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Station name debate focuses too little on helping riders

If you listened to the WMATA Board discuss station names this morning, you could be forgiven if you concluded the board is made up of representatives from local universities, hospitals, and sports teams, and that those institutions, rather than riders and residents, pay for Metro.

Photo by Julie Lyn on Flickr.

That's because where institutions want to be on Metro station names, most members from those jurisdictions argued for adding them on, even when such an addition would violate the policy the board just adopted a few months ago. Many also argued for adding more content to the primary names, rather than subtitles.

The phrase "what's best for riders," sadly, came out of the mouths of very few members. Most notably, federal members Mort Downey and Marcel Acosta, and Fairfax member Jeff McKay (who is most in danger of losing his seat when Bob McDonnell's appointee Jim Dyke joins the board), were the ones who did emphasize what's best for riders.

What riders want is shorter names. Assistant General Manager for Communications Barbara Richardson said, "Our customers want one name. They want one, common name. They want these to be short."

Few people refer to "West Falls Church Vee Tea You Vee Eh" or "Van Ness You Dee See." Instead, they say they're going to West Falls Church or Van Ness. With a few exceptions like "Franconia-Springfield" and "Stadium-Armory," which really are truly compound names, other station names have a main portion, like "U Street" or "Grosvenor," and then sometimes additional points of interest.

Metro staff got that from their focus groups, and our surveys backed it up. People told Metro that long station names was their biggest complaint about the map. It's annoying and confusing for riders.

Richardson presented the staff recommendations after playing an amusing song, "The Metro Song." It parodies Johnny Cash's "I've been everywhere" to name 46 of the stations in the Metro system:

The staff suggest:

  • Navy Yard Ballpark
  • New York Ave Florida Ave-Gallaudet U
  • Smithsonian (no National Mall)
  • Waterfront (no Arena Stage)
  • Forest Glen (no Holy Cross Hospital, but with an H logo denoting a hospital)
  • King Street Old Town
Montgomery County alternate member Kathy Porter defended the county's request to add Holy Cross Hospital, or at least "Holy Cross" along with an H symbol, to Forest Glen.

Porter lamented that the county hadn't pushed for the change earlier, since it would have qualified under the previous policy, and suggested the board let Montgomery "grandfather" in the name. However, Fairfax's Jeff McKay pointed out that the reason they're changing the policy is because there have been problems with overly long station names in the past.

Porter noted that the hospital runs a shuttle to the station and there is Ride On service to the station. But in WMATA's focus groups, many members expressed a feeling that anything attached to a station name ought to be within a short walk, not a bus or car ride away.

DC Councilmember Muriel Bowser also wanted to grandfather a non-subtitle, Georgia Ave-Petworth. On this one, there's some good argument either way. I've heard many people call this "Georgia Ave Petworth" or "Georgia Petworth." Several commenters recommended actually making it Petworth, since Georgia Avenue is very long and Forest Glen, Wheaton, and Glenmont are also on Georgia Avenue.

Or, perhaps it could follow the pattern WMATA recommends for Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and make the station Georgia Ave Petworth?

Bowser also took the position held by Gallaudet management and students for keeping that university in the primary name instead of a subtitle, endorsing NoMa-Gallaudet U New York Avenue. She pointed out that no other DC university is slated to become part of a subtitle. We've advocated instead for actually putting all universities and other points of interest in subtitles, and 83% of you agreed.

There seemed to be some interest on the board for this option. Mary Hynes of Arlington noted that they have many universities around their Metro stations, and that perhaps it's not feasible to expect to put all universities in primary names or even station names in general. McKay recommended holding off on any change concerning Gallaudet until this broader question is resolved.

Artis Hampshire-Cowen, though, seemed to be wearing her hat as an executive for Howard University rather than necessarily representing riders of Prince George's County. She argued against moving universities into subtitles, using Howard as a specific example.

Bowser also asked for the ballpark to be part of a main station name, Navy Yard-Ballpark, instead of the staff-recommended Navy Yard Ballpark.

The curly W seems completely dead, though that may be a very recent change. Last week, I'd heard that the Nationals only wanted to pay if the station could be named Navy Yard-Curly W, not just for "Ballpark." Today, however, DDOT told WMATA that DC would pay for any change, and Bowser told the board that DC expects the Nationals would cover those costs.

