A complete overhaul of the region's bus signs began Tuesday as Metro Transit seeks to make the local bus, the backbone of the transit system, less mysterious for prospective riders.

Thousands of signs that now herald simply "Bus Stop" are being swapped for signs featuring route numbers, stop IDs, route maps, bus frequencies or methods for determining real-time arrival information. The first major sign redesign since 1996 comes as Metro Transit prepares to roll out a smartphone app, launch its first urban high-speed bus route and install hundreds of new bus shelters along high-ridership corridors.

"As many different improvements as we [have] made in our transit service, we really have neglected our front porch," said Brian Lamb, Metro Transit general manager. "And our front porch to our customers is the bus stop. That's where we present ourselves to our customers really for the first time."

The local bus remains the engine of the Twin Cities transit system, having delivered 63 percent of all rides taken in the first quarter of 2015. That's compared with 21 percent for light rail and 12 percent for express buses.

Yet after surveying 30 national high-ridership transit agencies, Metro Transit found that only one, Atlanta, provided as little information at its basic bus stops. Some higher-ridership stops in the Twin Cities feature more information than "Bus Stop," though generally not as much as what will be displayed on the new signs.

"I do think that we are back of the pack," Lamb said, adding that Metro Transit surpasses peer agencies in other areas, such as the quality of its bus fleet.

The rollout begins this fall with the installation of about 2,300 signs primarily in the urban core, at a cost of $300,000. In the next two years, it will ultimately reach all approximately 12,000 bus stops around the Twin Cities.

Every stop will have basic information about which buses stop there and the stop number, along with instructions on using the stop number to query GPS-linked arrival times via text message or a mobile site. About 20 percent of stops with higher ridership will have additional information such as maps, how often the bus arrives, the route direction and the destination of different branches.

Lamb said he hopes it inspires more confidence in the service among newer riders.

"It's especially important in converting nonusers into users," said David Levinson, a University of Minnesota professor and transportation expert who has criticized Metro Transit's signage. "It's providing basic information to people who might not even know how transit works and where transit would go."

Bus shelters are also getting a correction, after a 2014 Star Tribune article found that many stops with higher ridership lacked shelters, despite qualifying for them. The agency is installing 150 new shelters and adding new amenities like lighting and heat to about 75 others, Lamb said.

More help for riders

Several smartphone apps like OMG Transit now provide GPS-enabled bus arrival information, but Lamb said Metro Transit intends to launch its own app in the next several months featuring additional functionality. The agency is also seeking funding to deploy software aimed at displaying bus arrivals, as well as Car2Go and Nice Rice locations, in high-profile areas.

Levinson said the agency's next priority should be improving bus speed and frequency by expanding urban rapid bus service, the first of which will go into service on Snelling Avenue next year.

Following a pilot earlier this year, the first signs were installed Tuesday along parts of Cretin and Grand avenues on Tuesday. "This is super," said Tom Suski, a University of St. Thomas custodian waiting for a No. 63 bus.

"We have a lot of outstate people at school that take buses," Suski said. "And after a while, then they get familiar with them, but in the beginning everybody's asking questions and most people don't know until you get on the bus and have the bus driver indicate where they're going."

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732