TriMet Transit System Signage

Making the Train

Mayer/Reed applies sustainable design approaches in its revamp of signage for Portland’s TriMet transit system.

After almost two decades working with Portland’s TriMet transit system on signage for its bus and light-rail lines, Mayer/Reed has learned some important lessons about providing information to public transit users.

The first two are perhaps not that surprising: build to last and anticipate change. Durability, timeless aesthetics, and maintenance-friendly designs are critical to a system that gets a lot of use (and abuse) and requires constant information changes.

Lesson three is not as obvious, but just as important, says Mayer/Reed principal Michael Reed: “Less is more.”

“The most important goal is to communicate well with users—to make sure they can navigate the complex world of transit information,” says Reed. “That means providing the right amount of information in the right places and meeting universal accessibility goals. Our work with TriMet has shown us that we can now communicate better with less—less materials, less signs, and less real estate.”

All three lessons are important pillars of a sustainable design approach that Mayer/Reed applied to the design of third-generation signage for TriMet. Reed believes sustainability is not just about using recycled materials or the hottest new “green” material out there.

“We underestimate some of the more obvious things that can make a system more ‘green,’” he explains. “For example, how much material are we using? Is it necessary? What is its longevity? Can we use technology in an appropriate way to provide changing information? Can we design in a modular, scalable way to reduce material costs and waste? These are the basic issues to consider when we’re trying to design responsibly.”

Materials: leaner is greener
Mayer/Reed considered all of these questions and more when they embarked on a project to design a new standard for TriMet signage, driven by a corporate identity change and the addition of a new light-rail line that included a segment running through TriMet’s showpiece downtown transit mall.

“You learn a lot when you have a 15-year history with a client and see the maintenance issues and how the products perform,” Reed says. That history provided insight on how to create a leaner, more sustainable system that considers durability, maintenance, costs, and, importantly, the way users are accessing transit information.   

When Mayer/Reed designed the system’s second-generation signage in 1996, porcelain enamel construction was the most durable option available. The workhorses of the system were 3-ft.-square pylons with display cabinets on three sides to carry print-based timetables, route maps, and station vicinity maps. TriMet, always a leader in universal accessibility, had also provided room on the fourth side for 2- by 3-ft. tactile station maps.

But 15 years later, users are accessing transit information in radically different ways. Electronic display technology has evolved to the point that information can be delivered in a much smaller footprint, allowing Mayer/Reed to substantially downsize the information pylons and rethink materials and media.

“We determined that due to rapidly evolving information technology and customer needs, we really only needed two display cases,” says Reed. “This allowed us to approach the design of station signage in a way that was not so space- and materials-consumptive.”

After walking TriMet through a discovery process, Mayer/Reed was able to streamline the information required on the pylons. TriMet also opted to delete the tactile maps, which had proven of limited value and use. Tactile station identity is now contained on a 6- by 9-in. plaque. Ultimately, the information pylons were reduced to a 6- by 12-in. footprint that minimizes clutter and obstructions on the crowded city streets.  

Mayer/Reed recommended cladding the new pylons in stainless steel because it’s easy to maintain—graffiti and other markings can simply be buffed off. It also keeps the structures looking light and airy, a welcome departure from the transit mall’s dark, heavy original design from the 1970s.  The new design also addresses vandalism concerns by making the area that is easiest to access, refurbish, and change out 7 ft. and below. The cladding is seamed both vertically and horizontally so that the pylons can be repaired in sections rather than requiring wholesale replacement.

Appropriate technology
To supplement information on the pylons and replace the cumbersome LED readerboards and CRT monitors of old, LCD monitors are mounted in nearby transit shelters to provide real-time next-train and emergency information—the information that contributes most to users’ perception that the system is reliable and safe.

TriMet architect Bob Hastings says the new LCD monitors demonstrate an effective use of the push/pull idea—selectively identifying the information that is pushed out vs. that which customers will pull down—to avoid information overload and minimize the number of signs needed.

“That’s one of the lessons of the sustainability movement,” Hastings says. “It’s about judging the appropriate level of technology to use and using it effectively.”

