Is Wayfinding Worth The Extra Cost Of Static Signage?

By U Cast Studios
June 18, 2024

Is Wayfinding Worth The Extra Cost Of Static Signage?
Image Courtesy Of Sources: @_spacepeanut_ And @aprinceofwhale

Using public transportation effectively requires a certain amount of wayfinding and/or extensive foreknowledge about where you’re going in order to get to where you need to be.

This article was written by Asia Mieleszko and originally published by Strong Towns.

In one episode of “About Here,” Uytae Lee confronts Vancouver’s wayfinding, zeroing in on the signs at the city’s bus stops. “I have a problem with bus stop signs,” he says. While the signs communicate which buses stop at a given location, they provide little other context, such as the line’s route or where a stop is located within the broader network.

This problem isn’t unique to Vancouver. When CityLab’s Laura Bliss put out a call for “transit signage fails” on X, back when it was known as Twitter, it became clear just how pervasive the level of guesswork was across the continent:

In San Francisco — a “transit first” city — bus route numbers are spray-painted in tiny font onto adjacent, often weathered telephone poles. In Tampa, some bus stop signs consist of stumpy metal flags planted in tire-shaped weights. Wichita, Kansas, has signs that are simply repurposed street parking placards; in Nashville, bus signs don’t even mention which routes appear there. Pittsburgh has bus signs that don’t mention the name of the transit agency. And the lack of wayfinding infrastructure at transit stations in Denver leaves riders wandering vast plains of asphalt.

If one considers detours and other service changes, riding the bus becomes an activity for seasoned professionals, not a mode of transportation designed for any and all.

This (left) is how the author was informed of a detour in Philadelphia. Thankfully, a wayfinding revolution in the City of Brotherly Love means this eyesore is a thing of the past.


“But, it doesn’t have to be this way,” Lee asserts. In Vancouver, the precedent for clearer, more relevant signage exists aboard SkyTrain. So, why doesn’t that thoughtfulness transfer to the city’s bus network?

First, designing and installing good signage takes time, talent and money. Lee learned that firsthand while mocking up only five signs for his video. Second, he speculated that the city’s rail must have significantly higher ridership, which accounts for why it gets more investment.

It turned out that wasn’t true. In Vancouver, more commuters opt for the bus than SkyTrain. The same could be said for several North American cities, like Edmonton, where bus usage dwarfs light rail ridership, or Philadelphia, a city with several modes of transit whose 2023 daily bus ridership averaged 307,127 passengers, or 54% of all daily commutes.

Of course, in most North American cities, buses account for 100% of all transit trips, as most North American cities do not offer alternatives to bus service. Even in those places, however, bus stops are barren, largely without shelter and, at best, demarcated by indecipherable, sun-faded signage. For Lee, the lack of care is a betrayal of priorities rather than the byproduct of proportional investment.

Perhaps the first step to fixing this small problem with big consequences is to have decision-makers actually use the system. Not once, not twice, but routinely. That’s how advocates in Denton, Texas, brought awareness to the condition of their city’s bus stops. Then, it’s a matter of dedicating some part of the budget towards these minor changes, starting with the heaviest trafficked stops, as Lee proposes.

But wayfinding, especially in the age of digital technology and smartphones, presents more questions than just better physical (or static) signage. Should static signage perhaps be a thing of the past?

Moving Toward Digital in New York City

For years, many of New York City’s unsheltered bus stop poles came equipped with schedules and a route map.

Guide-a-ride in Manhattan.


Known as guide-a-rides, these rectangular cases were introduced in the 1980s and can still be seen across the system today, but in diminishing numbers as the system moves toward real-time online updates.

“As we modernize bus service, we’re finding ways to provide accurate arrival time information to customers in faster, more efficient ways. Moving to paperless schedules helps reduce our paper waste and makes the most of new technology that puts real-time information in customers’ hands whenever they need it,” MTA spokesperson Shams Tarek told the Brooklyn Eagle in 2019. “The $550,000 in recurring annual savings from this initiative allows NYC Transit to redirect our resources to maintaining bus service levels.”

With approximately 16,000 bus stops across the system, updating each schedule and map seemed like an expensive and time-consuming process that the agency was eager to phase out. Not to mention, for most New Yorkers, the schedules were merely a suggestion for buses that were routinely late.

Throughout the years, weather-damaged guide-a-rides seldom saw replacement, and complaints about irrelevant and out-of-date schedules mounted. Those responsible for keeping them updated arguably failed in their task, and, as a result, guide-a-rides went largely unmourned.

As the MTA spokesperson said, with the proliferation of smartphones and improvements to real-time bus tracking, this felt like an opportune moment to transition to a more adept technology. Why rely on out-of-date physical schedules when real-time data is readily available at your fingertips? Why spend money maintaining paper schedules and maps when countdown clocks are more accurate and Google Maps can handle the rest?

It turns out, those questions miss the fuller picture. At least, that’s what my conversations with transit agency employees and consultants (who requested to remain anonymous) revealed. When I shared the story of MTA’s guide-a-rides, one of my sources chuckled at the $550,000 figure. “That’s chump change.”

