Station names are about system usability, not neighborhood identity

Note: This article was cross-posted to Greater Greater Washington.

Metrorail station names are long. Long enough, in fact, that they’re a source of frequent debate, whether it’s comparing Metrorail station names to those of similar systems, or proposing new station names. The consensus among many transit advocates is that the long station names do little to aid wayfinding, and if anything are probably actively harmful to the usability of the Metrorail system. Now, WMATA has developed a new set of station naming guidelines.

These guidelines were previewed at last week’s meeting of the WMATA Riders’ Advisory Council, and a fervent debate on station names followed. When the issue of shortening certain station names was discussed, some RAC members proceeded to call for an elongated timeline, extensive outreach programs, public hearings, and more. There was even some discussion of not changing certain station names, out of a fear of political repercussions.

Unfortunately, this perspective betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of station names. Station names do not define communities; they serve to identify stations. If we didn’t need the system to be usable by ordinary riders, we could just refer to stations by RTU code; then people on Twitter would complain about their commute from K06 to A03. But most people haven’t memorized every station’s RTU code, so we need station names which have real meaning. In other cities, like New York and Chicago, station names are short, and generally derived from a station’s location in the street grid: “23 St”, or “Clark/Lake”. Only the very most popular points of interest are included in station names, like 34 St–Penn Station, 42 St–Grand Central, or 81 St–Museum of Natural History. What you will not find is a plethora of neighborhood names; there is no “SoHo Station”, no “DUMBO Station”. But that doesn’t mean that SoHo, DUMBO, or dozens of other New York City communities do not exist; station naming isn’t a value judgement of the surrounding communities, and station names don’t define communities. In New York, station renamings do not require public hearings, are not carried out by committee, and in general are performed at the will of the agency (such as for Court Square and Jay Street/MetroTech).

WMATA’s station naming process is broken. The station naming guidelines recently put forth by WMATA staff are fantastic. Unfortunately, the only way they’ll be applied to existing stations is if the jurisdictions choose to submit new names for consideration. With station names having been made a politically sensitive issue, it’s doubtful that any jurisdiction would choose to do so.

With revisions to the Metrorail map underway and an expectation that some station name changes may occur, let me put forth a modest proposal: considering that Lance Wyman will have to shoehorn all of these names on the map, wouldn’t it make sense for him (and future designers) to have a say in station names? Wouldn’t it make sense for experts with a background in wayfinding to have a say in station names? Under the present system, WMATA can call in experts to help in applying the station naming guidelines, but their role remains limited to accepting or rejecting the names put forth for consideration by the jurisdictions.

The issue of long station names came up several times in today’s Washington Post chat with Mr. Wyman. Though he did not outright condemn long station names, Mr. Wyman recognized that they pose a usability and design concern:

As the station names have gotten longer over the years they become much more difficult to understand at a glance. That doesn’t help.

Expanding on the previous answer, he re-introduced the idea of station icons, which were proposed for but never took root on the Metrorail system. (When Paul Arthur and Lance Wyman collaborated on a signage redesign for the TTC, the use of station icons was proposed there, too. The redesign failed, but not because of the use of station icons.)

I’ve just mentioned the long station names. As was intended in the design of the original map 40 years ago, the thought of station icons as well as names could give you an immediate clue as to important aspects of a station (historical, cultural, important landmark, etc.). The names could be short, the visual icon would communicate everyone’s language. It would make the riding experience user friendly and help give a great city a visual index.

When asked directly about local neighborhoods campaigning to be added to station names, Mr. Wyman again did not speak to the issue outright, but rather reiterated the need to strike a balance which preserves usability, acknowledging that the long station names “make the overall Metro map less effective”.

In closing, I would suggest that we take a back-to-basics approach with the next iteration of the Metrorail map. Give every station a name which meets the current guidelines, and an icon, too. Though the names and icons would be defined by a designer, the communities around each station won’t be shut out. Rather than simply asking communities what they’d like to call their station (a process which has led to the inflation of station names), community input can be solicited in a way that preserves design principles—for example, using the process Paul Arthur proposed for the aforementioned TTC redesign:

These icons won’t be imposed on subway users willy-nilly; they are to be developed station-by-station with community input. “The intention is to present the communities with some ideas,” Paul Arthur explains, “and say, ‘What of these do you like? And if you don’t like any, tell us you don’t like any,’ so that the TTC for the first time will be able to go out to the communities it serves and say, ‘Tell us what you would like.’ ”
from Joe Clark’s TTC Signs: finding a better way

Hopefully, through a combination of sensible design and community input, we can reign in Metrorail station names, and improve the usability of the system for everyone.