How does wayfinding on the CTA compare to BART?


Plentiful signage at this CTA station makes it easy to figure out which station you’re at and where you need to catch your train. Photo by Mickey B. All other images courtesy of the author.

This guest post was contributed by Rachel Hyman, a senior at the University of Chicago who studies geography. A resident of Hyde Park, she’s made it her mission to see every corner of Chicago, by bike if possible. In her free time, she edits the literary blog Banango Lit.

Almost all of my experience with urban public transit has been in Chicago, so I was excited to come out to San Francisco for a summer internship and scope out their system. to get to work I take BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), essentially a subway that runs within San Francisco and in the East Bay. In Chicago, I live in Hyde Park, which doesn’t have great access to the ‘L’, so it’s nice to live closer to a train station here. Just last week, though, I had an experience which soured me a bit on BART.


BART system map.

Wayfinding, which Grid Chicago has discussed before, is a series of cues that help travelers orient themselves in space to make a journey. Put succinctly, BART has poor wayfinding. The system includes five lines running in two directions. All the lines either go towards various places in the East Bay, or south towards SFO Airport/Millbrae on the peninsula. The lines, which are colored red, orange, yellow, green, and blue, all run on the same track within San Francisco.

When you get down into a BART station, there are a few hanging signs that point you towards the East Bay on one side, and SFO/Millbrae on the other side. Oftentimes when I go into a station I have to hunt for the overhanging sign to check which side of the platform I’m supposed to be on. In Chicago, in contrast, there are plenty of signs mounted on the columns (e.g. O’Hare & Forest Park on the Blue Line) that make it easy to figure out where you need to wait.


Overhanging signs on BART are not prominent and are few and far between.

Not only does the dearth of wayfinding signs on BART make it tricky to determine where you need to wait for your train, it also makes it hard figure out whether you have to get off the train. I’ve found that Chicago takes care of this issue pretty well. When the ‘L’ train I’m riding pulls up to a platform I can easily identify where I am based on the signage outside. In San Francisco I’m forced to rely on the conductor announcing the stop (often hard to hear), or simply counting how many stops there have already been. This is a suboptimal system, particularly for visitors who are unfamiliar with the transit system.


It’s often hard to tell what station you’re at when the train pulls up.

Another difficult aspect of wayfinding on BART is that all trains look the same. Despite the system map marking lines with different colors, there are no indications on the trains themselves as to which line they are or destination they’re heading to, unlike in Chicago. Instead, when a train approaches, overhanging electronic signs that are spaced out along the platform list the ultimate destination of the train.

My unfortunate experience last week was that I got down to the platform just as a train was approaching and the sign read “Daly City.” Daly City is south on the peninsula, and that was the train I needed to get on. However, the destination points of each line — Daly City, SFO, Fremont, etc. — hadn’t quite fixed themselves in my mind after only a month in town. By the time I had sorted out my mental map enough to figure out that it was the right train, it was already pulling away. Needless to say, I was annoyed with myself but another Daly City train came shortly after that.


A BART train heading to Daly City, like the one Rachel missed due to San Francisco’s subpar wayfinding.

I take BART every day, and I still find the wayfinding to be lacking. Wayfinding is important for both residents and visitors to orient themselves, get where they’re going and, by extension, feel comfortable in a place. Chicago’s transit system may have its share of problems, but it’s legions better than the BART in the wayfinding department.

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11 thoughts on “How does wayfinding on the CTA compare to BART?”

  1. What about Muni Metro, San Franciso’s light rail system? That would be more comparable to Chicago’s ‘L’. Ignoring the fact that BART is heavy rail and not commuter rail, I see it as more like Metra in that it connects the city center with surrounding suburbs.

    1. Yes, the MUNI is perhaps a better comparison to the L. It’s better in the wayfinding department at least–the different lines were clearly matched up to colors and letters (you could tell when a train was blue and N, for instance). Though I’d say the MUNI shares the not-knowing-which-station-you’re-pulling-into problem.

