Metro has a long history of appending extra names to stations. It’s a problem for several reasons, notably because of the confusion it causes, the complexity it adds to the map, and the cost to taxpayers. The latest proposals call for adding “National Mall” and “Kennedy Center” to station names. Both should be scuttled.

The Smithsonian Castle and eponymous Metro station. Photo by the author.

This Thursday, the WMATA Board will take up proposals to change the names of two stations: Foggy Bottom-GWU will become Foggy Bottom-GWU with a subtitle of Kennedy Center, and Smithsonian will get National Mall as a subtitle if the proposals pass. These suggestions come from the District government.

Metro’s staff are recommending against renaming Foggy Bottom. Two-thirds of riders surveyed via their Amplify tool disliked the proposal. But they are recommending adding National Mall to Smithsonian because 54% of those surveyed supported the idea.

Metro’s current policy limits station names to 19 characters, including the subtitles, which were a new innovation in 2011 which David Alpert and I devised in our contest to redesign the map.

Many stations’ names predate that policy and violate that principle, some quite egregiously, like the 44-character U Street/African-Amer Civil War Mem’l/Cardozo. Both proposals before the board would also violate the rule.

Don’t misinform riders

The thing about the National Mall is that it’s actually quite a large place. It stretches two miles from the west steps of the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. Depending on where one is going, several different stations could suffice.

The National Mall and surrounding Metro stops. Image from Google Maps.

One complaint from tourists is that “Smithsonian” itself isn’t particularly descriptive. If you’re going to the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian isn’t your stop. If you’re going to the Smithsonian National Zoo, Cleveland Park is the closest (not, as you might expect, Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan).

Still, most of the Smithsonian museums are clustered in the area, and the Smithsonian Castle is only steps away from Smithsonian station. But the National Mall is an even bigger area. And parts of it are much easier to get to from other stops.

The Capitol Botanical Gardens are much closer to Capitol South and Federal Center SW. The Lincoln Memorial is more easily accessed from Foggy Bottom and Arlington Cemetery.

Adding “National Mall” to the Smithsonian station name may encourage even more riders to overcrowd the station trying to get to the National Mall, when really they would have been better off not transferring at L’Enfant Plaza (itself close to the Mall).

Metro already spends resources telling tourists and locals not to use Smithsonian to get to the Cherry Blossom Festival, the Fourth of July fireworks, and other major events. Adding the name will likely make that problem worse.

Also, the Mall is already on the map. One of the elements of the recent Metro map redesign is a dark green rectangle showing the extent of the National Mall. Smithsonian station is clearly within that rectangle, and as a result, adding the name is clearly overkill.

The National Mall is shown on the map already. Image from WMATA.

Compared to other cities, our system has lots of ambiguity and confusion

One of the reasons that Metro keeps names short is because in terms of wayfinding, complex names add complexity and reduce how easy it is to comprehend the system.

Consider other cities.

With few exceptions, Montreal’s Metro uses one-word names, generally named after the cross street or a nearby feature. Stations like Atwater, Place-des-Armes, and Saint-Laurent are easily understood, even by non French speakers (though Lionel-Groulx is quite the mouthful).

In New York, stations are very concise. South Ferry. 72. Pelham Bay Park. Chicago keeps it short, too. Damen. Howard. Randolph/Wabash.

Los Angeles largely uses intersections. Vermont/Sunset. Exposition/Crenshaw. Pershing Square.

These short names are good because they’re easy to understand, they’re descriptive, and they’re largely unambiguous. New York and Chicago do have issues with repeated names (in Chicago, there are two Clintons, for example).

One example of how we do things differently is Mount Vernon Square. In Washington, it’s an important station because it serves as a terminal for the Yellow Line. Trains headed into the city frequently carry its name on destination signs. Tourists need to be able to find the station quickly on the map to figure out where the train is bound.

But Mount Vernon Square is really called Mount Vernon Sq-7th St-Convention Center. And some signage in the system calls it simply “Convention Center”. For instance, at Gallery Place, signs on the lower level say that Yellow trains headed north are bound for “Fort Totten via Convention Center.” But when those trains show up, they say “Mount Vernon Square.” So which is it?

To Fort Totten via “Convention Center.” Photo by the author.

Someone might tell an out of town guest to meet them at the Chinatown Metro, but when the train operator calls it simply “Gallery Place,” they don’t alight. That’s a problem.

Or when listening to an announcement that trains are “single tracking between Dunn Loring Merrifield and West Falls Church University of Virginia Virginia Tech,” irregular riders can be excused for wondering whether that’s two stations or six.

The western end of the Silver Line is Wiehle-Reston East. Many people simply call that station the “Reston” station. That’s a problem because in a few years, Metro will open a new station at Reston Town Center. The real Reston station. But old habits die hard, and people will probably still call the station at Wiehle Avenue “Reston” or “Reston East.”

Metro refuses to learn from its mistakes

Time and again, jurisdictions have submitted naming requests. There have been some truly awful suggestions, like Navy Yard- (with an actual curly “” logo for the Nationals, who play nearby. (Metro staff strongly recommended against that abomination.)

Often, however, the agency punts to the jurisdiction, saying that there’s “no cost” to WMATA, since the local government is picking up the tab.

There is a cost to WMATA, though. The cost of comprehension and navigability.

Station names should really reflect simply one thing. That might be a street or intersection, a neighborhood, or a nearby venue. If something changes, like a new convention center being constructed, Metro should certainly consider changing station names. But only at the expense of actually removing the old name and replacing it.

Mount Vernon Square-7th Street-Convention Center should either be Mount Vernon Square or Convention Center. Not both.

So, if “National Mall” is so compelling to add to Smithsonian, it should replace the name Smithsonian. But that would be the wrong call, because as noted, the National Mall is a big place which is served by at least four other Metro stations.

It’s time the name sprawl stopped. If you agree, contact the Metro Board and say that you oppose this change using the form below. But don’t wait long. The vote is on Thursday.


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Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master’s in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Dupont Circle. He’s a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, and is an employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer.