With 12,000 new signs at Twin Cities bus stops, Metro Transit hopes the guessing game for riders is over.

Signs that once proclaimed simply "bus stop" have been replaced with new ones featuring route numbers and, in many cases, maps and bus frequency. More stops are now equipped with shelters, as well as concrete pads in boulevards for people on wheelchairs.

The changes are part of a "Better Bus Stop" campaign launched by Metro Transit five years ago to rethink what amenities and information bus riders need. Efforts to make the system easier to navigate come as fewer people are choosing to take the bus — ridership has dropped at least 16% from 2015, according to an agency spokesman.

"It's the first impression of our service. It's how you meet the bus," said Metro Transit senior planner Berry Farrington, who marked the five-year anniversary with a presentation to Metropolitan Council members Monday. "If it's a bad first impression ... we know first impressions count."

Metro Transit began rethinking its bus stops around 2014 after riders complained about scarce information at stops and lack of shelters in high-ridership areas. A 2014 Star Tribune analysis showed that several hundred exposed stops had enough riders to qualify for a shelter under Metro Transit's guidelines, while hundreds of others with shelters fell below the ridership threshold.

"What we're hearing from community meetings, from our riders, through [the Star Tribune story] and others, was that we were underinvesting in bus stops," Farrington said. "We weren't paying them adequate attention."

The agency has since added 135 new shelters — the goal is to reach 150 — and upgraded 78 existing ones with light or heat. Some are new "slim" shelters, which fit in spots too tight for traditional shelters. There are about 950 shelters across the system.

Metro Transit also yanked some shelters that did not have enough riders to qualify and changed the policies determining which stops should get them.

To qualify for a shelter under the old system, a bus stop had to have at least 40 daily riders in Minneapolis and St. Paul and 25 in the suburbs. The new rules are more nuanced and don't distinguish between urban and suburban ridership. The agency will consider adding shelters at stops with 30 or more riders but will prioritize adding one if there are more than 100 riders or the stop is in an area with many carless households or medical and social service institutions.

"People really want cover from the rain and wind. They want a recognizable, dignified place to wait," Farrington said. "They need it to be accessible. They need accurate information so they know they're at the right stop — that they're actually at a bus stop. There were some bus stops that did not even have signs."

The sign improvements, which took three years and wrapped up in mid-2018, were the agency's first major redesign of bus-stop signage since 1996. The agency found that the previous "bus stop" signs were far less informative than nearly all of its peers around the country. Many of the old signs were sold for scrap, while others were reused or kept for employee recognition ceremonies.

The agency has spent about $4 million on the program, the bulk of which came from federal grants, according to Metro Transit spokesman Howie Padilla. The largest cost was installing new shelters and wiring some of them for light and heat.

Metro Transit General Manager Wes Kooistra said in a statement that the Better Bus Stops program is critical to improving the customer experience with the transit system.

"Making it easier for riders to use our system while improving the shelters, where riders sometimes get first impressions of our system, is an integral piece of our work to increasing ridership," Kooistra said.

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732 Twitter: @StribRoper