Destination or headsigns are signs at the top front, side, and sometimes back of the bus that tell waiting passengers where the vehicle is headed. What are the technical details and manufacturers of these signs? What information should be on these signs?
Technical Details and Manufacturers of Headsigns
Currently there are two major manufacturers of headsigns for the North American market, although saying that is misleading as they are basically the same company (which is inferred by the fact that their headquarters are at the same address in Plano, TX) - TwinVision and Luminator. Although older readers will no doubt remember the days of the “roll” signs made out of mylar, and the back-lit “flip-dot” signs that were impossible to read at night, with few exceptions all destination signs today are either LCD or LED signs. If the sign has different colors it is an LED sign. At agencies with AVL systems , the LCD or LED signs can be programmed to automatically change when the bus reaches certain locations, like the route terminus. Although programming the bus in this way eliminates the need for the driver to change the sign themselves (and thus eliminates the all-too-real possibility of them forgetting to change the sign), the downside is that when there is a problem with the AVL you will have no destination sign showing. Another benefit of making the driver change the sign themselves is that you make them either stretch or leave their seat, which is beneficial to their health.
Of course, the primary piece of information that is shared on destination signs is the number, and the number should be prominently visible in the front, on the side, and in the back. In some case the route number will also have a letter associated with it, like “24A Victoria Park” in Toronto. In some jurisdictions, especially in Europe, there may be a tendency to put the “A” as a superscript rather than a full size “A”. For the sake of the passenger – and to follow the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) - every part of the number – including any letters – should be of equal size for easy visibility.
In general, transit agencies show two kinds of destinations on their headsigns. One approach, which is used by places like Vancouver TransLink and Los Angeles Metro, is only to show the final destination on the sign. Another approach, used by places like the Toronto Transit Commission, is to show both a route name and a destination on the sign. For example, Los Angeles Metro Route 152 travels on Vineland and Roscoe from North Hollywood Red Line Station to the intersection of Fallbrook and Ventura. In the first approach, the destination sign would read: “152 Fallbrook - Ventura”. In the second approach, the destination sign would read: “152 Roscoe / to Fallbrook – Ventura” where the slash means the destination sign would “flip”. Modern destination signs can show three different messages.
In my opinion, adding a route name is really helpful in terms of passengers negotiating their journey . For example, there are a large number of ways a bus could travel from North Hollywood Station to Fallbrook and Ventura, and in some cases more than one route could connect the same two destination pairs. Adding the route name helps to reduce confusion by giving passengers a better mental picture of where the bus will be traveling.
Note that while we would like destination signs to be informative, there is a limit as to the amount of information we can display on them. For example, although it is technically possible to have two lines of text on a sign simultaneously doing so reduces the font size enough to make the two lines of text potentially a violation of the ADA. In addition, LED signs have the ability to show text in a wide variety of colors. While I would like to see color used more in signs, transit agencies should be aware that in some jurisdictions it may be illegal to have signs in red or blue due to those colors having an association with emergency vehicles.
Modern electronic destination signs allow for the use of “P/R” messages that alternate with the regular sign. While most P/R messages are of the “Go Lakers / Chargers / Yankees” variety, two useful P/R messages are 1) “Last bus”, which Valley Metro in Phoenix uses to let people know service is ending for the night; and 2) “New Schedules This Sunday”, which Los Angeles Metro uses to let people know service is changing so they are not caught unawares.
Back of the Sign
Buses that have back signs generally have back signs only large enough to show the route number. I find back signs valuable because they indicate to people trying to reach the bus stop whether they should hurry (it’s their bus) or take their time.
Lower Left of the Windshield
Some buses have numbers in the lower left side of the windshield. These numbers are the block number that the bus is operating, and are used by supervisors to make sure the bus is on schedule.
One Note About Placement
While the vast majority of transit agencies place their side destination signs on the passenger side window just behind the front door, at least one agency – Pittsburgh’s Port Authority – places the side destination sign on the driver side window just behind the driver compartment. Doing so allows both passengers waiting at the stop to see the sign and people inside the bus to see the sign, which could go a long way towards easing the anxiety of passengers who constantly worry they have boarded the wrong bus. I would like to see more transit agencies place the side sign in this manner.