In just a 10-year period, Reed observes, TriMet has moved from clunky LED readerboards and CRT monitors to svelte LCD displays and a Transit Tracker system that allows users to access scheduling information from their cellphones and PDAs. “It poses some interesting questions about how to design to accommodate for a rapidly changing technology-based world.” 

Modularity and frontloading VE
The Mayer/Reed team knew that modularity and mass production-based manufacturing methods would be the key to designing a flexible, durable, maintenance-friendly, cost-effective, sustainable system.

Their strategy was to consider all of the elements needed for station signage, develop a system of interchangeable parts, and minimize the number of unique parts that comprise any sign configuration.

To ensure that TriMet could consider all the cost, material, and process choices up front rather than waiting until the fabrication phase—when it’s often too late to make major changes without increasing costs dramatically—Reed decided to frontload the value engineering process by bringing a fabrication consultant onto the design team.

“All material and process implications that affected design, performance, and cost were dealt with in schematic design, so TriMet could analyze the exact choices they were making,” explains Reed. “At the end of the design phase, instead of having a complex and sophisticated sign system 65% designed, we had it 100% designed in shop-quality design form.”

He praised TriMet for its willingness to participate in the new approach. “Most clients aren’t willing to pay for this rigor up front. But it really paid off in terms of cost, time, and energy savings. The project was on time and on budget, and there were virtually no costly change orders during fabrication.”

The process was rewarding, he adds, “because the more we as designers are empowered with fabrication knowledge, the better our work becomes.”

For TriMet, it resulted in what amounts to two different signage systems in one. Mayer/Reed developed two versions of the workhorse information pylon: one for the downtown transit mall and a more economical version for the stations outside downtown.

The transit mall includes 114 information pylons comprised of 14-ft.-tall, stainless steel-clad columns that support custom-extruded, anodized-aluminum sign cabinets with internally illuminated, push-through acrylic text. Internally illuminated pictograms at the top of each column distinguish light rail stops from bus stops. Overhead cantilevered sign cabinets include route destinations, station names, and direction of travel. Schedule and map cabinets are located at eye level. Station-area security features, including CCTV cameras and area lighting, are integrated into the pylon design.

Mayer/Reed designed a more cost-effective, stripped-down sign system for five commuter-rail stations (68 signs total) and the I-205 corridor (61 signs total). These signs have a 6-in.-diameter stainless-steel pipe column construction and feature blue and white sign faces rather than the transit mall’s black and white palette. Both systems employ the same sign cabinets, but the different signposts create unique looks.

Room to grow
Project fabricator Architectural Graphics Inc. (Virginia Beach) also geared its value engineering efforts toward sustainability, says Steve Finley, AGI vice president. Mayer/Reed’s design called for dividing the stainless steel cladding into sections with a butt-seam reveal, so that if a sign column is damaged, only the lower cladding needs to be replaced rather than the entire sign.

AGI redesigned the sign cabinet mechanism for relamping, using prop sticks similar to holding up a car hood rather than the gas-hydraulic struts originally specified. This saved money and will spare repair crews some hassle. Finley says the signs are also built to easily accommodate more energy-efficient LED lighting if TriMet decides to switch over from fluorescent lightbulbs.

Hastings is well pleased with a system that’s flexible, cost-effective, and scalable for future growth. “At the end of the day, we’ve created a highly rigorous, highly functional, very clear kit-of-parts system,” he says. Moreoever, “The public looks at it and says, ‘It’s gorgeous!’ And that speaks volumes for what we’re trying to do in this region.”

--By Jenny Reising, segdDESIGN No. 28, 2010


Client:  TriMet

Location:  Portland, Ore.

Design:  Mayer/Reed

Design Team:  Michael Reed (principal in charge), Rob Wente (project manager), Konstane Ulland (designer)

Consultants:  Jon Bentz Design (industrial design), Scott|AG (design team fabrication consultants)

Fabrication:  Architectural Graphics Inc.

Photos:  Bruce Forster

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