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Lost and found on Vancouver's transit system: The art of TransLink wayfinding

Metro meets TransLink's mysterious wayfinders. They get you from point A to B.

Meet the wayfinders.

They're rarely seen, but their handiwork is everywhere.

This is the behind-the-scenes team at TransLink that quietly puts a lot of thought into making sure you rarely need to think when you're on the move in transit.

And if they've done their jobs right, getting lost should be a rarity.

The small unit — just two planners and two graphic designers — have a mighty task: orchestrating all the information, design and placement of every sign and map in the transit system of stations, exchanges, stops and vehicles.

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Their goal is to give users the right information at the right place at the right time, “but no more and no less,” said Phil Kehres of the team’s planning half. “You don’t want to overwhelm people.”

Finding your way your first time at a transit hub or transfering during a bustling rush hour can be a stressful task. But research shows that good passenger environments, with good wayfinding and comfortable places to wait, will help grow ridership and revenue. After all, you’re not going to trust transit planners if you often feel confused or lost — and that means less transit users.

Colours, arrows, language and how stations are named all play a role in what wayfinders call a system’s “legibility.” If the design is good, you might not even notice the assistance of wayfinding on your way from A to B.

“If it’s right, everybody goes about their daily business,” said Kehres.

Kehres is deeply passionate about the responsibility. He did his thesis project on wayfinding for his master’s planning degree, and when he travels, is always on the lookout for inspiration.

“All my pictures from Barcelona are of wayfinding,” he said.

TransLink began the task of harmonizing all wayfinding signs from buses to rapid transit as the 2010 Winter Olympics approached to ensure that visitors from every corner of the world knew it was all part of one system. For example, the Expo, Millennium and Canada Lines previously had distinct branding that needed unifying.

TransLink also helped Vancouver catch up to other cities with an iconic transit symbol by rolling out a big white "T" — always on a blue square — across its network.

And in 2012, its first dedicated wayfinding team was born.

On the design side of the team is Jada Stevens, who’s had a lifelong love of cities, maps and public transportation. “I’ve never driven!” she said.

Stevens frequented city-building forums online as early as 1999 (her brother founded the popular SkyscraperPage), and moderated one called SkyscraperCity, which now has more than a million members.

Her role: she helps design those signs you see at platforms, escalators and elevators and entrances and exits.

“And we still do print maps,” Stevens said proudly.

Yes, she realizes people often use Google Maps; but TransLink also offers its own curated maps for Vancouverites looking for more than simply traveling from point A to B.

At transit stations and exchanges, for instance, there are specific maps of what’s nearby — including sidewalk information — plus maps of bike paths and whether they’re paved or unpaved, and charts of different transit routes and modes.

“It’s the full snapshot,” she said.

Back in 2012, there were only 20 maps on the transit system. Now, there are 600, some of which are location-specific down to a station entrance.

Ensuring that level of precision requires relationship building, said Kehres. He was sad when he came across a sign last week that was missing an arrow. (It was still at the Main Street-Science World station as of this week. See if you can find it.)

These errors are rare, but he’s determined to eliminate them entirely.

“It’s not just working with managers and directors; it’s also about finding out who the people on the ground are,” said Kehres. For example, people who install maps or create bus stop signs.

“We need to ask what tools we can give them to do their job better so that everything ends up in the right place and creates the best customer experience.”

It’s extremely satisfying for the team when people get where they want to go.

Last December, Kehres saw someone at a station read a sign out loud, follow it, follow another and find the right platform they were looking for. He immediately tweeted the moment.

“I feel like a proud father watching his child succeed in life :D”

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