Behind the Metro station name debates


Metro is renaming its “New York Ave-Florida Ave-Gallaudet U” station as “NoMa-Gallaudet U,” with “New York Ave” as a secondary name. (Linda Davidson/THE WASHINGTON POST)
November 4, 2011

Transit systems such as Metro aren’t entirely about moving people from Point A to Point B. They’re also about developing Point A and Point B. The Metro board recently spent a great deal of time juggling these sometimes complementary and sometimes competing interests.

The issue was station names. Among Metro station names, there’s “Takoma,” and then there’s “U Street/African-Amer Civil War Memorial/Cardozo.” In between are “Archives-Navy Memorial-Penn Quarter” and “New York Ave-Florida Ave-Gallaudet U.”

Everyone, it seems, wants their landmark or institution or neighborhood immortalized beneath the Metro “M.” Meanwhile, Metro is heading for several major changes in service that would require changes to its map, the first of these by June.

So this year, the board brushed up its naming policy and last week set about implementing it in response to many requests to change station names while changing the map.

Naming policy

The board reviewed its standards for naming stations and updated its policy in July with these results:

●Station names can consist of a primary name and a secondary name. The primary name will be highlighted in bold type for easy recognition.

●Names will be limited to 19 characters, 13 for transfer stations.

●Old station names that exceed the character limit will be protected.

●Proposed name changes will be subjected to testing with riders.

●Landmarks proposed for inclusion in station names should be within a half-mile of the station.

●Jurisdictions that proposed the name changes to the Metro board will be responsible for covering the cost of modifying maps, pylons, station lettering, brochures and other places where the new names must appear.

A document that accompanied the board’s resolution noted that “the primary purpose of station names is to identify the station locations by geographical features or centers of activity to help customers successfully navigate the system.”

Proposed changes

So far, so good. Now let’s look at what happens when policy meets politics. You can judge whether riders won out. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority received these station-naming proposals from the jurisdictions that pay for Metro.

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Primary: New York Ave-NoMa

Secondary: Gallaudet U

●Metro staff comments: The District’s proposed change for the New York Avenue station was over the character limit, and it didn’t play well in customer research. Riders asked, “What’s NoMa?” (For those who haven’t kept up with real estate trends, it’s the neighborhood North of Massachusetts Avenue, which is on the upswing after the revitalization of another transportation hub, Union Station.)

●Board decision: It’s going to be “NoMa-Gallaudet U” as the primary name, with “New York Ave” as the more subdued, secondary name. Metro General Manager Richard Sarles suggested that the board keep “New York Ave” in the title for a year to help riders make the transition.

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Primary: Forest Glen-Holy Cross Hospital

●Metro staff comments: The proposal supported by Montgomery County is over the character limit. There’s an issue about whether the extended name amounts to giving the hospital commercial naming rights to the station. The staff recommended keeping the name as “Forest Glen” and adding an “H,” the widely used symbol for hospital.

●Board decision: This one was debated extensively. Arthur Holmes, director of the Montgomery Department of Transportation, spoke on behalf of the proposal at a public hearing. He said the addition of the hospital’s name to “Forest Glen” was necessary to indicate that Holy Cross Hospital was close to the station.

“It’s not the authority’s obligation to advertise,” said board member Jeff C. McKay of Fairfax County. The proposal unravels the board’s naming policy, which was motivated in large part by the idea of keeping names simple for riders.

“We have an obligation to serve our riders. Our riders want simplicity,” McKay said.

For now, the board decided to add an “H” to the Metro map with the names of Forest Glen, Foggy Bottom-GWU and Medical Center.

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Primary: Smithsonian

Secondary: The National Mall

●Metro staff comments: The proposal to add the Mall reference, supported by the National Park Service and others interested in helping visitors navigate, was over the character limit, but it received favorable reviews from riders. The staff was concerned about crowd control and rider safety.

During some big events, Smithsonian station must be closed. At other times, the escalators might be turned off to prevent a pileup of people. Sometimes, the station is just jammed. Metro routinely encourages riders heading for big events to consider using other stations. Would adding “National Mall” suggest to visitors that there is only one convenient access point to the Mall?

●Board decision: The board did not change the name but indicated that it would revisit the issue after consultations between Metro and federal officials about safety issues.

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Primary: Waterfront-Arena Stage

●Metro staff comment: This was over the character limit, but the District withdrew the proposal. The idea of adding the name of a nearby theater raised issues about commercial naming rights. The current name, “Waterfront-SEU,” had to be changed because SEU stands for Southeastern University, which no longer exists in the District. The staff recommended “Waterfront.”

●Board decision: “Waterfront” it shall be — for now. During Metro’s budget debate earlier this year, the board decided not to sell naming rights to stations to raise money. But Metro still needs a clear policy on whether to sell naming rights — and if so, for how much — or whether to give them away by incorporating the name of local institutions in station names. Board members know that previous boards accepted the latter idea several times. But given the SEU experience, they might become more cautious.

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Primary: Navy Yard-Ballpark

●Metro staff comment: The District’s proposal for the switch from “Navy Yard” met the character limit and got favorable reviews from riders, because Nationals Park is a prime destination for station users and it would be part of the train operators’ announcements. The staff suggested “Navy Yard” as the primary name, with “Ballpark” as the secondary.

●Board decision: Board member Muriel Bowser of the District held out for both names in primary typeface, noting that they met the character limit. The board agreed.

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Primary: King St-Old Town

●Metro comment: The addition to Alexandria’s “King Street” name met all policy tenets, although it received mixed reviews from riders. Metro staff, trying to keep primary names short to help map readers, suggested “King Street” as the primary name, with “Old Town” as the secondary reference.

●Board decision: With little discussion, the board gave “King St-Old Town” primary status.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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