Close reading public transit: Take me somewhere RAINIER, away from all this IKEA

By Harriet Staff

On his Human Transit blog, public transportation expert Jarrett Walker ("probably the only person with peer-reviewed publications in both the Journal of Transport Geography and Shakespeare Quarterly") takes on the messy, poetic beauty of poorly designed scrolling bus signage. You know you've done it: waiting at a bus stop, you squint down the road trying to make out the information on the LED display rolling toward you. Is that your bus? It might take a full minute to find out, once the display gets through touting the bus's "cleaner air," wishing you "season's greetings" or telling you to "get in the" (ten seconds later) "go lane." What else to do but pass the time with an extended literary interpretation of each line?

The examples above all come from Chicago's purveyors of famously awkward phrasing, the CTA (known for marketing itself for years with the very open-to-interpretation line "CTA: Take It!") But Walker is specifically interested in what can be gleaned from reading the banner on a particular bus route in Maryland:


With this bit poetry, he offers up a line by line reading, each of which is brilliant in its own way, but its the second line that blows wide open the possibilities for literary transit criticism.


In one line, the poem explodes into many dimensions of significance. Indeed, we could say that this is the line where the sign reveals itself as a poem.

First of all, the artificial separation of "Mount Rainier" into two lines, technically called enjambment, recalls some of the great suspenseful line-breaks of modernist poetry. William Carlos Williams, say:

So much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

In "RAINIER/IKEA" the slash (/) could be a meta-poetic reference. When we quote poems in the middle of a paragraph, we use the slash to indicate the line breaks ("So much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow ...") So the slash used mid-line in poetry signals a winking inversion of that convention. As in many arts, postmodern consumers know they're looking at an artifice, so the artwork gains credibility by saying "I know I'm just a poem," or whatever. The mid-line slash could be a clever way of doing that.

Has any punctuation mark become as meaningless as the slash? In signage it can mean 'or' (as when it separates two alternative destinations served by branches), or it can separate two descriptions of the same thing, or it can mean "between" as in "from one of these to the other."  Here, the poem doesn't let on what it means. Only patient contextual research has established that the relevant meaning here is "between."  This bus runs from Mount Rainier to Ikea, or from Ikea to Mount Rainier.

Still, the ambivalence invites us to imagine other possible relationships between Rainier and Ikea. For example, we can notice the strangeness of conjoining a permanent-sounding placename with the name of a business. What would happen to this sign, and this route, if the Ikea moved or merged? Mountains don't move, we note, which is why we name neighborhoods after them.

As if that all weren't enough, "RAINIER" in all caps can't signal that it's a proper name, as "Rainier" would do. Is the bus promising to take us somewhere where it rains more than it does here?

Originally Published: May 10th, 2011