During today’s debate about renaming stations, Metro board members reflected on a naming policy they set just a few months ago. It included limits on characters and on the proximity and relevance of landmarks used in station names.
Then some board members channeled “Pirates of the Caribbean” villain Barbossa’s description of the Pirate Code: The board policy is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules.
Rules can get flexible when transportation policy collides with economic interest. Some jurisdictions are interested in renaming stations in support of business communities and private institutions.
This blend of wayfaring with place-making is nothing new to Metro, or the D.C. region. Governments have tied the two for ages. And there’s not necessarily anything wayward about it. It’s why New York has a destination called “Times Square.”
Our Metro board is getting several chances to get the naming conventions right. The board today approved some renamings, in preparation for the temporary maps that will appear before the Blue and Yellow lines are split in June.
But the board will get another chance at naming names in advance of the opening of the Dulles Silver Line.
It’s good the board members have some more time for study and reflection. Among the issues that have arisen during the current debate:
Montgomery County wants to add “Holy Cross Hospital” to the name of the Forest Glen station. The District wanted to scrap the New York Avenue station name and substitute “NoMa-Gallaudet.”
The National Park Service and others are interested in adding “The National Mall” to the Smithsonian station name.
The board’s customer service committee, after lengthy and sometimes tortured debate, wound up making these recommendations later approved by the full board:
Change “Waterfront-SEU” to “Waterfront.” (That was close to a no-brainer, since Southeastern University no longer exits. But there was a proposal, since dropped, about adding “Arena Stage” to the name.)
“King Street” will become “King St-Old Town,” “Navy Yard” will become “Navy Yard-Ballpark” and New York Ave-Florida Ave-Gallaudet U” will become “NoMa-Gallaudet U” as a primary name with “New York Ave” as a secondary name. (Keeping New York Ave in the title was a suggestion from Metro General Manager Richard Sarles, as a transitional step for riders who might lose track of where they're going. “NoMa means North of Massachusetts. The transit staff surveys found that many riders had no idea.)
But in the discussion, board members realized they need to work out a better plan for when it’s appropriate to add the names of commercial and academic institutions, hospitals, or corporate logos — like the Nationals’ curly W.
They also realized there was confusion about a basic element of their policy: the 19-character limit. Until recently, there wouldn’t have been ambiguity, because station names appeared on maps in only one format. But during discussions about the new Metro map, the transit staff and the board took up the sensible suggestion of splitting station names into a primary name, which would be highlighted on the map, and a secondary name, which would be subordinated.
That way, riders, looking across other riders in a crowded rail car, could spot a name they recognized, while institutions could still say they had their names on the Metro map.
But some board members thought the character limit applied to the primary name, rather than the full name.
If I could channel someone in this debate, it would be board member Jeff McKay of Fairfax County, who had problems with lengthening “Forest Glen” to “Forest Glen-Holy Cross Hospital.”
McKay, who knows that many institutions in his own area would like to add their imprint to a Metro station name, said the proposal unravels the board’s naming policy, which was motivated in large part by the idea of keeping names simple for riders.
“It’s not the authority’s obligation to advertise,” he said.
“We have an obligation to serve our riders. Our riders want simplicity,” he continued. “We have guidelines that are new and already we are departing from those. ... We have a lot of complications with commercial naming rights. You’ve got to draw a line somewhere. This is not simplicity.”
When it comes to station names, board member Marcel Acosta added, “Less is more.” If riders want a guide book, they’ll buy one. If they’re trying to count stops from a map on a crowded train, they want to be looking for a short name that stands out.