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Can destination signs be brown?


Destination signs are an important part of any public transportation system. They help riders identify the correct vehicle to board and provide valuable information about the route, major stops, and final destination. While most destination signs use bright colors like yellow or green to stand out, some transit agencies opt for a more subdued brown color instead. So can destination signs be brown? The short answer is yes, brown destination signs are allowed under transportation regulations in many jurisdictions. However, there are pros and cons to consider when using brown signs versus more vivid colors.

Regulations on Destination Sign Colors

In the United States, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) provides guidance on destination sign colors under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA requires destination and route signs to be clearly visible and distinguishable from the vehicle exterior. FTA guidelines specify that destination signs should use contrasting colors like yellow, green, red, blue, or white. However, they do not prohibit subdued colors like brown as long as the sign provides adequate contrast against the bus exterior. State and local transportation agencies can establish their own destination sign color requirements provided they meet or exceed the FTA’s ADA standards. As a result, brown is permitted as a destination sign color in many parts of the US.

Advantages of Brown Destination Signs

While brown may seem like an unusual choice, there are some advantages to using this color for destination signs:

Blends with Natural Backgrounds

Brown has the benefit of blending in with natural backgrounds better than bright colors. On routes that pass through parks, woodlands, or other earth-toned environments, a brown sign stands out less than a neon yellow one. This creates a more seamless visual experience for passengers.

Classic, Understated Look

Many public transit agencies aim for a classic, stylish look with their fleet. Brown has a more understated, subtle effect than primary colors. A rich chocolate brown sign can give the bus a sophisticated look. This can help transit brands convey maturity and professionalism through their vehicle designs.

Less Visual Clutter

On routes with high-frequency service, bright destination signs can create visual clutter down city streets. Multiple yellow or green signs in a row may compete for attention. Brown blends together more, reducing the overall visual noise from a distance. This can create a cleaner look along high-ridership corridors.

Advantage Explanation
Blends with Natural Backgrounds Doesn’t stand out as much against earth-toned environments like parks
Classic, Understated Look Conveys sophistication and professionalism
Less Visual Clutter Blends together more than bright colors on high-frequency routes

Disadvantages of Brown Destination Signs

However, there are also some downsides to choosing brown instead of a brighter color for destination signs:

Reduced Visibility

The main purpose of a destination sign is to provide visibility and legibility. Brown signs have lower contrast and are not as easy to read from a distance. Riders may struggle to identify the correct bus, especially those with visual impairments.

Doesn’t Stand Out on Crowded Streets

On congested downtown streets with lots of activity, a brown sign can get visually lost. Bright colors like yellow pop against the urban environment. Brown blends in more, making it harder for riders to spot their bus.

Associated with Negative Emotions

Research suggests that brown is associated with negative emotions like sadness and melancholy. Meanwhile, yellow is upbeat and energetic. From a branding perspective, brown may not evoke the positivity that transit agencies aim to project.

Disadvantage Explanation
Reduced Visibility Lower contrast makes signs harder to read
Doesn’t Stand Out on Crowded Streets Blends in and gets lost visually in urban environments
Associated with Negative Emotions Brown evokes sadness rather than positivity

Key Considerations

When weighing whether to use brown destination signs, here are some key factors to consider:

Rider Demographics

Analyze the demographics of your ridership. If you serve many elderly passengers or riders with vision impairments, bright colors like yellow provide maximum visibility. However, if your riders are predominantly younger commuters, brown signs may be sufficient.

Service Frequency

On high-frequency corridors with buses every 5-10 minutes, the reduced visibility of brown signs becomes more problematic. Riders need to quickly identify their bus. On lower-frequency routes with buses every 15+ minutes, brown signs are less of an issue.


Assess the typical environments your fleet operates in. If buses mainly traverse leafy suburban roads or parks, brown signs can blend in nicely. For largely urban environments, yellow or other bright colors work best.

Branding Goals

Factor in your overall branding objectives. If promoting visibility and accessibility is the priority, avoid brown. But if you want an understated, sophisticated look, brown can align well.

Consideration Key Questions
Rider Demographics What is the age range and visual ability of riders?
Service Frequency Do buses run every 5 minutes or every 30 minutes?
Environment Are routes mostly urban or suburban/natural?
Branding Goals Is visibility or sophistication more important?

Examples in Transit Systems

While less common than brighter colors, brown destination signs can be spotted in many transit fleets:

Los Angeles Metro

LA Metro uses chocolate brown destination signs on its fleet of natural gas buses. This matches their overall brown livery and promotes their environmentally-friendly branding.

Boston MBTA

The MBTA uses a mix of white, yellow, and brown signs on its buses. Brown adds a more classic look on some of its heritage streetcar and commuter rail fleets.

London Transport

Transport for London opted for light brown destination blinds on its active New Routemaster fleet. This complements their red paint scheme.

Atlanta Streetcars

Atlanta’s downtown streetcars use a vintage brown and tan color scheme. Destination signs blend in with the cream exterior paint for a retro look.

San Francisco Muni

Muni’s historic streetcars feature brown destination boxes to match their iconic burgundy and beige livery. Their newest LRVs also incorporate brown window bands.

So while yellow remains the most popular public transit destination sign color, many agencies integrate brown to support branding strategies and design aesthetics.


In summary, brown destination signs are permitted for public transportation vehicles, but offer both advantages and disadvantages compared to brighter colors like yellow or green. Brown provides a more understated, classic look that can match natural settings and avoid visual clutter in some cases. However, brown signs have poorer visibility and legibility, and may not project a positive, energetic brand image. Transit agencies should weigh factors like demographics, service levels, operating environments, and overall branding goals when selecting destination sign colors. With careful implementation, brown can be a viable option instead of high-contrast yellow or green. But visibility and accessibility should remain the top priority according to transportation regulations.