Legibility in Downtown Circulators, or how LA’s DASH buses could be better

The rail system in Downtown Los Angeles is easy to understand.  You have your Red and Purple lines running down Hill Street and turning west onto 7th, you have your Blue and Expo lines connecting to it at 7th/Metro, and your Gold line connecting at Union Station.

The bus system, on the other hand, is confusing for pretty much everyone, tourists, office workers, and even longtime residents. A single street can have a dozen metro lines to points across the city, all running on their own schedules.

But the city-run DASH bus comes to the rescue.  They run every 10 minutes or less and they charge a ¢50 fare.  The DASH is a circulator bus, designed for short, local trips. They are meant to be an alternative to walking, not driving.

A circulator bus should have a simple, easy-to understand route. Especially for visitors, this is very important to earning ridership. The downtown DASH system is not simple nor is it easy to understand.  It lacks legibility. Here’s the better part of the system map.

Screen Shot 2015-05-24 at 6.30.18 PM

Let’s set up a hypothetical.  A visitor to Downtown LA is facing an 8 minute walk that could be accomplished in 5 minutes by taking the bus.  The visitor encounters a map at a bus stop.  If it takes a minute and a half to figure out what bus to take, transit now takes 5 minutes of in-vehicles time + 1.5 minutes spent figuring out the system.

Even worse, what the bus the visitor wants to take comes to the stop before he/she has figured out whether it’s the right bus?  Often, bus operators don’t have time to give directions, so its entirely possible that the visitor misses his or her bus.

Here’s a simple way to gauge how easy-to-understand a bus route is:  Can you describe the route verbally?  A good example of this in LA would be:

Q: Where does the #20 bus go?

A:  It goes on Wilshire.  From Westwood to Downtown.

Obviously, not every bus route can stick to one street.  But they can stay relatively simple.

What would happen if we apply this test to the DASH bus?

Q:  Where does the DASH D go?

A: It goes up Olive to 12h, right on 12th, left on Hill, then right on Olympic, up Main, right on First, then to Union Station.

This is not easy to remember, especially since the return route is different because of the one-way streets downtown.Screen Shot 2015-05-24 at 7.06.51 PM

The worst offender of the DASH B, which meanders through Chinatown in order to serve the Chinatown Gold Line station and the commercial district on Broadway at the same time. I suspect that on this part of the route, the DASH B is not competitive with brisk walking.

These winding routes aren’t just confusing, they also slow the bus down.  In addition to simply having more distance to cover, turns add delays to the route.  A simple rule of thumb is that a right turn takes 3 times as much time as going straight through an intersection.  A left turn takes 5 times as much time.

The only crystal-clear Downtown route is the DASH F, which could be described as more or less running down Figueroa, and then looping around the USC campus.

An example of highly legible downtown circulator routes can be found in Santa Barbara.  These are small-ish trolley-shaped buses that serve a largely tourist clientele. It’s a smaller city than Los Angeles, but the comparison works.


Excluding turn-around loops, the two routes could be described as:

  • State Street
  • Cabrillo Highway

It could not be simpler.

How could this apply to the DASH shuttles?  Instead of meandering through Chinatown, a bus could simply run up and down Broadway or Spring Street.

Or a single DASH shuttle that served 7th Street all the way across downtown could be easily memorable, even to tourists and new transit riders.

Instead of simplifying the current system, the powers that be have decided to spend $270 million on the downtown streetcar project to serve local trips between downtown points.  The streetcar is projected to run every 7 minutes during peak period, every 10 minutes midday, and every 15 minutes at night, and will, generally, act as a local circulator.

For far less money, a studied restructure of DASH routes and an investment in individual route branding could create a far better improvement to Downtown circulation. Perhaps, DASH buses could be painted in a different color for each route and wrapped with unmistakeable route information.

Imagine a green bus with “LOS ANGELES ST. DASH” and “UNION STATION ↔ FASHION DISTRICT” in large print emblazoned on all sides of the vehicle, along with a simple stick map.

Our hypothetical visitor would be able to figure where that bus is going, very quickly.

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