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For new or would-be riders, the Twin Cities bus system is about to become much easier to understand.

Metro Transit will start testing a plan this December to replace the region's ubiquitous "Bus Stop" signs with new placards featuring route information, bus frequencies, maps and directions to access real-time arrival data.

That is currently unavailable at most stops, which is why Metro Transit ranks lowest among similar agencies for providing information at the stop.

"If you look at the standard Metro Transit bus stop sign, all it indicates is that a bus stops there," Laura Matson, Metro Transit's coordinator for Transit Information Services, told the Met Council's transportation committee Monday.

"It doesn't provide a lot of information. And, unfortunately, compared to all other high-ridership agencies, this is the least amount of customer information at bus stops."

Signs that say only "Bus Stop" are very uncommon among major transit agencies across the country. Matson, who reviewed 30 agencies, said only Atlanta had comparable signage.

"The industry standard is at least providing the routes that serve the stop … at every stop, as a bare minimum," Matson said.

A pilot test of just over 100 of the new signs will begin to roll out in parts of north Minneapolis and Brooklyn Park this December. Matson said the plan is to expand the signs systemwide starting in mid-2015.

Signs will have more information if the stop meets a certain ridership threshold — which is still being decided, but could be about five boardings per day. Lower-boarding stops would receive new signs that show just the routes, stop number and instructions for accessing real-time data on NexTrip — as well as a special QR code.

Higher boarding stops — about one-third of the system — would feature detailed bus frequency information and route maps. Bus shelters, which now contain the most information, would get new route maps and provide details about fare payment.

Matson said the goal is to eventually also begin providing real-time arrival information at some shelters. That comes as Metro Transit is planning to install and replace hundreds of shelters across the Twin Cities over the next year.

"We know this is an issue for riders and it's also an issue for operators and other front-line staff to have to deal with lost and confused and frustrated customers," Matson said of the new signage.

A recent study by the University of Minnesota showed that route maps statistically reduce riders' perceived wait times. But even for riders who are familiar with the routes, maps could improve their ride by reducing the number of passengers who consult the driver for directions — a process that holds up the bus.

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732

Twitter: @StribRoper