Under WMATA's policy, the jurisdiction has to pay for the station name itself. Another entity can reimburse the jurisdiction, but it has to guarantee the funding to WMATA. WMATA won't enter into a side agreement with a separate organization to collect the funds directly.

McKay asked what would happen if the ballpark gets a corporate name at some point. Would they want to, and would Metro feel any pressure to, rename the station? Members agreed that the staff should further flesh out the no corporate naming policy.

Alexandria mayor Bill Euille pushed for King Street-Old Town, their original request, instead of King Street Old Town, the staff recommendation (and one you overwhelmingly supported).

Marcel Acosta stood up for holding to the policy that the board had just adopted. He noted that the shorter names make things easier for customers, and "we need to temper" the impulse to accommodate local organization requests.

Alvin Nichols, alternate for Prince George's, asked about a request by Mount Rainier to add their name to West Hyattsville. However, Maryland has not officially requested this change, so it's not on the table at this time.

The board adjourned their discussion until next Thursday, November 3, where they will hold a public comment session followed immediately by a full board meeting to vote on changes. It's clear that some members are not paying much heed to rider concerns, or at least the comments of those who participated in the focus groups or filled out our survey (while others very much are).

Maybe if riders come to the public comment session, it will help those members start thinking about the interests of the riders instead of the interests of their universities, hospitals and sports teams.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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The problem is that if Metro allows anyone to "advertize" they're stuck letting everyone advertize, and all of these shills realize that. Metro let the camel get its nose under the tent, and now it's stuck in a bad position.

by ah on Oct 27, 2011 12:26 pm • linkreport

The Board already adopted the policy - maybe their role should be done now and any name changes should be simply executed by staff in accordance with that policy.

by Alex B. on Oct 27, 2011 12:43 pm • linkreport

McDonnel jihad watch: "Fairfax member Jeff McKay (who is most in danger of losing his seat when Bob McDonnell's appointee Jim Dyke joins the board)"

Was that really neccessay? Do we know what Dyke thinks of all this? And moving from fact to rumors in one sentence is never a good policy.

by charlie on Oct 27, 2011 1:14 pm • linkreport

@Alex B:
The problem with that approach is that it would preclude all of the board members from making the exceptions they want.

by Matt Johnson on Oct 27, 2011 1:15 pm • linkreport

It's outrageous that Metro would even consider spending one thin dime on changing station names at the same time they are proposing cuts in bus service (for example, the D1 and D2 buses in Glover Park) because of funding shortages.

I have no objection to changing station names, and am fine with doing it if others pay; but preservation of existing service has to come first.

by Brian Cohen on Oct 27, 2011 1:33 pm • linkreport

All new names should be field tested. Make the board members ride the train blindfolded. If they can identify their proposed station name through train announcements, then it can stay. If they can't, leave 'em for the hobos.

by Colleen on Oct 27, 2011 1:46 pm • linkreport

Not to be picky but even longer names like West Falls Church are abbreviated as "I'm going to West Falls."

by Josh on Oct 27, 2011 1:56 pm • linkreport

Metro should also field test new and longer names with a sample of Metrorail train operators. So many slur existing station names already, making them nearly unintellible to visitors. Time to move to clear recordings of station names (think "doors are closing announcements).

by Bob on Oct 27, 2011 1:57 pm • linkreport

I do use three words to refer to that part of the Orange Line but I shorten it by one letter:
West FARS Church.
It is a looonnng way from Metro Center.

by David F-H on Oct 27, 2011 2:26 pm • linkreport

IMHO this whole debate about station names does little to help riders. It's a waste of time to talk about changing these names, akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

WMATA needs help - to solve its governance, safety, and funding issues. Devoting such time and energy to make station names more "aurally pleasing" won't help riders. When I have to go somewhere on Metro, I either look up the address on Google maps and see which station is closest, or ask someone who knows the area.

