Station subtitles shouldn't be excuse for longer names
Metro will use subtitles for long station names on the Metro map. This move bodes well for the clarity of the map, but the WMATA Board must be careful not to use it as an excuse to even further worsen name sprawl by making longer subtitles.
In March, we held a map contest to solicit ideas. Two of the maps, David Alpert's and mine, included subtitles to deal with long station names. WMATA's head of communications, Barbara Richardson, was a member of the jury and liked the idea enough to adopt it on the real maps.
But with a secondary name attached to the station, the region's elected officials need to restrain themselves from trying to tack even more onto station names. After all, some might argue, it's just a subtitle.
At the recent WMATA Board committee discussion, some members expressed some interest in listing more likely destinations on the map in small type. That would just clutter things further and make the map more difficult to use.
The Metro map does not need to be a place for advertising every potential destination a rider may visit. It needs to be a place where wayfinding is clear and easy to use. The same can be said of the signs on the station walls and in other locations.
WMATA's proposed station name policy would limit the total name, including the subtitle or "secondary name," to 19 characters for any future names. That's a good approach. The board should not just adopt it, but stick to it when making future choices.
Long station names don't just clutter the map, they also make communication more difficult. Now that WMATA is moving toward a primary/secondary station name format, they should start using just the primary name in announcements and directional signage.
For people unfamiliar with the system, long station names can make for confusing announcements, like this one from the Orange Line: "Trains are currently sharing the same track between Dunn Loirng Merrifield and West Falls Church Virginia Tech University of Virginia." Is that a list of 2 stations or 5?
It also makes displaying information on the next train signs and tweeting disruptions difficult. For example, trains on the Yellow Line go to Mount Vernon Square during rush hours. And train signs and the train ETA signs say that. But platform signs at Gallery Place refer to it as Convention Center. Announcements and signage can be clearer and more consistent by using primary station names only.
Left: Pylon strip map at Fort Totten. The long station names mean wrapped text.
Right: What one would look like with only primary names. Both images by author.
I didn't include subtitles in my map contest entry to make waves. I included them because the contest rules said that station names couldn't change, and I didn't want to overlap route lines with text. If it had been solely up to me, I would've just shortened the station names to a reasonable length.
It's good to see WMATA taking a sensible approach to long names. The subtitles will help improve the clarity of the map. WMATA can expand on this opportunity and make the rest of the system easier to navigate by sticking to primary station names on other signs and keeping subtitles themselves from getting longer as well.
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