Over time, Metro’s station names have gotten longer with the addition of nearby sites and neighborhoods. This “name sprawl” has gotten out of hand. Metro should return to the original 15-character limit on station names.

Station names range in length from Takoma’s 6 letters to 44 characters for U St/African Amer Civil War Memorial/Cardozo. In fact, that station’s name is the longest (by character) heavy rail station name in the United States. It beats out gems like Atlanta’s Georgia Dome/GWCC/Philips Arena/CNN Center and New York’s Sutphin Boulevard-Archer Avenue-JFK Airport.

As far as heavy rail goes, Metro has the fourth longest average station name length (when counted by characters). Only Baltimore, Los Angeles, and New York have longer averages. Interestingly enough, though, we used to do better. If one analyzes the names of stations as seen on the 1976 Metro map, the average station name length was only 11.9 characters.

Name sprawl is a result of the idea that station names have to reflect absolutely everything remotely close by. This is generally done to encourage people to ride transit to these venues. But unless a destination is relatively close to the station, it’s actually quite disingenuous of the transit agency to do this.

We would find it ridiculous for Metro, for instance, to append “Mount Vernon” to Huntington, right? The Mount Vernon estate is about 6.5 miles from Huntington — quite a walk. However, George Mason University, which does have a suffix, is 6 miles from Vienna-Fairfax/GMU station.

Stations also seem to accrete names due to politics. Neighborhoods might feel left out or a new venue needs a bit of free advertising. And so a few more characters get added to the station name placards.

But sometimes the additions are dubious at best. The “7th Street” part of Mount Vernon Sq/7th St-Convention Center, for instance, makes absolutely no sense. It’s not inaccurate; the station is indeed under 7th Street. But so are Shaw-Howard U, Gallery Pl-Chinatown, Archives-Navy Mem’l-Penn Quarter, and L’Enfant Plaza.

WMATA’s policy is to make the jurisdiction requesting the change pay. And at $400k per renaming, that’s not a cheap proposition. That’s probably why “-SEU” will remain appended to Waterfront on signs throughout the system for a long time despite the fact that it has permanently closed.

One main reason to avoid name sprawl is the confusion that can result. With Mount Vernon Sq/7th Street-Convention Center, for instance, someone told to get off at “Convention Center” might miss their stop when the station is only announced as “Mount Vernon Square.” And during announcements, stations with extremely long names bleed together. For instance, consider the announcement that Metro is single-tracking between “Vienna Fairfax George Mason University and Dunn Loring Merrifield.” To someone not familiar with the system, that could be a list of anywhere between 2 and 6 stations.

So, I propose that Metro begin moving toward a limit of 15 characters in station names as stations are re-signed. When a station name is cut, the jurisdiction should chose which bit to keep, but to the best extent possible, hyphenated names should be avoided and stations should be kept under the limit.

Here’s one possible approach. In this case, the station name length average would drop to 11.7 characters.


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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.