Yes, having a name like Navy Yard-Ballpark is good for Nats fans, but do we really need to split hairs on whether there should be a subtitle/Nats Logo/etc? Let the people PAYING for the change (i.e. likely the Nats) decide how it'll be done. After all, it's THEIR fans who'll be benefiting most.

by John M on Oct 27, 2011 2:47 pm • linkreport

As I suggested in the comments to one of the prior polls on this issue, the idea of putting the curly "W" in the station name is a poor idea because teams' logos do change from time to time. Consider the recent redesigns of the Caps' and Bullets' uniforms. (Come to think of it, the Bullets are an example of a team that changed their name, to "Wizards," although everyone I know still calls them the Bullets because they play like the 1990s-era Bullets!) The Redskins used to have that "R" on the side of the helmets instead of the Indian's head. Speaking of the Redskins, they're probably another reason for using a neutral term like "Ballpark." If you set a precedent where you put a team name or logo on a subway stop, it becomes harder to come up with a legitimate, non-political reason for refusing to add another team's name or logo if the other team is willing to pay to be on there. Can you imagine the fuss that would occur if there were a decision to add the Redskins' name or logo to the Morgan Boulevard stop to help football fans go there? It would be a massive controversy that wouldn't be the least bit helpful to anyone.

As far as corporate naming for arenas goes, New York's MTA refused to put "Citi Field" on the Flushing Line's Willets Point stop (formerly named Willets Point-Shea Stadium until the latter was demolished) because Citibank declined to pay for new signs and maps. Instead, the MTA called it "Mets-Willets Point." I think that's a pretty reasonable approach, subject to the comments above about team names but also recognizing that in New York it wouldn't work to say "Ballpark" because they have three of them served by the subway system (Citi Field, Yankee Stadium, and the Brooklyn Cyclones' ballpark down in Coney Island).

by Rich on Oct 27, 2011 2:57 pm • linkreport

"Porter noted that the [Holy Cross] hospital runs a shuttle to the [Forest Glen] station and there is Ride On service to the station."

I'm not familiar with that area. Does this mean that the hospital isn't walking distance from the station? The last thing you want to do is put a hospital symbol (implying emergency services) at a station -- only to have people exit there and not find a hospital. There's a similar problem with putting the symbol at Medical Center -- WRNMMC doesn't serve civilians.

by Novanglus on Oct 27, 2011 3:05 pm • linkreport

What is disconcerting to me about this situation is not that WMATA is discussing name changes, but rather that the Board is micromanaging this issue. As Alex B. pointed out, the Board already set guidelines so why not have WMATA employees put together a report addressing all station names in accordance with those guidelines and have the Board vote on that report instead of doing this piece meal (which leads to incongruous results).

And if the Board doesn't like the certain results of their policy/guidelines, then maybe they should address the guidelines and not the results.

by 7r3y3r on Oct 27, 2011 3:08 pm • linkreport

@John M. "Let the people PAYING for the change (i.e. likely the Nats) decide how it'll be done. After all, it's THEIR fans who'll be benefiting most."

But what about all the people who are paying for the change through increased confusion of trying to pronounce a "Curly-W"? You have to factor in the benefits and COSTS to the riding public.

by MDE on Oct 27, 2011 3:43 pm • linkreport

There was a recent poll that stated that Washington was one of the worst sports towns in the country. The fuss over whether to use the National's curly W logo is a prime example.
Now I see not using it to avoid having coporate entities on the subway line name, but not to use it because, as some have argued, they did not know what it was ("Walgreens?"), sure as to me proves Washington this is a terrible sports town.
I am from Detroit originally. If I toss up a sign with a Winged Wheel or a large Old English D, I am sure you would know exactly what teams I am referring to and you know exactly where I was going if I saw the logos on a map or a sign. Its self explanatory.
But if people who read this site have no clue if the logo refers to Walgreens or the Washington Baseball Club (Nationals and Senators before that), then yes, the logo needs to not appear on Metro signs as this town has proved the polls correct, it is hopelessly sports ignorant.

by Ray Bottorff on Oct 27, 2011 4:53 pm • linkreport

* Station names should be as short as possible, preferably so short they fit on the front of a train. Not "Largo Town Center", but "Largo".
* Stations should be named for one (1) location very close to the station. Not "Franconia-Springfield" but "Franconia".
* There is no need to "street", "square", etc in names. Not "McPherson Square" but "McPherson".
* Long streets should be avoided in station names. Not "Georgia Ave-Petworth", but "Petworth".
* Commercial names should be avoided - they are not stable enough. Neither are Universities.
* If no suitable name can be found, a station will be named after a the last name of a president, provided the name is not already in use, starting with Jefferson, unless a station ever gets built on Washington Ave.

by Jasper on Oct 27, 2011 4:54 pm • linkreport

Very happy with the staff recommendations. Glad they listened. I'd rather not have Old Town on King Street since the station itself isn't in Old Town proper, but it is very close, so it's a compromise worth making.