      When I first arrived, it was confusing to have two distinct train systems under the same roof (you can often get on BART and on MUNI at the same locations), whereas in Chicago the L and the Metra are kept more separate.

  2. How long have you lived in Chicago? How long has it been since you were a tourist, or have you lived here all your life? I’m curious as to how your level of familiarity with Chicago’s geography affected wayfinding on CTA.
    I’ve taken five subway transit systems: Chicago, New York, DC, Boston, and Atlanta (which barely counts.) My memory of Chicago from tourist days is old and clouded by the last 8 years of familiarity, but I remember it comparing favorably against New York. New York’s problem with wayfinding, though, is an extension of the complexity that makes it a better system, as it has more lines covering more territory with more connecting links. Boston is a mess that makes no sense at all. DC is pretty good, and Atlanta has two lines that form a cross and that don’t go anywhere anyway.
    I’ve never taken BART and only been to San Francisco once, but judging by the map it looks like an extremely unnecessary mess of overlapping lines that, when boiled down, don’t really go that many places.

    1. All the lines overlap because they all need to cross the bay via the trans-bay tube, a tunnel underneath the San Francisco Bay. My guess is that another tube would be prohibitively expensive. That being said, there is no reason why all the lines plus Muni need to go under Market Street.

      1. The tunnel explains why they run together crossing the bay. It doesn’t explain anything about why they run together on the peninsula. From the looks of it, you have four lines running on one track, and that one track is the only track on the peninsula. There’s not as much redundancy on the Oakland side, but there’s still some.

        1. I don’t think there’s redundancy in the lines. There’s a higher frequency of trains on the 4-line segments, and those 4-line segments are likely in the busiest parts of the network. So the busy parts need a higher frequency.

          1. I spent a summer out there one year and my experience confirmed this. The overlapping segments of the system carry much more traffic and really do need the more frequent service. Depending on where I was going, I often used more than one system on a trip, such as AC Transit in the East Bay, connecting to BART or Muni.

    2. As an adult I’ve lived in Chicago 3 years, and I’ve been taking public transit that whole time. You’re very correct that familiarity with the city’s geography helps you navigate by public transit. Because of Chicago’s grid system, it’s much easier to get on a bus that runs on a major artery and get where I need to, or figure out where I need to get off the L. I got cardinal directions for certain parts of San Francisco fixed in my head, but streets that I told myself headed E-W were actually more like SE-NW. SF just seemed to have less of a straightforward grid. And yes, BART doesn’t have great coverage. It’s supplemented by a few other systems: the MUNI metro and buses, and the Caltrain, which goes down the peninsula.

    3. I grew up in Chicago, lived away for a while and moved back. Wayfinding here is much better in some respects and worse in others compared to the 1970s and 80s. Older subway stations always had directional signage at the various entrances at mezzanine level, so you knew whether you were exiting at the NE corner of the intersection, for example. Over the years, as stations have been modernized, or damage has been repaired, many of those directional signs have been lost.

      The station rehabs of recent years have often omitted those useful bits of signage, making stations more confusing for anyone who isn’t extremely familiar with them. In a few of the most recent, someone obviously got a club and started including the directions at exits again. Yeah!

      Back in the 1970s and 80s, CTA signage was more minimal, making it less useful and more confusing for occasional users.

      I agree about Boston’s wayfinding being a mess. NYC does quite well, except for the occasional lapse in announcements about trains running express. Once missed my stop at 86th because I got no indicator of an express run, ended up going to 125th and having to catch a local back.

      I haven’t ridden BART much in recent years, but I never had any trouble navigating that system.

  3. Sing it! I _still_ get confused about what stop BART is pulling up to when I’ve stopped paying attention at times. And let’s not get started on the “ok, I need the red line” that everyone does the first time they take BART and that helps 0%.

  4. Rachel, if you’re still in SF, I would be interested in your opinion about the new signs that are being installed at Powell Station at the platform level, and the signs on the concourse level at Powell, Montgomery, and Embarcardero (as opposed to the older style, such as at 16th or 24th St Mission).

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