Pittsburgh’s new bus maps show transit agencies a way forward

It may be hard to believe, but there was a time before Google Maps. A time before Garmin. A time before ubiquitous GPS. It was a time when maps were where we all turned to find how to get from Point A to Point B.

As smart phones quickly transition from status symbol to the kind of presumed possession only the deeply impoverished or oddly antiquated go without, the humble static map seems to be heading, hand-in-hand with landlines and fax machines, to the graveyard of obsolete technologies.

But the map might not be dead just yet. Some have realized that there are jobs that maps still do better than the latest technologies. Not unlike how bicycling has become faster than driving in urban cores, the old school map can still outperform its higher tech competition when it comes to navigating public transportation systems.

At least, that’s what the Port Authority of Allegheny County thinks. The Port Authority has hired top-tier wayfinding consultants to redesign its transit maps over the next few years. “Wayfinding” refers to the network of maps, signs, diagrams and other architectural clues that, when done well, help individuals figure out where they are, where they are going, and how to get there.

It’s the latest innovation from the agency responsible for America’s first Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, and like BRT, it’s a fresh twist on an old classic. If all goes as planned, the Port Authority’s new maps would make Allegheny County’s bus system easier to understand. And that, in turn, could help change how Yinzers and visitors alike get around the Steel City.


After years of reduced services brought on by funding shortages, the Port Authority is trying to work its way back into the good graces of transit riding ‘Burghers. Since the passage of Act 89 in 2013, things have been looking up for the agency, which has decided to focus on improving customer experience. This last winter, the Port Authority completed its rollout of real-time bus tracking. Now it’s updating its bus maps, hiring CHK America to revamp its wayfinding system.

Revamp might not be the word. “Generally speaking,” said spokesman Jim Ritchie, “the Port Authority really hasn’t ever had a wayfinding system.”

CHK America made its mark by overhauling London’s transit maps in 2002. London’s maps – and really everything done by Transportation for London – are consistently regarded as the industry standard.  London’s bus ridership has shown a remarkable increase in the last fifteen years, jumping 69 percent since 2000. While there are numerous other contributing factors, including population growth and congestion charges, the easily understood maps presumably helped.

Today, the Port Authority has signs at bus stops displaying the routes stopping there, but “we really don’t have much in the way for helping people figure out how to get from one part of town to another if they aren’t familiar with the system,” said Ritchie. “Unless you’re in our subway stations. There are maps there … that show you the Downtown and North Shore.” The new system sets out to fix that.

Having trouble finding a map is a problem as familiar to SEPTA bus passengers in Philadelphia as it is ironic. Other than a few bus shelters in Center City, no SEPTA bus stops feature maps showing where the route actually travels. SEPTA riders need to fully pre-plan their bus trips.

Unlike Pittsburgh’s Port Authority, SEPTA doesn’t have any plans to try fixing its system, saying that an overhaul like that would cost too much to develop and maintain. But the Port Authority says its initial phase will cost just $900,000. Admittedly, only a handful of signs will be installed at that point, but the bulk of that cost is going to designing a new system, which will debut Downtown and on the North Shore. The first phase, set to be installed by the end of this year, includes three different types of maps located in and around six light rail stations and nine bus stops.


If you look at the preliminary draft of Pittsburgh’s new system wide map, a few things stand out. First, unlike SEPTA’s transit map or New York’s subway map, this map features the major bus routes servicing Pittsburgh’s Downtown, not just fixed routes like light rail or subways. This helps elevate those bus routes in a passenger’s mental ranking of possible transportation choices.

It’s also a “spider map“, the CHK America trademarked term for a map that shows all the routes in a given area in a separate close up. Here, the Downtown neighborhood is featured in the bottom right corner.

Like the transit maps, though, this isn’t a strictly geographic map – if you tried to use it on the streets to get around, you’d only get lost. That’s done on purpose, says CHK America Vice President Jim Gergich. “We have to minimize the cognitive load: we can’t overwhelm [passengers] with information.”

That isn’t a dig on a town that somehow thinks “you” is pronounced as “yinz,” but a concept backed by MIT researchers. Geographical transit maps overload the viewer with too much information, making less cluttered, more abstract maps better for helping riders understand how the system operates as an interconnected whole. For an example of an overburdened geographical map, look at SEPTA’s geographical Center City Street and Transit Map: can you tell how the bus and rail transit system works there? 

A Comprehensive, geographic Center City Bus Maps

Jarret Walker, author of Human Transit, described the difference this way: “Geographical accuracy obscures network structure. Purely geographic maps show where service is but not how it works.”

That’s why most subway and rail maps are abstract – they emphasize how that system works over geographic accuracy. But we default to throwing route lines on top of road maps for buses, making the bus system harder to understand. The Port Authority is fixing this problem in Allegheny County. The system map also has a feature that Walker is sure to love: route frequency representation. If you look again at the system map, you’ll see that some lines are thicker than others: the fatter the line, the more frequent the service. It intuitively helps the passenger understand which routes are major and which are minor.

While the system wide map will help riders understand primary routes to make crosstown trips, two other CHK designed maps will complete network comprehension with more localized information. 

Preliminary draft Downtown Vicinity map
(Port Authority of Allegheny County)

To connect the abstract system to concrete geography, the Port Authority is also developing neighborhood level maps, often called vicinity or area maps. The picture above is a preliminary draft of the Downtown vicinity map. At most major stops, a vicinity map showing the entire area, a “you are here” and other transit options within a short walk will be placed next to the system map. Between the two, passengers-cum-pedestrians can connect where they are, where they need to go, and which major routes can get them there.

