At least taking the bus is getting easier.
At least taking the bus is getting easier. Metrobus promotion, 2001

Branding is a key feature of any new product or service. Apple and Google are great at simple, catchy names that transform their original meanings to make something esoteric sound catchy and cool (i-anythings, the Lollipop/KitKat/Jellybean operating systems, etc.). Obviously this holds true for enhanced bus services as well, as just about everyone from government agencies, non-profit organizations, and think tanks provide some level of guidance on do’s and don’t’s.

In 2001, the Hamburger Public Transit Association (HVV) launched a new bus network, the Metrobus Network, designed to be an extension of the already extensive rail network of subways (U-Bahn), commuter rail lines (Regional Bahn), and services that fall in the between those two (S-Bahn and AKN-Linien). The idea was to consolidate and alter routes to provide a guaranteed high frequency (10 minutes or less between 6am and 9pm weekdays, but with service lasting between 4:30am and midnight) on routes that both connect to the downtown (or to rail lines to downtown), or that provide tangential service between the often radial rail lines. Incidentally, the highest-passenger count bus line in Europe is one of these Metrobus lines (the M5, with over 60,000 boardings per day 2014).

Metrobus M5 has the highest daily ridership in Europe. Bi-articulated buses with 3-4 minutes headways. Courtesy NahverkehrHamburg.
Metrobus M5 has the highest daily ridership in Europe. Bi-articulated XXL buses with 3-4 minutes headways. Courtesy NahverkehrHamburg.

The big branding question then becomes: how does the HVV show that this is not a standard bus service, but rather a bus service that borders the quality, reliability, and connectivity of rail? The name Metrobus was the first step. Not that this is a unique name, but the word “Metro” invokes ideas of rail-like quality. The next step was the numbering system: lines 1-15 lead into the city or to a local neighborhood center where a passenger can usually take a train to the city; lines 20-27 provide tangential connections. To show the customer that this was not the standard bus, the “Metrobus” name shared the space with the end station.

"Metrobus" sharing space with the end station. Photo: Christian Hinkelmann
“Metrobus” sharing space with the end station. Photo: Christian Hinkelmann

This led to difficulties in determining the direction of the buses, so the “Metrobus” was replaced with an “M” in front of the route numbers in December 2014. The 4 became the M4, similar to many express bus lines adding an “X”. HVV originally wanted to add this at the roll-out, but technologically the “M” was not possible.

M3. Photo Christian Hinkelmann
M3 Metrobus. Photo: Christian Hinkelmann

Since then, there have been many critiques of the “M,” especially from the sight-impaired community. The “M” was often confused for “11,” so that the “M3” was confused with the “113.” The city council last month voted to eliminate the “M” in this December’s annual transit update when all route changes are made.

Will this cause confusion? Will there be another branding effort? Probably not, and probably not. 15 years after the roll out, passengers are familiar with the fact that any bus route under 30 is a Metrobus route. A study was in the works to determine the effectiveness of the “M,” however with the political decision to eliminate it, that study has been cancelled. Berlin introduced the “M” in front of the route number immediately, potentially owing to the lack of complaints abou it. Munich does not have the “M,” sticking to numbering their Metrobuses 50-60, 62 and 63 and coloring the lines on the map orange. The bigger question is how much the Metrobus brand matters to passengers in deciding which route to choose, to city planners and developers looking for opportunities for to build, to new residents deciding where to live, or to potential riders who may choose other modes. There are definitely other ways to brand a premium bus service, but the benefits of branding an existing service are likely not as great as a brand new service.