other line names/designations have. It’s called the “14D” here because it follows and supplements the less frequent 14 bus for pretty much its entire length.)
(As a consequence of lettering the subway lines, though, for the sake of simplicity the signage I whacked together never spells out any of their names, trusting that users will be able to intuit which service is which based on context, including strip maps. That’s more or less what happened to the Toronto subway’s signage when they numbered their subway lines, and it seems to have worked fine there, but I can see this backfiring spectacularly in this case, which is great when simplifying the line names so they’re not so cumbersome to put on a dang sign is part of what this is all about.)
Now for the services that have or previously had numbers assigned to them. I decided against messing with the trolley route numbers because if you’re taking the trolley west you’re going to one of two places:
- Someplace beyond the reaches of the trolley tunnel, in which case you’re gonna need a specific trolley and can’t just catch the first one that happens to rumble on by, or:
Either way, you need a certain granularity in the way the trolleys are described on the map and the signage, and you already have a perfectly good shorthand that meets your needs just fine. You’re set. It’s for similar reasons that I brought back the “Route 100” designation for the NHSL (easy enough, some of the signage on the NHSL still calls it Route 100) and the R-numbers for the Regional Rail (which conflicts with the R bus line, I feel, but okay). We’re already scrambling local brains plenty through assigning letters to the subway and the el, so we should probably go easy on them with everything else.
(I should point out here that I don’t necessarily object to renumbering the trolley lines, e.g. T1, T2, T3, or having lettered branches e.g. A, B, C like on the MBTA Green Line, but it’s just not what I chose to do here.)
Finally, the frequent buses. I knew I wanted to show the full route of all the trolley lines, but since they behave like buses when they’re on the surface, I felt I could only justify doing that if I included the frequent buses as well. The problem is, even at their thinner line weight, they also clutter up the map enough that certain parts are made more difficult to read. To mitigate this, I switched out the dark red that SEPTA uses officially (which also conflicted with PATCO red) for the bright pink I used for frequent buses on my IndyGo map from a few years ago. That de-emphasizes the bus lines slightly for clarity purposes, but not so much they’re rendered invisible.
(Good news though is that using a thinner line weight for street-running surface transit means it’s easier to get away with not showing every stop. When the map insists on keeping the trolley lines the same weight underground as on the surface, it invariably looks like something’s missing, even though trolley stop spacing is really dense on the surface and showing each stop is wildly impractical.)
(Speaking of transit lines whose stops aren’t always shown, Routes 101 and 102. I don’t have a problem with having every single station stop for each line listed on the map, even though there’s a lot of them spaced really close together, because unlike the city trolley lines both routes spend much of their length on a dedicated right of way. Also, they should be brown on the map. Not green. Brown. They’re distinct. C’mon.)
Also, I just think the red/teal/gray color scheme SEPTA uses for bus frequency is kind of ugly, so using my IndyGo map’s pink/light blue/light green color scheme instead made more sense aesthetically as well. To the extent this affects the signage, that meant I could also do the Toronto thing of placing the bus’s route number in a colored box, which I just think looks cool and emphasizes that buses are big boys too and are a full and integral part of the city’s transit network, and not just an afterthought.
Anyway, that’s the thinking behind these. I reserve the right to change my mind on this stuff at any time, especially with the signage because I’m less experienced with designing wayfinding and so my thoughts on that are far from final. See ya on the flip side.
[thanks to Cameron Booth for help with the legend]