It will still take some time to fix the escalators, but Metro has found a solution to another smaller perennial annoyance for riders: unwieldy station names. They are adopting a suggestion that came out of our map contest, to break up long names into primary titles and subtitles.

Image from WMATA.

WMATA conducted 6 user focus groups on current and proposed station names. Participants generally agreed with the principles that have been proposed before, such as keeping station names simple, having them “evoke imagery,” and tying them to locations people otherwise recognize.

They also felt strongly that any landmarks listed in a station name should lie within walking distance; this has been a criticism of some stations like Vienna/Fairfax-GMU, where George Mason University is 4.2 miles or over an hour’s walk away.

In one clip played at today’s Board meeting, participants in one focus group variously said they felt any place names should be no more than a 5-minute walk, 2 blocks, or “a few” blocks away, and strongly panned including any places that require a shuttle bus to reach from the station.

Station subtitles got strong acclaim, and Metro plans to start using this idea in maps beginning in June 2012. The one exception is the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport station, where participants had mixed reviews for the idea of making the primary name “National Airport” with a subtitle listing the full name.

They didn’t ask the focus groups about shortening already short names with universities or places of interest, such as Brookland-CUA, Shaw-Howard Univ, and Foggy Bottom-GWU. If most universities are going to become subtitles, it seems reasonable to do the same even for these. Besides, almost nobody says they’re going to take Metro to “Brookland See You Eh Station.”

The definite subtitled names will include:

  • Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan
  • New York Ave-Florida Ave-Gallaudet U
  • Mt. Vernon Sq/7th Street-Convention Center
  • Archives-Navy Memorial-Penn Quarter
  • West Falls Church-VT/UVA
  • U Street/African-Amer Civil War Memorial/Cardozo
  • Vienna/Fairfax-GMU
  • Georgia Ave-Petworth
  • Grosvenor-Strathmore
  • Rhode Island Ave-Brentwood

During the WMATA Board’s discussion today, member Jeff McKay from Fairfax suggested that the policy also require that the primary name for the station be closer than a secondary item. For example, Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan appropriately puts Woodley Park first, since the station is in Woodley Park and only near the other elements.

Based on this, the Mt. Vernon Square/7th Street-Convention Center station perhaps should be rearranged to something like Convention Center/Mt. Vernon Square-7th Street. The convention center is right at the station, but Mount Vernon Square itself is actually 2 whole blocks away, and actually equidistant from that station and the northernmost exit from Gallery Place.

And then there’s New York Avenue station, which isn’t even on New York Avenue at all, is really long, and just takes its name from 2 very long roads. There have been proposals to switch it to NoMa-Gallaudet U. This is shorter, reflects a real place as opposed to two long streets, and helps brand the emerging neighborhood.

However, the presentation says the focus group participants weren’t keen on many of the possible station name changes staff bounced off them, including this one. Still, that might come from unfamiliarity and a general lack of enthusiasm for the name “NoMa”; officials should still consider making the change. Many people don’t realize, for instance, that the station actually isn’t on New York Avenue at all.

The participants did like two potential station name changes: “Smithsonian-National Mall” and adding some information about the Nationals to Navy Yard, whether a curly W logo or the words “Ballpark” or “Nationals.” They didn’t like also adding “Capitol Riverfront,” the name of the BID.

Three other potential changes got mixed reviews: “Forest Glen-Holy Cross Hospital,” “Waterfront-Arena Stage,” and “King Street-Old Town.” What do you think of these?

The focus groups disliked the proposed Silver Line station names, with the exception of “Tysons I&II” and “Reston Town Center.” Matt Johnson noted that “Tysons I&II” will look terrible in the sans-serif Helvetica font Metro uses, but it’s probably true that it does reflect what’s there. Still, why can’t it at least be something like “Tysons Malls” if not something more interesting?

The Riders’ Advisory Council also sent a letter to the Board noting that the repetition could confuse many people, including tourists or people with cognitive disabilities. One member joked that it would probably confuse her as well, even though she has no cognitive disability.

Here’s the list of all station names that were evaluated. These aren’t necessarily official proposals or endorsed by staff, the board, or anyone else. The official procedure for evaluating name changes is for a jurisdiction to formally request one, and nobody has yet done this for any stations except the upcoming Silver Line stations.

  • Georgia Ave-Petworth/Park View
  • Navy Yard-Capitol Riverfront
  • Navy Yard with Curly W (Washington Nationals logo) Forest Glen-Holy Cross Hospital
  • Waterfront-Arena Stage
  • Smithsonian-National Mall
  • Old Town or King Street-Old Town
  • McPherson Square-Chicago School of Psychology
  • Judiciary Square/Georgetown University Law School
  • NoMa Gallaudet U NoMa-Gallaudet U
  • Rosslyn/Georgetown University
  • West Hyattsville/Mt. Ranier
  • Farragut North/Golden Triangle
  • Anacostia/Frederick Douglass House
  • White Flint North Bethesda

Looking at all these names, and ones above, brings up another issue: dashes and slashes. Why is it Vienna/Fairfax-GMU but West Falls Church-VT/UVA? Or, on the list of names evaluated, McPherson Square-Chicago School of Psychology but Anacostia/Frederick Douglass House (both atrocious, by the way, which thankfully the focus groups agreed about and probably staff just threw in there to have something on the extremes)?

According to the presentation, there was one other interesting innovation participants liked: the idea of putting small icons on each station. Lance Wyman, who is redesigning the Metro map, is eager for the idea, which he actually proposed 40 years ago but which didn’t get adopted at the time. Maybe it will now?

Image from WMATA.


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David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). 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 lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.