Messages for the masses: How ‘HOWDY COWBOYS’ ends up on Steamboat buses |

Messages for the masses: How ‘HOWDY COWBOYS’ ends up on Steamboat buses

A city bus with a message welcoming visitors to Ski Town USA makes its way down Lincoln Avenue from the mountains to downtown. (Photo by John F. Russell)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — When you see a sunrise scrolling on the marquee of a Steamboat Springs Transit bus, Tyler Kern probably put it there.

Kern, operations manager for Steamboat Springs Transit, is the man behind many of the messages on the city’s buses, and for every message scrolling on the screen, there’s about an hours worth of clicking, deleting and bated breathing behind a 20-year-old computer. That’s why Kern’s favorite graphic, the sun rising over mountains, often ends up on the front of Steamboat’s older buses.

As for the content of the scrolling messages, most are the brainchild of Kern and Transit Manager Jonathan Flint.

“The really funny ones are Tyler’s,” Flint said. “The not quite as funny are mine.”

There are three main types of messages on the city’s buses, Kern said. Destination messages identify the bus’ route and where it’s going. Public relations messages are the fun ones, such as “HOWDY COWBOYS” or “THINK SNOW.”

The third type of messages are emergency messages. Bus drivers can trigger a scroll of “EMERGENCY” and “CALL 911” if they need the police to respond to an incident on the bus.

Though they’re able to create different colors and fonts, the signs are almost always orange block letters because that’s what can best be seen in all weather conditions. The goal of the bus marquee’s lettering is to make it the most legible from the farthest distance, Flint said. It also has to be visible in snow, rain, sun and evening light.

The timing of the scrolling signs is important too. Scroll too fast, and riders’ heads will bob as they try to read the destination. Scroll too slow, and there is a delay in loading as passengers wait to read the destination before boarding, Flint said.

Programming these signs is a tedious process. About a third of the city’s bus fleet signs are programmed using a 1989 DOS program on a fossil of a computer operating on Windows 98.

“It’s not supported by IT or anyone, so fingers crossed we don’t break it,” Kern said as he worked to program in a new message for a bus that will carry participants in Steamboat’s City 101 program. “I fear when I open it.”

Steamboat Springs Transit Operations Manager Tyler Kern programs a new message for a bus that will carry participants in Steamboat’s City 101 program. (Photo by Eleanor C. Hasenbeck)

Each message requires coding the message to fit into spots on the front, rear and side of the bus. Each of these locations has a different length and width, and even bus to bus, the dimensions of the marquees are different. Older buses are programmed with the DOS system, and two more modern programs are used to display similar messages on the city’s newer buses.

It takes a lot of code to make those messages appear correctly.

“Almost every single bus has just a slightly different nuance to it,” Flint said.

The city continues to use the program because it wouldn’t be cost effective to upgrade the signs, Flint said. Each one would cost about $10,000 to replace.

“The frustrating, challenging part is the programming, but once you get them programmed, for the most part, they work and work well,” Flint said.

The DOS system is an upgrade from the city’s first scrolling destination signs, which were a series of vinyl signs on a rotating spool. Bus drivers physically cranked the sign to turn it to the correct destination. If the vinyl wasn’t meticulously placed onto the spool, it would tear and damage the sign.

A vintage Steamboat Springs Transit bus, in service from 1981 until the 1990s, sports the old-fashioned vinyl scroll sign while garaged at Steamboat Springs Transit Operations Center. (Photo by Eleanor C. Hasenbeck)

Because it is such a labor-intensive process, Steamboat Springs Transit programs the buses only twice per year, looking ahead to upcoming holidays and events. Transit works with the Steamboat Chamber and the city manager’s office to determine when events are occurring to schedule when certain messages appear on the buses.

“I think it can convey a real welcoming message to the community,” Flint said.

Flint is a Mustang enthusiast — his favorite message is “WELCOME MUSTANGS,” which appears when the Rocky Mountain Mustang Roundup comes to Steamboat.

“Here are a bunch of Mustang owners. We’re all rough and tumble, and it’s ‘Did you see the buses? They say welcome Mustangs! I didn’t see that — where are they?’ Instead of talking about the brand new Mustang that’s come out for 2017, they’re talking about (the buses),” he said.

Flint said for some locals, it also serves as a community calendar. “WELCOME RUNNERS” offers a good hint that the Steamboat Marathon and its hundreds of athletes are in town.

“I kind of like it because I sometimes forget that stuff is happening, and of course, I can’t pass a bus without checking it out to make sure everything looks right,” he said. “I would not be too surprised if some locals don’t use it for that as well.”

Steamboat Springs Transit recycles many of the messages on the buses. You’ll see “WELCOME MUSIC LOVERS” during Music Fest and WinterWonderGrass, for example. Using broad categories instead of individual event names means fewer staff hours spent programming messages and helps the city avoid marketing specific events.

There are even some secret messages.

You wouldn’t want to see “WHERE’S STEAMBOAT? WE’RE LOST!” scrolling at the top of a Steamboat bus.

Kern programmed that one when transit staff took a bus to a conference in Snowmass Village. They didn’t want to be mistaken for a Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus, so they put “WHERE’S STEAMBOAT?” on the marquee.

It didn’t work.

When the group stopped to grab some last minute items, they walked out of the store to find a queue of RFTA passengers lined up to board.

To reach Eleanor Hasenbeck, call 970-871-4210, email or follow her on Twitter @elHasenbeck.

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