Greater City Providence

Sometimes, you need a map

Map by Jef Nickerson

Update 02/25: RIPTA has seen this post and read the comments. They are working on a map/better info system for the bottom of the bus tunnel.

The other night I was standing at the bottom of the bus tunnel waiting for a bus to take me up to Wayland Square. Problem is, though I live here, and though I know RIPTA really well, I wasn’t positive which buses went to Wayland Square. I knew the trolley went close, but I didn’t know if it was after the period it stops running to Eastside Market (I would have been ever so annoyed to get dropped off in the middle of Fox Point).

I know the 35 goes to Rumford and the 40 goes to Butler and both go through the square. I had forgotten about the 78 though, which runs to Pawtucket via East Providence.

I had my iPhone with me so I could have figured it out, and I could have just asked the driver if they went to Wayland Square, but wouldn’t it be nice if there was some way for me to know, like a map or something? The tunnel carries all the bus traffic to the East Side, so a map like the one I just whipped together above, is pretty easy to put together.

A simple map shows the casual transit user or city visitor which buses go where. All go to Thayer Street, easy. Three go to Wayland Square. One goes to Hope Village…

I threw this map together pretty quick. A more comprehensive map would have shaded areas showing points of interest such as Brown University, Hope Village, Wickenden Retail District, India Point Park… A little walking time marker between Eastside Market and Wayland Square would be useful to show that they are almost on top of each other. Another walking time from the trolley to India Point Park. I’d also include another panel with a list of destinations, which buses service them, and bus travel time to them. A time table for each bus would also be very very very helpful (but let’s not get crazy here).

Maybe I should just laminate this and tape it to the wall at the bus tunnel.

Jef Nickerson

Jef is Greater City Providence's co-founder, editor, and publisher. He grew up on Cape Cod and lived in Boston; Portland, Maine; and New York before settling in Providence. In addition to urbanism, Jef is interested in art, design, and ice cream. Please feel free to contact Jef if you have any question or comments about Greater City Providence.


  • Would you be interested in hosting a design competition for some kind of usable mapping system of the RIPTA system? Designers could submit solutions in a variety of media, so long as the solution detailed how the entire system could be mapped. Entries could be physical (as you’ve done) or virtual, or a hybrid. Solutions might be intended for the user waiting at a bus shelter, or someone at home on a computer.

  • Simple, elegant, informative.

    It is very good for the bottom of the tunnel but the real problem is Kennedy Plaza. It is so hard to find good clear information as to which buses go where and where they leave from that I find myself having problems every now and then even though I am a pretty competent RIPTA rider.

  • There is just something so awsome about a good transit map. Great job Jef. Put it up if you want, it can’t hurt.

  • A new map could use route colors that have meaning, examples – the 6 northbound routes via Charles Street could be blue, or the 9 west side routes green, or the 6 east side tunnel routes red. Others color clusters could identify northwest, southeast, south, or to Pawtucket. There could be others.

    Map scale is important because each bus stop or shelter should have a printed map. Cities with subways often will abstract or enlarge maps in the center where routes are most complicated, like Kennedy Plaza and Downtown. Map scale should include wider areas or the entire city region.

  • I’ve lived on the East Side for most of my life and never knew about the 78 going through Wayland Square. Jef, this is magnificent.

  • Wow. I stood at that tunnel a few days ago and felt the same way. I was so frustrated that I just walked.

  • Andrew: I might actually have an interesting prize to go with such a competition at some point in the not too distant future.

    AF: RIPTA does have a Kennedy Plaza map and I think you can find it in the “Intermodal” Station, but I agree, they need more and probably a slightly better map.

    Peter: I have another post in my head about identifying bus routes by clusters. For example, RIPTA has a printed “Walmart” schedule for Charles Street. There are 5 or 6 buses that go there. Service at least as far as Walmart is rather frequent, but you have to know the numbers of each bus, and where to catch them at Kennedy Plaza to take advantage of that. If all the buses were numbered say “C54” “C51” “C54” etc. then people would know all the “C##” buses go so far up Charles. Do that with other areas such as the Tunnel, Broadway, Elmwood… Then you can color code the map to go with the letter codes.

  • If there is a design competition/committee for bus users, then please let me know the details of it.

    Regarding virtual maps, I would suggest utilizing location based tech on mobile phones to drive the maps. See examples below.




    Catch the bus
    about an hour ago ·

  • With this branding thing, can’t they do any better than the “Walmart” bus? This only reinforces that busses are for poor people.

