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Mental Maps for Getting Around


We all make mental maps of our well-worn pathways: the commute to work, the afternoon dog walk, the route to the grocery store.  You can mentally picture those routes right now, right?


A slightly derisive mental map depiction.

Courtesy of j b kyrgier

A big challenge in getting those of us who drive most of the time to switch to walking, biking, and transit is helping them them create mental maps of those more sustainable modes.  That's part of the reason that the Bureau of Transportation publishes so many maps on how to get around by walking, biking, and transit.  We are trying to help people create their own mental maps of their transportation options.

I started thinking about this after reading a post by Jarret Walker, who writes the blog Human Transit (he's also a transit planner among other professional pursuits).  He's applauds Toronto's new transit map because it brands high frequency service in a clear, easy-to-follow manner (much as TriMet already does to an extent). 

However, the big point that stuck out to me (and to Walker) was this (emphasis mine):


"I also like the emphasis on naming the lines after the streets they run on. If your city is fortunate to have long streets with a single streetname, this kind of naming helps people think of the transit line as an intrinsic part of the street itself -- exactly the kind of simplification that we need if people are ever going to rely on their transit networks the way they rely on their street networks -- not just as mobility tools, but as ways of organizing their idea of their city."

Could we do this in Portland?  And not just for transit but for bicycling and walking?

I think so.  We already have trails that are not defined by a number or some other identifier.  Most everyone can picture the Springwater Trail or Tom McCall Waterfront path.  We all know what we're talking about when we say the Hawthorne Bridge. 

In particular, I believe our developing Bike Boulevard/Neighborhood Greenway system could really benefit from this type of branding.  Informally a lot of people call a street they bicycle on by it's name, for example the recently developed Going Bike Boulevard.  But there is not a cohesive identity advertised for the Going Street project or others.  I want to change that, but would love a little help.

If you've got some ideas for branding our next generation of bikeways, drop me an email (scott[dot]cohen[at]portlandoregon[dot]gov) or leave a comment.


Add a Comment


Jonathan Maus

August 24, 2010 at 9:52 AM

We should absolutely do this Scott! I've been mentioning this to anyone who will listen ever since riding on Vancouver BC's excellent bike boulevards.

The "cohesive identity" you mention is the sort of thing PBOT is working to do with the Clinton Bike Boulevard Enhancement project.

All the bike boulevards could have "topper" signs, and signs riding onto existing street name signs at large arterial crossings.

the more branding the better.


Scott Cohen

August 25, 2010 at 9:16 AM


I love the topper signs, both for people walking and biking to identify the route (more unique than the soon-to-be ubiquitous sharrow) and for people driving, so they are more aware the bike boulevard/neighborhood greenways (they can begin making pieces of mental maps...).

I'm looking forward to Clinton Street's debut. It's been a while, but I think like many other innovative street projects we've done in Portland - once we clear through all the red tape we'll have a precedent set and be able to move forward more rapidly on other similar projects. That's my hope, at least.


Steve Hoyt-McBeth

August 30, 2010 at 12:29 PM

The idea of branding the bus lines with the street that they run on is interesting, but unless you do away with the route number, I am not sure what you gain - and by losing the current system I think you lose something as well.

For example, I ride the #8, which runs down 15th Avenue for quite a long ways. Its current name is "#8-Jackson Park/OHSU." Now I'm ashamed to admit as a fervent student of all things Portland that I don't know where or what Jackson Park is, but I would say that the current name does let new riders know that bus goes to OHSU, a major regional destination.

If you changed the name to "#8-15th Avenue" I don't think you gain much, because you still have to know what the route number is to access info via Transit Tracker or soon-to-be nonexistent print schedule.

If you did what Boulder has done, and got rid of the route number and simply named the route "15th Avenue" that would help folks in remembering the route name, but can you imagine what an unreadable mess the system map would be with all of these long names replacing a very short and abstract line number? And what about calling transit tracker when you don't know the stop id number? How would you enter "Powell" or "Foster" easily?

BTW, I think Boulder's bus naming system "Hop, Skip, Jump, etc." isn't a huge improvement because the names are an abstraction and don't provide the prospective rider with any useful information.

I love the idea of branding the neighborhood greenways, however.

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