The Transport Politic on Philly’s plan to sell station names

SEPTA has a proposal on the table to rename its Broad Street Station to AT&T station, along with Detroit’s plan to corporate sell a name for its street car. Yonah Freemark remarks:

But Philadelphia’s decision could be going further because not only does it remove the current name entirely from maps, but it does so to existing stations that have retained their current names for decades. Even worse, the names have no relevance to the areas they serve — it’s not like AT&T has a major facility at Pattison Station. The whole situation raises the frightening prospect in the near future that, instead of riding the Broad Street Subway from City Hall to Pattison, people will take the Coca-Cola Trolley from Pizza Hut to AT&T. Moreover, five years later, considering the current rate of changes in corporate names and sponsorships, all of those names may have to be modified! There are two fundamental problems with the idea that station names can be sold to the highest bidder: One, doing so challenges a fundamental element of transit service provision, that it is a public service; and two, that the names provide an important connection between the line-based geography of transit systems and the street or neighborhood-based geography of the city around stations.

link: Philadelphia May Accept Money to Privatize Station Naming; Pittsburgh Considers Similar Move « The Transport Politic

I don’t really have much to add to Freemark’s discussion other than expand it on this somewhat. He notes that it is confusing to riders and tourists to have to deal with an “AT&T station” in every city they encounter. But it’s also depressing. You get to a point where the built environment of cities gets so homogenized with corporate clutter than it doesn’t matter if you are in Boston or in New York or Shanghai: you’ll see the same brands all over. So instead of Candlestick, we have AT&T park, and instead of naming schools after luminary scholars, we name them after rich people who aren’t satisfied with having their companies and foundations named after them.

I wonder if anybody will ever give a naming gift for a bus seat?

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2 thoughts on “The Transport Politic on Philly’s plan to sell station names

  1. The state legislature requires SEPTA and other transit authorities to be creative in ways to raise alternative revenues, in order to reduce the need for additional subsidies, incresed fares or decreased services. Advertising is one avenue to meet this mandate. Buses are already wrapped, stations are “dominated”, trains have ads on seats and ceilings, and even subway walls are potential billboards. Ad monitors are in stations. In Pittsburgh, there were recent editorials in the local papers pleading for PAT to consider the same tactic there, in order to think “outside the box” to preserve bus routes about to be axed. “Naming Rights” offers public agencies opportunities in an era where taxpayers are letting elected officials know in very clear that higher property taxes for government services are not acceptable.

    • Thanks for stopping by.

      It’s quite clear that a) advertising is everywhere and that b) transit desperately needs money. I teach in a campus where everything is named, from buildings to programs to schools to plazas to park benches. Naming stations isn’t particularly creative–we’ve been naming public spaces after corporate entities for years and years and years. And, please, I’m an old hand at this: don’t try to get me to believe that the only two choices available were “naming rights” versus property taxes. That’s a clever and political trick of strategically framing the problem to get “naming rights” to look like the more palatable of unpalatable strategies. Well, folks, it was either sell off your place name or…sell off your kidneys to those desperate for transplants…or your mom to slavers. There are a whole bunch of public finance possibilities that are available, including the 30-10 gambit that the LA mayor went with.

      If taxpayers only want a public service like transit when somebody else pays for it for them, then it seems to me that the political message is pretty clear and not what you are suggesting it is.

      AND if it’s creativity we are seeking, it seems to me that a creative solution is to allow for sponsorship that doesn’t erase place identity. My suspicion is that it would be better, actually, to have a named route for a bus or a train than for stations. Think about it: every transit company has its orange, blue, green, purple, pink, etc lines. Those are meaningless names, serving only to differentiate lines; the color tells you nothing about direction or the place you are in; it’s a label. You might as well be riding the AT&T line as the pink line. But AT&T station rather than, say, the Logan station in Chicago, next to Logan Square? What if we were to call that the “Hooters” station, and there were Hooters stations in every metropolitan area you went to?

      Clearly ballpark are going this route. But it is a strategy that is looking progressively more short-sighted as some very successful franchises remain in historic parks that are part of the region’s identity. So selling off named stations might be no biggie (though I think you should have held out for more than $3 million, honestly)…but it might be a short term gain and and a long-term loss for the neighborhood desirability surrounding the station. Or not. Perhaps people will want to live by Nokia Square the same way they like living in Washington Square.

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