  • Jef, Your idea for combining number and letter codes along with colors makes a lot of sense.

  • I have Open MBTA on my iPhone. It uses the schedule to predict where the buses should be (not GPS). I showed it to some people at RIPTA and they found it interesting. It is a way to get bus tracking going ahead of having actual GPS units installed. Of course it is only as good as the buses ability to stay on schedule, if they fall off schedule, then it doesn’t work.

    There is desire at RIPTA to get some sort of iPhone (other platform) apps rolled out, they have the problem of staff and funds keeping them from prioritizing it right now. I think there are people in RIPTA who think it is important and I hope they will be able to move it closer to the front of the priority list.

    I have this site saved to my iPhone homescreen. I’m not sure who made it, but it is a list of the RIPTA bus schedules direct linked. So you don’t have to use the drop down menu on the site. When I’m heading somewhere, I use it to call up the schedule I need in my iPhone browser so that it is sitting there waiting for me when I need it.

    The fact that the commuter rail runs here, and there are a lot of people who commute between here and Boston, makes an app that would integrate MBTA and RIPTA attractive.

  • Peter: In addition to Walmart, they also have printed combined schedules for the Tunnel and for Olneyville. It just so happens that every bus on Charles Street runs to Walmart, and that is where they start splitting off Charles Street.

    The students at RISD actually find that schedule quite helpful as they go to Home Depot a lot, and the students that live at Mossashuck Square rely on it as well.

  • Maybe the proposed through bus the 11/99 BRT should its own color, perhaps red.

  • Instead of the Walmart bus, how about the “Charles Divide” or the “Silver Spring Split” with a subtitle “(Walmart/The Home Depot)”

  • While we’re on the topic, another great way to de-emphasize the “buses are for poor people” slant would be to make the solution NOT depend on iPhones. In fact, having an entirely technology-independent solution would be the best.

    This seems to get overlooked by a lot of tech-friendly developers, designers, and planners: Yes, making an iPhone app for your content/system/etc. is neat but it TOTALLY leaves out people who can’t afford to or don’t want to spend a huge amount monthly, plus a big chunk of cash up front, on a sexy, fragile Apple device.

    (I’m writing as someone whose phone doesn’t run complex apps, take video, etc | so while an SMS-based solution would work for me, it would be even better if fewer public services assumed that all citizens had access and unlimited funds to spend on cell phones or other devices.)

  • Install old fashioned signs printed on steel plate that can be bolted to poles at bus stops or to bus shelters using the same map as the electronic version.

  • Chris: I agree, we certainly need to ensure that people without the latest technology still have access to the information they need. In fact, I’d say we need the analog working well before we can even begin to work on the digital. Well functioning maps and signage will inform the technological solutions.

  • + design competition = zero budget communications

    In a place where hackers cobble together a (fabulously elegant) fix for a primary usability flaw in a public service’s website, budgets and internal staff CANNOT be the issue.

    RIPTA, just say, “Okay.”

  • I knew I had put it better. Here’s an excerpt from my post on

    —–> This is hacker culture at its finest. With expert knowledge and good intentions, programmers with no official capacity to make changes and without the knowledge or permission of RIPTA have vastly improved the usability of the RIPTA website. What’s not to like? The term “hacker” may scare you, but not me.

    Citizens, therefore, have taken a direct action and provided a service to their community. For this, get no reward other than the eternal thanks of anybody who needs to check RIPTA schedules often. They’ve done it as a civic good. And because THEY THEMSELVES USE RIPTA CONSTANTLY. Citizens taking action to improve the services they use. I’m thinking that’s a good thing.

    Which leads us to our final trend – the Providence culture. Geeks, hackers, makers, artists, enviro-greens, progressives and all the other subcultures that are so active these days have one thing in common: they (we) LURVE (the greater) Providence (region). They recognize its shortcomings, but have the knowledge and the capacity to improve things. So they do.

    To me, this is shockingly wonderful and a tremendously positive omen for the future. We need to find ways to unleash this power of well-qualified people taking direct action outside the official structure to rapidly and cheaply provide improvements to our infrastructure. It could be a hack for the RIPTA site. It could be a semi-regular citizens clean-up patrol. It could be anything and everything. <—–

    BTW, I'm almost certain that @ubercore is one of the parties responsible for

    Big ups!

  • Heard from RIPTA, they are taking a look at a creating a map for the bottom of the bus tunnel. Yay!

