23 April 2009

TriMet's Iconic Past: Service Sector Symbols

2042.In the last entry, I mentioned something about TriMet Service Sectors. That brought that though to the fore, and I decided I wanted to obsess on that for just a posting.

One of the things I was a big fan of, and that I was sorry to see go, was the idea of color-and-symbol coded service areas. I don't remember when this was inagurated – I think it goes back to the 1970s, when the Transit Mall (known on maps as The Portland Mall) was originally constructed.

It was a great and playful way of organizing a district of hundreds of square miles and about one hundred routes, both regular service and rush hour service, into big chunks making it really unnecessary to know a priori where a route was to find its terminals on the Mall.

Like a big, crazy pie, with all slices converging on downtown Portland, the greater Portland Area was divided into seven sectors, with a corresponding color/symbol icon – each symbol reflecting on the Portland area's connection with nature.

The sectors worked out thusly, from the NW and going clockwise, between loosely-defined boundaries:

The Red Fish sector covered NW and N Portland, from approximately the crest of Forest Park east to a line more or less alone Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd/Union Avenue. Locations in this area included Saint Johns, the Portsmouth area and the North Portland Peninsula, the trendy Northwest district, the and the Northwest industrial district.

The Purple Raindrop (no, not "Purple Rain", no joy for Prince fans here) covered an arc from approximately Martin Luther King Jr Blvd to a line more or less parallel to and a little south of Northeast Sandy Blvd. Destinations in this area included Portland International Airport, Parkrose, Hollywood, Woodlawn, the golf courses along Columbia Boulevard, Rocky Butte, and classier Northeast areas such as Irvington and Alameda.

The Blue Snowflake had at its northern boundary that aforementioned line south of Sandy and swept down to a line more or less between Burnside and Southeast Stark Street. East of what would eventually be I-205, the area covered everything from Burnside/Stark up to the Columbia River, all the way out to Gresham. With the advent of MAX service and the establishment of a full-service Transit Center at Gateway, all Blue Snowflake routes terminated there and were removed from thier Mall stops, those stops becoming local service/Union Station service.

The Brown Beaver sector served in the main the working-class SE part of Portland, specifically that part south of the Burnside/Stark corridor and east of the Sellwood/Moreland area, extending also all the way out to Gresham; essentially any route that was going to SE but wasn't eventually bound for Milwaukie and points south.

Like the Red Fish, The Green Leaf sector covered an area on both sides of the Willamette River, serving Johns Landing, Sellwood, the eastern 2/3rds of Lake Oswego, Milwaukie, the suburban corridor along McLoughlin Blvd including Jennings Lodge, Oak Grove, River Road and such, and also such SW desinations as Tualatin and Wilsonville. If you wanted to go to Marylhurst College or Canby, you boarded a Green Leaf route.

The Yellow Rose took in the neighborhoods of inner and outer SW Portland, such as Hillsdale, Multnomah Village, Garden Home, the Vermont Street area, the Washington Square Mall, PCC Sylvania and Lewis and Clark College, and outlying communities like King City, Tigard, and Sherwood. It also served suburban SW areas that lay, generally speaking, south of Scholls Ferry Road.

To complete the circle, the Orange Deer sector took in everything from about Scholls Ferry Road north to the Tualatin Mountains (Forest Park). Everything along the TV Hwy/Canyon Road corridor and the Sunset Hwy was in this district. This took in Beaverton, Cedar Hills, Cedar Mill, the Cornell Road corridor, Bethany, Tanasbourne, Aloha, Hillsboro, and Forest Grove. If you were bussing it to the Zoo or OMSI (when it was up on the hill), you took the 63-Washington Park, from the Orange Deer shelters.

The system changed from time to time. As mentioned, when the MAX corridor was developed, the Gateway Transit center became the Blue Snowflake terminal, and that stop was removed from Mall shelters. But in its heyday, the Portland Mall had four of each stop down Southwest Fifth and Sixth Avenues:

Shelters on Southwest Fifth had terminals for Brown Beaver, Green Leaf, Yellow Rose, and Orange Deer sectors, or those routes going south and east or south and west;

Shelters on Southwest Sixth had terminals for Purple Raindrop, Blue Snowflake, and Red Fish sectors, or those routes going north and east or north and west. There were still two terminals to the block, and the unused terminal was used for local stops and buses going to Union Station. After Blue Snowflake left the Mall, those stops were also used for Mall arrivals only.

Sometime between 2000 and 2002, the sector symbol icons were gradually phased out, sadly. I say sadly because I thought they were chaming and not quite as dated as whoever updated the TriMet look thought they were. They also gave a level of usefulness and intitutiveness to the system that I don't quite find with the current system's graphic treatment. They were so interesting that, for a time, each in its own way, Salem and Eugene's transit systems implemented thier own color/area codeing, Eugene's LTD actually going as far as creating thier own color/icon match (my favorite was the Purple Rhododendron).