In general it seems the impulse to hyphenate comes from the fact that there is no new heavy rail investment coming down the pike for the foreseeable future. Counties and anyone else wanting hyphenated names should instead be pushing for additional transit investment.

by Omar on Oct 27, 2011 5:21 pm • linkreport

Square and Street are fine, e.g., NYC Transit, CTA in Chicago. McPherson Square is a lot different than McPherson, as is Union Square in Manhattan or Logan Square in Chicago. etc.

As Alex B. indirectly points out, the requests for exceptions for the most part proves that the rules make sense and the exception requests don't.

by Richard Layman on Oct 27, 2011 5:32 pm • linkreport

It's kind of sad that they couldn't think of anything distinctive - in a good way - to represent Minnesota Avenue, so they just have an image of the state of Minnesota.

by Dizzy on Oct 27, 2011 5:48 pm • linkreport

? - but it would be better is you could see how the back is torn off the building.

by Richard Layman on Oct 27, 2011 7:01 pm • linkreport

@ Richard Layman: Square and Street are fine

Why name a station after a street or square? Why not name is for the person the street is named after?

Also, do you say that you are going to Eisenhower Avenue, or to Eisenhower? Do you say you're going to Largo Town Center or do you say you're going to Largo - as the train and the PIDs say?

Why waste ink and space on words that add nothing? Saying Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan is not more clear than saying Woodley Park, or even Woodley. And just like visitors to Adams Morgan can learn they need to take the Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan station, they can learn (faster) that they need to learn Woodley Park.

by Jasper on Oct 27, 2011 8:37 pm • linkreport

@ Jasper. We name stations after a street or a square because that's where they're located. It makes sense to use names that help with way-finding. True, the names can go overboard, but I don't think I've ever heard anyone say they're going to "Eisenhower" or "King" or "U."

by Colleen on Oct 27, 2011 8:45 pm • linkreport

As noted earlier, the curly "W" logo that the Nationals seek could change over time. Teams move in, and out ("Washington Nationals" and "Baltimore Colts" to mention two). Given this, and the possibility of logo shift even if the team remains, if the Board should agree to allowing a logo at all, there should also be an ongoing obligation to the team to pay for all future changes if the logo changes, the team changes, or the team exits permanently. "Ballpark" would be a more permanent element of an overall station name.

by LW on Oct 28, 2011 7:56 am • linkreport

@Ray Bottorff, it's not fair to conclude that the vast indifference towards the Nats means that Washington is a bad sports town; what it shows is that Washington is a bad baseball town. Always has been. There's a reason the Senators kept leaving for greener pastures, while our football team is one of the nation's most valuable sports franchises despite being run by an eminently hateable buffoon.

Heck, a lot of the locals actively resent the Nats. There wasn't really that much popular demand for a baseball team, but local elites with civic inferiority complexes were entranced with the idea of being a "major league" city and totally gave away the store to lure the Expos away from Montreal, notwithstanding the fact that the Expos were desperate to move and negotiating from a position of weakness. And the Lerners demonstrated their gratitutde by promptly withholding their below-market rent payments for the stadium on a specious claim that the stadium wasn't yet finished, all visual evidence to the contrary aside.