It was a number shared by the same agency that has spent the last 15 years outfitting its bus and subway stops with electronic countdown clocks and digital screens whose installation, maintenance and eventual replacement came with a far higher price tag. In 2010, estimates for installing countdown clocks across a third of the subway system started at $200 million. By 2016, it became evident that the continued installation of countdown clocks would require a systemwide revamp of the network’s signal system.  Estimates for that approached $20 billion. As for buses, a council member who championed their installation in 2012 estimated that the installation of countdown clocks across much of the system would cost $20 million, with an additional $5.28 million a year in maintenance costs.

It’s not that these upgrades weren’t worth making. Countdown clocks revolutionized ridership. Not to mention, by the time the MTA began installing them, they had been available across the globe for at least a decade; the agency was merely playing catch up. But those price tags put the self-described cash-strapped agency’s eagerness to “save” $550,000 into perspective.

Nevertheless, the MTA spokesperson quoted earlier was talking about mobile upgrades, not necessarily on-site digital signage. After all, developing better tracking for buses that one could access freely on their device, whether at home or at the bus stop, sounds like a good deal. The agency has less equipment to maintain and passengers can account for early or late buses before leaving the house.

Still, the issue here, one of my interviewees pointed out, is in the framing of either/or. “It’s a false binary,” he said. The agency is pitting an undeniably useful, albeit accessorial technology against static signage, categorically overlooking the broader advantages of the latter. “Digital screens and better mobile apps are great. But they don’t outmode well-designed static signage,” he said. “Even if that signage costs a million, it’s a steal when you consider what it offers riders.”

The Problem With Digital-Only Information

Simply put, what (well-designed) static signage offers is stop-level information available at a glance. A countdown clock may tell you when the next bus arrives, but it doesn’t tell you what time you can expect it later in the day for your return trip. In other words, it doesn’t tell you the scheduled frequency of service — how often you can expect the bus to arrive at this stop today, tomorrow or Saturday. A simple printed schedule can. Beside it, a network map can illustrate the constellation of transfers available to you, something Google Maps or proprietary transit apps don’t always do well and a countdown clock doesn’t do at all.

When it comes to relegating all of this information to our personal devices, perhaps the biggest disadvantage is that you need to know where and how to look for it. Schedules, system maps, potential detours, and route and fare information are typically located on separate web pages. And if you, like most, opt to Google the answer, you may be directed to a five-year-old PDF. The MTA is excellent at keeping its web pages updated. Many smaller agencies are not. Being able to scan this medley of particulars in an instant at the place you’re expecting to catch your ride is, according to everyone I spoke with, unbeatable.

Of course, the seasoned commuter will bookmark the right pages. The first-time rider or the sporadic straphanger would need guidance. Waiting for a bus shouldn’t require extra legwork, one source asserted. And across most of the world, it doesn’t.

He recalls how an older American relative (who seldom if ever opted for their hometown’s bus network) chose transit in Innsbruck, Austria, without hesitation. They possessed no knowledge of German but could navigate the system, often by themselves, thanks in large part to easy-to-read, stop-level information. The same is true for many American tourists in Europe. “They make it easy. We make it hard.”

And it’s not like Innsbruck or other European cities don’t invest in electronic signage and app improvements. They just don’t do it at the expense of static signage, at least not to the extent the U.S. seemingly does.

Missed Opportunities

“Bus stops are a rider’s first contact with the system,” all of my interviewees told me in some way or another. “As such, they’re basically free marketing for your system,” one added.

There’s a lot of real estate available at bus stops — even when those stops are merely poles on a stroad — that transit agencies aren’t using to their advantage. It’s a perspective I had never considered, and it made me all the more upset to think that agencies across the country are squandering an opportunity to market themselves. He then asked if I was familiar with ski towns. “They might as well have the best-designed bus stops in the country.”

Indeed, images from Vail, Colorado, show sheltered bus stops with system maps and schedules. From experience, I assume, he knew he could rely on the bus to show up at the time listed and he knew exactly where it was headed. Vail’s ridership likewise undermines the preconceptions many hold about the bus: Here are some of the wealthiest people in the world, wearing hundreds of dollars of clothing, transporting thousands of dollars in gear, stuffing themselves into a mode of transportation often derided for being “used exclusively by the poor.”

An example of a bus stop in Vail, Colorado. (Source: Laura Gilchrist on Flickr)


In the end, the lesson is not in Luddism. New York City shouldn’t go back in time; I’d certainly suffer if it did. But the framing of wayfinding as either/or — either dynamic or static, either remote or on-site, either guide-a-ride or a mobile app — betrays a misunderstanding of the strengths and functions of each tool.

The waning popularity of the guide-a-rides in New York City should’ve prompted their next iteration rather than their wholesale abandonment. Their timetables were inaccurate not because they were printed on paper, but because the agency perhaps calculated unrealistic arrival times. Frequent delays require an entirely separate solution. The route maps could’ve used some context. And in the end, perhaps limiting all of this information to a small rectangular case wasn’t ambitious enough. Sheltered bus stops offer more space than the MTA uses to its advantage, and otherwise, Lee’s prototypes offer inspiration for how much can fit on a bus stop pole without overwhelming prospective riders.

Better stop-level signage and better digital wayfinding aren’t in competition with one another. Instead, they can work in concert for the agency that can afford to develop the latter well. For everyone else who is cash-strapped, ameliorating the former should be the first step. It’s ultimately an inexpensive way to make the system a lot friendlier. At the very least, better signage can reintroduce some dignity into our bus networks.

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