  • RIPTA still needs to open up it’s data, you can find RIPTA on Google Maps and the maps on their web page. If you try to use it won’t give you any data for transit, because RIPTA doesn’t have open data. MBTA opened it’s data, and that is what was used to create Open MBTA, it encourages those tech savvy(Hackers) to create even better apps or web pages. I don’t know what would be involved to do this but if they have the data on Google Maps it couldn’t be that much different.

  • That is a cultural change at RIPTA that they are feeling out right now. RIPTA is (by their own admission) not too up with the times as far as things like this are concerned.

    They’ve spent a lot of time working on the Metro Transit Study and now they need to change tack and work on implementing things.

    I have faith that they will figure out how they want to proceed soon, and they will open their data. It seems easy to those of us that understand these things, but they really need to wrap their brains around these things from a not tech savvy starting point. This is the year that they will be moving on these things.

  • Hello. I’m glad to see people find useful! I have some new features for it half implemented, which I hope to get out soon. First of which is locating the nearest bus stop to an address, and what routes serve it. This is based on RIGIS data, which is great, but not quite perfect. I’d really love to see the google transit data opened up, because that’s the only way to get actual stop times. RIGIS data only includes stop frequencies for a whole route, which is close. I’ve commented on RIPTA’s site, and started thinking about the best way to advocate for RIPTA to open that data up.

    I can’t speak to the non-technology-based solutions (which I agree are necessary) very well, but I’d love to be able to release a quick phone app that tells you “the nearest bus stop with a bus leaving soon is in THAT direction”. I’m not interested in replicating Google’s transit directions, but I think that’s a useful nugget of info to provide potential riders.

    I’ll have to set up some kind of wiki or comment section for rhodebus, to start gathering feedback and input.

  • Since it’s obvious they read this, I’d at least like to say that I feel as though most of us are moreso trying to help, both by suggestion, but even by physically creating things (again, great job Jef and others) rather than just criticize. I think we see the potential RIPTA offers both big and small and we have such pride in our metro. Transit is just so important for what I see the area becoming in years to come.

  • Some of this may be repetitive, but it’s worth restating.

    A “new map” whether it’s digital or hardcopy or both has the potential to substantially transform the RIPTA system, especially within the urban core cities. Many people now use the system as their primary travel mode, not just for commuting to work. Much of the RIPTA system is based on a commuter model that RIPTA inherited from the UTC in the mid 60s. That old system was mostly about getting from a residential neighborhood to downtown, whichever downtown that might be or significant shopping district.

    The current system and detail maps are graphically inconsistent. Seemingly random colors lead to mysterious gray boxes and details maps of disparate graphic vocabularies are confusing and hard to follow. As with Jef’s “Tunnel-North Main” map, a new system wide map could offer a fresh understanding of the system’s potential. Just as Jesse who has lived on the East Side most of his life never knew that the 78 went through Wayland Square other connections and linkages could be discovered and not just on the East Side but throughout the entire city.

    Both passengers and RIPTA stand to benefit from a new map and mapping system. Whether you log on to your computer or phone or stare at a paper map or sign a clear concise new map that offers an easy to follow big picture view of the entire system will help everyone. With this RIPTA could better understand how to adjust route paths to accommodate more passengers or create new transfer points; or adjust schedules to maximize frequency along multiple route corridors; or to create new routes. Perhaps other than creating new routes most of this could be achieved without taking on new expenditures. The likely result is improved service and increased ridership.

    A new map will offer a new perspective and understanding.

  • What you say about taking over UTC lines is what I’m getting at when I say there is a cultural change happening at RIPTA. Until last year, RIPTA’s mission was to take over failed bus lines, full stop. That’s it. All the lines failed a long time ago, but that was the entirety of their mission.

    The Metro Transit Study is the first step in RIPTA’s awakening. Realizing internally and projecting externally, that they are mobility managers, which is their new mission.

    There is some work that has to happen before we run with new graphics. Another problem I had recently with RIPTA was that I had to get from Federal Hill to Douglas Avenue. According to Google this is a 1.3 mile walk (via the Dean Street viaduct which is completely unwalkable). So the 50 goes to Douglas Ave. but by the time I walk to K. Plaza to get the 50, I might as well just walk to Douglas Ave.

    Well hey, whaddaya know, the 50 through routes to the 28 which runs up Broadway. I didn’t know that out of my head, but when I look at the 50 map, I see that. If the 50/28 just had one number, I would have known.

    Think of how the New York subway works for New Yorkers. People would ask me how I could deal with it, it is so confusing. And just looking at the map, yes, it is. But living in New York, I knew that I could get to the 7/V/F/E/G without too much effort. So someone who lives in another part of the city, giving me directions, starts with, “which line are you on?” I say 7/V/F/E/G and they say, “Oh, the F comes here, get on the F get off at…” No one knows the whole system, they know what goes near their house and near their work.

