RTD has a great network of frequent bus routes that are much more convenient than the average bus line. Unfortunately, most people can’t tell the frequent routes from the regular ones. A map highlighting the best lines can help, but combining the map with a special brand for the routes shown on it would be even better.

Something like this, perhaps:

Conceptual branding scheme for RTD’s frequent bus network, by Dan Malouff. Click image for larger version.

Buses are such natural advertising tools that we frequently cover them in ads. Sometimes we even use buses to advertise for light rail. Why not advertise which bus lines are the best ones?

After all, the only people looking at bus maps are people who have already decided to take the bus. To convince new people, you have to show them how easy it is.

That’s the concept behind Boulder’s fabulously successful Community Transit Network. Instead of giving each bus route a hard-to-remember number and a paint scheme identical to every other bus in the city, the most important routes get unique names and paint jobs, like DASH and JUMP.

As a result, Boulder’s best bus lines visually stand out, which makes them easy to identify, and therefore much less intimidating to new riders. Since Boulder started switching over to this system in the late 1990s, ridership on its bus network has shot up.

Likewise, Denver already has one great example of this: the 16th Street mall shuttle. There are thousands of people in Denver who never ride any bus except that one. They’re willing to ride the shuttle because it’s easy to understand where the shuttle goes, and the shuttle is unmistakable compared to other buses. There’s no ambiguity, no possibility of accidentally getting on the wrong bus and ending up in an unfamiliar part of town.

Of course there are other factors at work in both Boulder and on 16th Street. Free fares for CU students in Boulder and for everyone on 16th Street are obviously a huge incentive. Nobody would say unique branding is the sole reason the mall shuttle or the SKIP are so popular. But part of their success is clearly how easy they are to use, and branding is part of that.

Lots of other cities around the country use special brands in a similar way.

Los Angeles has red premium buses, versus orange regular ones. Washington, DC has blue premium routes, versus red normal ones. Charlotte, NC uses white and blue for both, but gives its express buses a slightly different look than its regular ones. The list goes on and on.

The point of special branding isn’t so much to help existing bus riders, but to educate non-riders about the system. It’s to show the guy sitting in his car on Colfax how convenient the bus is. Instead of being forced to memorize its route number, figure out the difference between the 15 and the 15L, and then look up its schedule, all that guy has to remember is to catch the special-looking bus, which comes every few minutes.

Sometimes transit agencies with special brands have to use a non-branded bus on a branded route, or vice versa. That’s OK, because once people start riding the system they quickly become sophisticated enough to identify which routes work for them, regardless of how they’re painted. The key is that advertising special routes with their own brand teaches new people where to start.

There are tons of things RTD could do to improve transit service, but most of them are expensive. Things like bus lanes, signal prioritization, and streetcars are all great, and should all be on the table in Denver, but in the mean time, simple and effective improvements like better branding for the best routes could also help, and are essentially free.

RTD buys new buses every couple of years. Starting with their next order, they should have some of them painted with a new brand. Over time, as the bus fleet turns over, all the frequent routes can be given the newly branded buses. If rolled out over time, cost to RTD above its normal operations would be zero.

Even if the benefit were small, the fact that this can be done for free makes it worthwhile. But in all probability, the benefit is sizable.