I live six blocks from the Nats stadium. Never been to a game, probably never will. But I've been to football games, and basketball games, and hockey games, and soccer games, and roller derby bouts...

by cminus on Oct 28, 2011 9:25 am • linkreport

Councilmember Bowser is clearly representing Ward 4 and not the District on the Metro Board. If Georgia Avenue is not important for the primary name ... the station name should be Petworth/Park View. The station is right on the border of these two neighborhoods. Furthermore, the name would be reduced to four syllables, just like Union Station, Dupont Circle, Metro Center, etc., etc. All successful station names.

by Kent on Oct 28, 2011 10:52 am • linkreport

The King Street station isn't in Old Town? News to me, a 6-year Old Town resident :)

by Catherine on Oct 28, 2011 11:49 am • linkreport

I always thought the metro names were stupid. We should name them more like they do in New York, at least for stations in the city. For instance for the Green Line:

Congress Heights = Alabama Ave
Anacostia = Howard Rd
Navy Yard = 1st St SE
Waterfront = 4th St SW
L'Enfant Plaza = D St SW
Archives = Pennsylvania Ave NW
Gallery Place = G St NW
Mt Vernon Sq = M St NW
Shaw = R St NW
U Street = U St NW or 12th St NW
Columbia Heights = Irving St NW
Georgia Ave = Georgia Ave NW or New Hampshire Ave NW
Ft. Totten = 1st Place NW
Takoma = Cedar St NW

Suburban sites could be listed by the city/town the site represents. Just a thought.


by Gregg L on Oct 28, 2011 12:30 pm • linkreport

@Gregg L

I think DC's combination of single letter and number streets, along with quadrants, makes that a difficult system to use. New York's rigid grid in Manhattan with one predominant 'directionality' (the numbers go up as you go further uptown) makes it a lot easier.

Chicago, too, uses cross streets, but all of Chicago's streets have evocative place names. Chicago's signage also makes extensive use of grid coordinates at stations to inform someone exactly where they are within the broader city:

by Alex B. on Oct 28, 2011 1:01 pm • linkreport

@Alex B.: Ah, the evocative place names of all of Chicago's streets! Like 71st Street, where I grew up...69th Street, where there's an L station not far from my old house....

Alex, you evidently haven't been to the South Side, where most of the east-west streets, and hence many of the L stations, have number names. Still, like Manhattan and unlike DC, Chicago has only one set of number streets, so they cause no more L station name confusion than any other streets. (There is definitely some potential for confusion: for example, there are two 47th Street stations, on different lines -- and no less than five Western Avenue stations, two of them on different legs of the same line.)

by davidj on Oct 28, 2011 1:52 pm • linkreport

@Alex B.: After writing the above I followed your link and discovered a very nice description of Chicago's strong grid system and the reference frame it gives the locals (so that, in particular, multiple L stations with the same name pose no real problem). I kind of miss that. Thanks!

by davidj on Oct 28, 2011 2:09 pm • linkreport


Yeah, not a southsider - my mistake on the omission. Nothing wrong with numbered streets for transit wayfinding, it's DC's mirrored structure that would make it confusing. Still, the numbered streets on the southside and the radial nature of the system give the same sort of internal logic to things that you get in Manhattan. You don't quite get that in DC - partly because our grid centers on the Capitol, while the real center of town is someplace else.

by Alex B. on Oct 28, 2011 3:16 pm • linkreport

That change eliminating the name REAGAN from the airport is radical politics at its worst. Thank goodness those on the right don't waste their time removing the name 'KENNEDY' from airports, roadways and bridges. It's so juvenile.

It's also just a little too nonsensical for the Board to be 'wasting' so much time and energy on station name changes while escalators don't work along with the METRO POLICE force who don't seem to know the definition of work.

by Pelham1861 on Oct 28, 2011 4:05 pm • linkreport

First, @Pelham1861, the change clearly does not remove "Reagan" from the name of the airport. It's still on the sign, and it's still part of the name of the airport.

Second, it was radical effrontery to begin with to tack the name of the president who fired over 5/6 of the nation's air traffic controllers onto the name of an airport already named for our nation's first president.

Had Metro wanted to demonstrate true chutzpah and cojones, they would have renamed the station "Airport". Or better still, "Crystal City South". Maybe even "Arlandria".

by Craig on Oct 29, 2011 12:34 am • linkreport

@Gregg L:Suburban sites could be listed by the city/town the site represents.

Yeah, so the orange line stops west from Foggy Bottom would be:
Falls Church
Falls Church

The Blue Line south of Foggy Bottom would be:

Great idea.

by Jasper on Oct 31, 2011 1:05 pm • linkreport

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