    In the RIPTA example, I know the buses that go up Broadway and Atwells, because they are near my house. So when looking to get to Douglas if I say that the 50/28 went their it would have been a light bulb moment.

    So before we re-invent the RIPTA graphics, we need to make those connections make sense. Most buses now run in pairs through K. Plaza, 11/99, 50/28, 26/40… But few people realize this. The first step is to make all those through routed buses have one number. And another benefit to that is, when someone approaches a list of RIPTA buses, there will be much fewer, if all the pairs are connected, the list of buses is much shorter and the system looks less confusing (and is less confusing).

  • Reminds me of a couple of things

    When two highway routes share the same stretch of road. Like Route 6 and Route 1o

    On the DC Metro where the Blue and Orange lines run on the same track but then split off in Virginia and Maryland. When you are downtown you can take either train but if you are heading out to the burbs you have look at the train itself.

    Both are handled graphically in the same way that your map does. I agree consolidation should be looked at but sometimes changing or eliminating a route number is more unsettling to riders than changing the map.

  • RIPTA put a link to on the front page of their site. Bookmark it on your smart phone for easy access to RIPTA schedules.

  • RIPTA Bus 35, according to the map above, is going to the South Attleboro MBTA Commuter Rail Station. Is RIPTA being allowed to bring their Bus 35 into the train station or is it just stopping before the Mass/Rhode Island State Line near the train station ?

  • That is something I would actually change if I were to laminate this and post it to the wall at the bus tunnel.

    South Attleboro station is 100 yards from the state line, and a RIPTA study found that the majority of people using that station are Rhode Islanders.

    RIPTA’s plan is to build a bus turn around on the state line (Mill Street in Pawtucket). At the turn around, there will be bus shelters and a pedestrian walkway will be constructed to connect the 100 yards into Massachusetts. The Metro Transit Study predicts this will be complete in 2011. Buses 35, 76, and 77 will serve this stop.

    Personally, I would prefer the buses simply drive 100 yards into Massachusetts and pick up at the Commuter Rail platform.

  • is easier to use than RIPTA’s website for schedule information, even if only using a computer online at home. It still would be nice to have a composite of all the lines in one map, regardless of the double numbered routes. Changes to route number could always be made later.

    The New York Subway map is a fluid document that has continually changed for decades. New lines are added or old one’s are deleted on a regular basis. Temporary information regarding construction or route diversions is also contained in the map.

    Even if New Yorkers don’t know every single line or station, they have a good overall sense of the entire system. They can glance at the map and understand how to get somewhere that they don’t normally travel to. The same would be the case for Rhode Islanders, if they had a new map and ridership would increase with that knowledge.

  • My only issue with is that it only lists the route numbers and not the names of the routes. It’s fine for the frequent riders who know the system pretty well, but not so great for those who don’t know the system well enough to know the route numbers.

  • “Sometimes, you need a map,” I could use one right now and we still don’t have one on September 11, 2010, paper or digital. Every map RIPTA has is a fragment of another map in different scales and styles. There’s no complete picture. I suggested on March 2 and will suggest it again we need a complete composite map with all routes (hard copy and digital). If routes change in a month| change the map in a month. For me at the moment a paper map would do fine.

  • RIPTA’s new website is pretty good now, but the maps for some routes are confusing, only showing scattered bus stop symbols with no route line. If you don’t know the route, you’ll have no idea what streets the route covers. Examples routes 51, 60, 64, 78 and there may be more. Maybe RIPTA is still working on the website and not all routes have been updated. It would be really helpful to have a composite map with all routes, which doesn’t exist.

  • Someone asked on Facebook about the lack of a system map and RIPTA said it is coming. The old system map needed updating and there was some talk of putting out an RFP for a complete redesign, I think they’re going for a simple update of the existing map for the time being, but they really should have put the old map up in the interim. Out dated or not, it is kind of a vital piece of information.

    As for the Google Maps without lines, not sure what’s up with that.

  • Called RIPTA customer service. They’re still working on the route maps to get them to the same standard with lines overlaid onto a google map background. It may take a little while to finish.

    They’re also working on a system map, however they are still having discussions as to what the final format will be.

    If you have any good ideas, please let their customer service desk know 401 784 9500, ext. 180. They are interested in getting comments and want to create the best map possible to make it easy for passengers to use the system.

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