• Routes given their own distinct colours to make travelling on the bus as easy as taking the Tube
• Buses and signs will be clearly labelled with the colours to help passengers navigate local areas
• Innovative new trial begins in east London
The trial is running on all the bus routes in Barkingside, seven in total, specifically routes 128, 150, 167, 169, 247, 275 and 462. These buses run to all sorts of other places, so the trial also affects parts of Romford, Claybury, Ilford, Hainault, Barking, Walthamstow, Loughton, Becontree Heath and Gants Hill. A further trial is planned for Hayes, in west London, in the summer. If successful, the new designs could spread to other parts of the capital.
Within hours, various London-based news media published stories summarising the press release. Here's the story reported in the Metro, Evening Standard, ITV News, City AM, Londonist (actually City AM again) and Time Out. All of these outlets made good use of the words spoonfed in the press release, and also a set of five Flickr photos made available by the TfL Press Office. None of them actually went to Barkingside to see the system in action, because reporting is time-consuming and expensive, so it's much easier to repeat what you're given.
I've been to Barkingside. I wanted to know whether this is a genuine simplification or whether it might be some kind of dumbing-down. Here's what I found.
Route 247 has been allocated the colour yellow, so there's a jaunty splash of yellow on the front window, and a big yellow number 247 stuck to the side. The big number really stands out - I could read it from a street two bus stops away. The bus is still a red bus, but with clear yellow branding.
Along the side of the bus, where an advert might go, is a list of key stops. In this case that's...
Barkingside Park • Fulwell Cross (For leisure centre) • Redbridge Sports Centre • Hainault Station • Hainault Forest Country Park • City Pavilion • The Liberty Shopping Centre • Romford Station
The 247 serves more than 30 bus stops, but the full list has been simplified to just eight locations to give an overview of where the bus goes. Retail and recreational facilities, and transport nodes, have been given priority, which makes for quite a complicated list that's a lot to read. Interestingly Barkingside Park doesn't exist, not even Google's heard of it, it's actually Barkingside Recreation Ground. The entire list is also repeated in smaller lettering on the back of the bus.
Further yellow splashes are visible from the rear, to confirm this really is the yellow bus. Another innovation, more frequently seen on buses outside London, is a separate sticker proclaiming a frequency of EVERY 10 MINS. If you look closer it actually says UP TO EVERY 10 MINS, which is fairer. If you look even closer, which is hard when the bus is in motion, it says MON TO SAT DAYTIME in smaller lettering underneath, and SUN UP TO EVERY 20 MINS immediately under that. Basically, the more you read, the more confusing it gets.
The 150 has been allocated the colour blue, so it gets a splash of blue front and back, and also a big blue 150 on the side. Again a route summary appears on one side and the rear, and these buses run EVERY 12 MINS. Remember that London buses generally only ever run on one route, so this level of specific detail should be fine. Also notice how there's still room for an advert along the side of the bus facing away from boarding passengers, so additional revenue doesn't have to be lost.
One key feature is that bus stop tiles have been given an upgrade to match the colour scheme of the buses passing through. For example this is a stop in Hainault, where you can see the 150 tile has a blue stripe across the top and the 247 tile has a yellow stripe. This makes it really easy for waiting passengers to match the colour of the route to the colour of the bus.
At Fulwell Cross you can see almost the entire palette. Pretty, isn't it? The colours selected for the trial seem just-contrasting enough, although the two shades of blue could easily be mistaken, and the missing seventh colour is purple, which might appear similar too. Obviously the one colour that can't be used is red, because buses are red.
This is a 169 bus entering Barkingside High Street.
I think the green works, although I'm less convinced by the purple on this 128.
I'm guessing that one of the things this trial is testing is which colours distinguish well and which don't. However, as this intelligent article from CityMetric suggests, if the trial is successful there simply aren't going to be enough distinguishable colours to go round. For example, it's going to be impossible to avoid having, say, two orange buses or two lime green buses serving the same stop if much larger areas are covered.
Even this trial ripples out for miles. Here's a bus stop in central Ilford.
Four buses from Barkingside venture this far, so four of the tiles have been replaced. But the others haven't, which introduces visual confusion regarding the nightbus stripes for routes 123 and 145. These are also blue, the colour used to show that 24 hour services run only at the weekend, and this clashes somewhat with the 150 and 167. But see how the new tile for the 128 now has its 24 hour logo underneath the route number rather than above. If this system ever rolls out more widely, problem solved.
Here's one more innovation you won't be aware of from TfL's photo stash. The timetables have changed colour too! Look on the bus stop pole, and the route numbers are now in colour, and the strip of route map underneath as well. This is proper consistent branding, all carefully thought through... although I genuinely couldn't tell the difference between the shades of blue for the 150 and 167 where these appeared in the same panel.
So far, so good. But step into the bus shelter and look at the updated maps, and these show elements of dumbing down. Spider maps used to be roughly geographical, but they now run vertically and are much more diagrammatic, which I found made it harder to work out where to go. Romford is not north of Barkingside, for example, but the new map suggests it is. Spider maps also used to show every bus stop within a radius of about a mile and a half, but they now only show selected stops along each route, with very few of these in the immediate area. Where do routes run locally? It's no longer clear.
Spider maps used to include a Route Finder where you could see at a glance which routes ran through the neighbourhood and at which bus stops they stopped, but this feature appears to have been deleted in favour of the comprehensive index of destinations you're supposed to reference instead. I assume that all these changes have been made to 'simplify' the maps and make them more like the tube, but the removal of useful local detail is a backward step, and I actually got lost trying to catch a bus in Hainault as a result.
There are, as yet, no updated spider maps on the TfL website. Also I couldn't find the colourful Barkingside summary map so widely paraded in the media anywhere in real life.
One last thing, you've probably got the impression that all the buses in Barkingside have been given a colourful overhaul. Not so. Only a tiny number of vehicles have been branded at present, and the rest are all running round exactly as before. I saw over 30 different buses during my trip to the area, but only four had been updated to the new design. My hunch is that only one vehicle on each route was prepared in time for the launch date... certainly the only 'big blue 150' I saw was the same vehicle that appears in TfL's publicity shot. The remainder of the fleet will presumably follow.
In conclusion, this is a bold trial which could transform the appearance of buses and bus stops, and should make catching the right bus easier. It's an idea that'll be familiar to bus travellers in many other parts of the country, who've been riding coloured branded routes for years. It does risk becoming too overwhelming if rolled out to all of London's many hundreds of routes, there not being enough colours to go round, and the switch to diagrammatic maps isn't necessarily helpful. But now that TfL have unleashed the rainbow, will London buses ever again be only red?