The science of wayfinding—a formula to increase transit ridership

October 22, 2018 Liza Cohen

Academic research shows how good wayfinding at transit stops can help increase overall ridership and user experience


It’s easy to make the case that taking transit is the right thing to do—it mitigates congestion, cuts pollution, and makes city life more livable. Unfortunately, most of us have an experience where transit was inconvenient, confusing, or even ended up being a regrettable choice.

Wayfinding should be part of the basic script of taking transit—just like when diners expect to see a menu at a restaurant. Clear information provides comfort, reassurance, and a common language through the experience.

While you’ve probably seen this information provided in a subway or train station, it is less likely to find a route map and/or timing information at a bus stop. One of the easiest ways to lower barriers to taking transit is to make it easy—and that starts with wayfinding.



What is wayfinding?

Wayfinding is “the process of finding a path between an origin and a destination that has not _q_tweetable:Wayfinding should be part of the basic script of taking transit—just like when diners expect to see a menu at a restaurant._q_necessarily been visited previously.” This could be visiting a friend at their new home, exploring a new neighborhood, or trying to get to Ikea.

Regardless of where you’re going, wayfinding is an essential part of route comprehension.

People need to understand the procedure for getting from Point A to Point B. Ambiguous information is frustrating for riders, and poor knowledge or understanding of transit routes can result in a barrier to use, or lost ridership.

You wouldn’t get on a bus if you weren’t sure where it went, would you?


Comprehension increases ridership

When transit users get an accurate determination of travel time, they feel like they’re getting adequate information. Interestingly, more accurate information reduces perceived travel time as well. Conversely, research conducted in Chicago through the Regional Transit Authority found that the “complexity of trip making” decreased the likelihood of taking transit.


The transit map on the left is simple and clear, without unnecessary detail. The bus map on the right is complex, overly detailed, and does not have any differentiation between service frequencies. 


When asked what information they wanted improved at transit stops, users ranked transit route maps first, followed by wait time.

The National Center for Transit Research (NCTR), in addition to other work done in this area, provides some good recommendations for transit information:

  1. Combine stop frequency and map information. This eliminates the need to look at two things and compare information.
  2. People respond well to patterns. Having a consistent system-wide language improves the rider experience.
  3. Color differentiation is key. Clear differentiation reduces difficulty and frustration and increases a rider’s confidence and experience.
  4. Headway-based maps have been shown to influence route choice. These provide not only route patterns but time intervals between vehicles.

At Stantec’s Urban Places, wayfinding is part of our mission to see transportation options and networks through the eyes of the user. We work to lower the barriers to access, ranging from improving information and communication, to infrastructure changes, to integrating microtransit.

I’ll be presenting some of our ideas along with Jerome Horne, Ridership Experience Specialist at IndyGo, and Marc Szarkowski, Transportation Planner with the Maryland Transit Administration at Rail~Volution in Pittsburgh on October 22.

IndyGo and the Maryland Transit Administration are two transit authorities that are implementing changes to make their system more user-friendly. And user-friendly systems are more likely to be well-used systems.

About the Author

Liza Cohen

Liza Cohen focuses on developing plans that help people expand their mobility options. Drawing on data, visualization tools, and mobility analytics, she creates powerful analyses and community-based solutions that help people make their transportation choices.

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