More importantly, these maps will show other options as well, educating folks about the system as a whole, rather than providing just a single route for their immediate trip needs. Google Transit and similar trip mapping apps give a man a route to the fish monger; the Port Authority’s new maps will teach a man to route themselves to the fish monger… and the seafood restaurant, fishing pier, and Phish concert, too.

Wrapping the wayfinding system all together will be “at-stop panels”, which will show the diagrammatic routes of the buses servicing any given stop. The Port Authority has about 7,000 stops in total, but it hopes that all of them will be serviced by at least these new panels within the next three years.

Preliminary draft at-stop panel
(Port Authority of Allegheny County)

Pittsburgh has around 100 bus routes, making a complete understanding of its bus networking a fool’s errand for anyone other than Raymond Babbit. But most people only need to understand the network outside of their home or office. That’s where Pittsburgh’s new “at-stop panels” step in.

The panels will show where you can go from that stop, not the entire system. They answer, “where can I go from here”, not how to get to a specific there. Currently, Port Authority bus stops, like SEPTA’s, only have a small marker noting which buses service that stop and the route’s two terminal destinations.

The at-panel diagrammatic routes will be similar to the route maps currently available online, which aren’t significantly different from SEPTA’s own route maps. Unlike those maps, however, the new Port Authority at-stop panels will be abstract, rather than geographic, and will show some connections to the rest of transit system. Again, the idea is to understand how to use the system.

The panels will also include bus frequencies, letting riders know that buses should run ever 10 minutes during a 7-9 A.M. rush hour and every 20 minutes off-peak, for example.

Buses are often described as uncomfortable, but some of that discomfort can come from the uncertainty of not knowing for sure where it goes. “The train has a fixed route,” says CHK’s Gergich. “Buses make service changes. They might change a route.”

Route changes are another reason why SEPTA doesn’t want to invest in posting maps at all its stops. SEPTA updates its routes and schedules fairly regularly, adjusting to changing demands and needs. Those changes could make old maps obsolete, necessitating a change. “Bad information is worse than no information,” said SEPTA spokesman Manuel Smith. The Port Authority makes changes, too, but says they’re committed to keeping information up to date.

If all goes well with the first phase, the Port Authority will expand to Oakland, where the University of Pittsburgh is located, and then across the entire county.


Even in a grid city like Philadelphia, figuring out how to get around can be hard. Among Pittsburgh’s hilly jumble of streets, it’s even harder. Without readily accessible bus maps, learning how to use the transit system requires a serious amount of work.

The advent of Google Transit has made this easier, but no means easy: the bus is an option that doesn’t even enter into many discretionary riders’ minds. We know there’s always an app for that, but we don’t even know there’s a that for the app. It’s the issue of knowing what you don’t know – without any sort of physical indicator letting you know that the bus might be an option, it’s not one you’ll ever consider.

Put it another way: the bus is like Cuba for the last fifty years. You might have seen it every now and again, but the idea of going there never really entered your mind while vacation planning. A bus map at the stop is like Obama lifting the embargo: suddenly, it’s a real option, and one worth Googling.

This really matters for the occasional rider or visitor from out of town, says Gergich. “The more information you see, the better you’re going to feel.”

“Regular users now, they’ll figure it out,” says the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission’s Greg Krykewycz. “The place where it has a real impact is with discretionary riders and discretionary trips for existing riders.” Commuters often learn their route between home and the office, but nothing more, limiting use of the system during off-peak hours.

“In DC, lawyers, lobbyists, congressmen all use the Metro, but not many of them use the bus,” explains Gergich. “It’s about getting the bus to be as user friendly as the train.” For these so-called “choice” riders who can afford to drive or take a taxi, spending lots of their valuable time learning a system doesn’t make sense.

“If we can get people on the bus, and make it a comfortable, safe trip,” says Gergich, “then they’ll come back.”  Increased ridership generally means more revenues for transit agencies and fewer cars on the road.

SEPTA won’t be hiring a firm like CHK anytime soon. Creating new maps at its 14,000 bus stops would be a “Herculean effort,” said SEPTA’s Smith. Overhauling the bus maps at stops would be difficult even if the maps were magically free: SEPTA doesn’t own its bus shelters – the City of Philadelphia, neighboring suburbs and private landowners do, and those entities get to decide what goes on the shelters.  Philadelphia recently entered into a contract with Titan, an advertising company, to replace it’s existing 300 shelters and build 300 more. The Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities is working with Titan on placing some sort of maps on the new shelters, but it’s unclear how many stops will see maps and what the maps will look like. MOTU declined to comment for this article.

In the meantime, SEPTA is rolling out real time technology and making the back-end information for it available to developers for mobile apps, a move that’s common across the nation, according to the DVRPC’s Chris Pollard. And there are hopes, both in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, to start installing interactive, touch-screen maps at major transit hubs.

Thanks to its wayfinding overhaul, it’s likely that the Port Authority will beat SEPTA to that upgrade, too. If they do, they’ll marry the comprehensiveness of its new wayfinding system with the direct efficiency of trip planning apps. And it’ll do so without requiring expensive smart phones – only 64 percent of Americans own one – something that presumably matters more in a pair of cities still recovering from a mid-century economic collapse. 

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