#TTCAccess -- One-on-One with TTC Design on Subway Line Names

I attended the TTC’s legally mandated annual public forum on accessibility and blogged on it last week. Today, I share what happened during one of the one-on-one conversations with TTC staff during Part One of the forum.

I wanted to talk to someone about the renaming of subway line names to numbers. I know, I know, the TTC insists they haven’t renamed them. But they use the real names of the subway lines less and less and quite often not at all, only referring to them by numbers. So, de facto, they have renamed them. Anyway, I asked one of the pleasant volunteers at the entrance who to talk to. The TTC has taken lessons from Wal-Mart. The volunteer not only walked me to the Marketplace where the one-on-one discussions were happening, but also asked her boss who I should talk to. Her boss walked me the few short steps to Ian Dickson, the TTC Design guy. We commenced a pleasant conversation on why I think they’re wrong, and they think it’s the best solution.

I’d been told the renaming to numbers was to help tourists and people unfamiliar with the system, which made me wonder who the TTC thought they were serving. But Dickson seemed puzzled by that. From what I recall, he said that the main reasons for going with numbers were:

  1. The subway stations are small, 1950s’ design, and there’s no room for the full names of the subway lines in many places.
  2. They needed a unifier.
  3. What to call the Eglinton Crosstown is such a conundrum, easier to go with numbers.
  4. They’re easier than word names.
  5. And I noted he called the subway line names “legacy names.”

1. You can’t get around the solid fact that some subway stations are small, have low ceilings. However, the same holds true for many stations in the London Underground. Some of their stations are cavernous, with ceilings seemingly up to the sky, while others are like holes in the ground such that tall people have to duck to ensure they don’t bang heads. One memorable station on the London Underground’s Northern line has so little room that you go down the stairs, turn right immediately to avoid hitting the side of the tunnel wall, take a few steps to the platform, and a metal barrier ensures you don’t take one too many and end up on the tracks. Yet somehow their signage still clearly tells you the name of the line without having to revert to numbers. You can see the full-height sign clearly from the top of the stairs in this Flickr user’s photo of a tiny tunnel. That sign will have the line name on it. So station size is a red herring. It's more a matter of the TTC not using the wall height to its full advantage.

2. Colour is the best unifier. It’s an instant visual way for people to know what line they’re on. The TTC already uses colours but not as effectively as the London Underground does. The Underground uses colour everywhere.

Central Line Red

See all that red – the doors, the poles inside the train? That’s the Central line colour (see image below for line colours). The train poles are even colour coded to the lines they run on!

Good Service

The signage showing commuters which platform to go to, and the signage inside the trains, uses the line colours. The colours are in the identifying bars (above image) and along the top of the signs (below image), as well as the subway lines. These signs, aside from their sheer size, are a whole lot easier to visually and cognitively understand because of their use of colour and white background and showing only the stops you’d be heading to, unlike the TTC signs, which I ignore because my eyes and brain just go, ummm, OK, I don’t get this, stop looking at it!

Bayswater Platform Signs

3. So here’s the problem. For example: There’s an Eglinton station, an Eglinton West station, and then an Eglinton line. Three Eglintons? How would commuters distinguish between them when they already confuse the stations Eglinton with Eglinton West? Dickson also said that the Bloor-Danforth is known as the crosstown. I had to digest that because I hadn’t heard that before. It’s not even true in a geographic sense because the Bloor-Danforth line ends at the Scarborough border; even with the new extension (if it’s ever built), it still won’t go anywhere near Toronto’s eastern edge. Neither will the new Eglinton Crosstown line. However, it’s been called the Crosstown for so long, and it does go east-west somewhere in the north-south middle of the city, it makes sense to name it “Crosstown” sans “Eglinton.” Or “Midtown” line. Both give context: this line crosses the city or this line is the one for midtown, that is, the middle of the city, both north-south and east-west. Problem solved.

4. Numbers are not easier than names. I had a discussion with a guy on Twitter who tweets “on sensory user experience & cognition, accessibility” about this issue. Alastair Somerville noted:

Dickson asked me for research. The first is George Miller’s research on numbers. Normal people can hold 7 +/- 2 items in memory. That means we should assume a normal person can hold 5 subway line numbers in memory; for someone with a brain injury that drops. In other words, Toronto already has the maximum number of subway lines a person can memorize if labelled with numbers. No new subway lines can be added to the TTC sans causing great navigational hardship for people with cognitive and navigational issues. Yet already it’s difficult for me to remember which number belongs to which line, and I absolutely love numbers. I asked @Acuity_Design for research links for why the difficulty, and he sent me two references. Twitter folk are wonderful!

In short: numbers put more load on the cognitive system than names do. More load equals fewer resources for memory and less energy. No wonder I’m tired just using the TTC!

5. Language is important. Dickson called “Bloor-Danforth” and “Yonge-University-Spadina” “legacy names.” The word “legacy” tells me that the word names are on the way out. I already don’t hear them used in the automated stop announcements when the Yonge Line train arrives at Bloor station and the pleasant voice announces this is the station for “Line 2” – she does not say, “Bloor-Danforth line.” The reasons Dickson gave for going with numbers, mainly no room, doesn’t apply in an announcement. You can say Bloor-Danforth in plenty of time, and until recently, that is what the announcement was.

The names with context and memory are Bloor-Danforth, Yonge, University, and Spadina. The Bloor-Danforth line is one continuous stretch, and so it makes sense to keep that as the name. But the Yonge-University-Spadina line is broken up at natural points – the interchanges at Bloor, Union, and St. George. When I spoke to people, the names that made the most sense to them were not the acronyms – BD or YUS – or numbers – but the names Yonge, University, Spadina, and Bloor-Danforth. As Somerville said, start with user language.


highheeledlife said…
Another great post! ... names have meaning to people - as a new user to TTC and subway ... I get totally confused when someone refers to a line by number ... tell me the Yonge line or Bloor line and I'm more comfortable that I'm getting on the right subway ... the number thing makes no sense ...I'm talking the next step and navigating the trolleys now ... I sure hope they don't turn does into numbers too :) ...keep up the great work. Sooner or later you will get to the ear of someone who also has common sense ..
Thank you Celia for sharing that! The more people say that they don't like the number system, that they find numbers confusing and want proper names back, the more likely we'll succeed.

I hope they don't change streetcar and buses to numbers only. But TTC fanboys often use numbers for streetcars, especially on Twitter; even in traffic reports, I sometimes hear only the numbers given. It's really useless data because unless you're part of the in crowd and have all the numbers memorized, no way you'll know which streetcar line they're talking about.

When I was in England, I used Google maps. Google refers to buses by number only. I got lost as a result. Sure I could follow the numbers and the maps, but because there was no context, which bus word names provide, when Google maps was not quite correct, I ended up in the wrong place. I was not happy.
Ian Dickson said…
Thanks for the post. And thanks for the research references - I'll check these out. In regard to colour; we've placed more emphasis on colour. Colours appear every time we sign subway routes now. That wasn't the case before. Colour was just an ascent on some of our signs and maps. Generally though, colour will always treated as a secondary identifier after numbers and words. This is mainly because of the colour-blindness problem. With an aging population in Canada this is an increasing issue for many.
Thank you Ian for reading and commenting! I hope you find the references useful, and thank you too for clarifying on colour use. Much appreciated!!