TriMet may have moved on from this, but I still fondly remember it ... and miss it a bit. It was fun and creative ... quintessentially Portland.

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Alan Bluehole said...

That system always baffled me, but then, I wasn't a resident when it was implemented. I liked the symbols, but never understood what I was supposed to "do" with them. I felt safer just knowing route numbers. I guess I'm boring.

Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

Aw, well, not boring, no, you just think a different way.

I look at it this way: some people are more visual thinkers, others feel more comfortable in terms of words and numbers instead of pictures. From what I know of you, you deal primarily in words and lexical symbols so knowing the system in terms of routes and numbers makes a great deal of sense. I'm sure a little left/right brain works in there somehow.

And there's another beauty of this graphical layer. You could enjoy the symbols (because they were indeed righteous) without having to use them if you grokked the system on some other level. They were fun.

Anonymous said...

It was 2002 when they started de-emphasizing the symbols and they went away completely when the mall closed. Also, here is the original symbol info page.

Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

Oh, that's brilliant. Thanks for the reference. I should have thought about the Wayback Machine.

I only wish it went back farther than 1996. Of course, TM might not have had a web page before 1996 ...

fellene said...

The way the symbols worked is that it gave you a visual way to sort the 80 routes that converged on SW 5th and 6th streets in downtown Portland. If you knew what part of town you were going to, you could simply head down to the Mall, lookf for the symbol and find your bus on the map in ths shelter.

Now that the new mall is in place, each shelter has the numbered routes but there is no discernable pattern or way to sort among the routes.

The symbols were great for the non-literate, visual thinkers and immigrants.

As a TriMet graphic designer in charge of the system and mall maps when the symbols were being phased out, I struggled mightily to keep them.

The final effect of the decision is being felt today.

Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...


You, friend, are one of my heroes.

You summed up the function of the system really well, of course. I always thought it was the iconic design of the sector symbols themselves - abstract but recognizable, but clear and efficient that made them work so well.

What I enjoyed the most was the cleverness. There was one clever and engaging bit in each one.

I enjoyed the way the fish curled into a circle.

I loved the way the stem on the leave curled-just so.

My eyes were constantly drawn to the way the inner points on the snowflake became inner details while not being contiguous to the figure, but was still a unified whole.

I liked the way the rear leg of the beaver was delineated from the rest of the body by a tapering space, when all other spaces sayed constatnt.

The way the Purple Raindrops marched down the symbol in stately array reminded me of a trellis.

The deer and the rose were simply note-perfect.

I would have given something wholly unholy just to be given the chance to do that sort of work.

It was perfection, and I think the system loses something by letting it go. Oh, the new system is very graphically accomplished, and I adore the new rail system maps.

But I don't think I'll ever get over losing these old friends.

My hat, such as it is, will always be doffed to you.

Anonymous said...

Wow, thanks for finding and posting this. I've been looking (on and off) for images of the original symbols for a few years now, and was always unable to find them.

They were fun, and I loved them as a kid. Being downtown on the mall was like playing a board game or something. Although I always did have a hard time "seeing" the leaping Salmon one... My eye always wanted to focus on the empty space at the middle of the symbol.

Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

Yeah, they were charming. I saw no reason to get rid of them, but then, I'm not in charge of TriMet's graphic identity. With that I were.

Actually, being on the Mall these days is still like playing a a game … but the game is more, say, like TRON. The new shelters are spiffy and shiny and futuristic, but I miss the old ones. They had class.

RE: the empty space at the middle, I understand. Circular designs tend to make us want to focus on the center of them. That said, I thought it was cleverly done, but not everyone sees theings the same way.

Anonymous said...

Oh, absolutely cleverly done. I just think it was a matter of being able to see it or not... sort of like those ridiculous "if you stare at it, you can see a pirate ship!" optical illusions that were popular at malls a while back. I never could see those, either... :(

There is still at least one of the old shelters (albeit imprisoned behind cyclone fencing) on 5th, I noticed today. I feel like I should snap some pics before it's gone. I loved those old shelters too, but man do I remember that people use to pee in them like crazy. The new ones are nice, but "slick" in a modern kind of way, which I guess is no real criticism at all. The old ones did provide better shelter from the weather, though.

Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

Oh, that left-over old-style shelter, I think you'd enjoy knowing, they're keeping that there, and turning it into a little cafe, believe it or not!

Cafe Viale, they're going to call it …


Just the sort of thing the kind-of-sterile new look needs.

rsb97060 said...

I think the image overhaul (new logo and color scheme, elimination of sector symbols) was unnecessary. At least Fred announced yesterday that he will retire in June. Hopefully this sort of nonsense will at least slow down.