Philadelphia May Accept Money to Privatize Station Naming; Pittsburgh Considers Similar Move

» SEPTA board votes Thursday on plan to rename station on behalf of AT&T in exchange for $3 million. Is the public interest being sacrificed?

The last two years have been extremely difficult for virtually every American transit agency — they’ve been slaughtered by declining tax revenue and been forced to both decrease services and increase fares, despite a general uptick in the market of people interested in riding public transportation. This lack of funds — and a realization that Washington is not riding in on a white horse — has led agencies to do things many wouldn’t have considered appropriate just a few years back, just to make a quick buck.

In Philadelphia, that may mean the renaming of the Broad Street Subway’s Pattison Avenue terminus to the AT&T Station by August if the SEPTA regional transit board agrees to the deal in a session later this week. Pattison Avenue is adjacent to the city’s major sports stadiums, which themselves are frequently subject to re-namings based on changes in sponsorship. The five-year deal would net the cash-starved agency $3 million and include the corporate name on maps and signs throughout the large rail and bus system; this deal could be the first among many. Pittsburgh’s Port Authority, currently building a light rail link to the stadium district called the North Shore Connector, is considering whether it should follow a similar strategy and seek out sponsors for its infrastructure projects.

Should the name of a business be ingrained onto the transit map of any city? Is there a point where the public sphere must be separated once and for all from the private world?

Philadelphia is not the first American city to make this move. New York’s MTA agreed to affix the name “Barclays Center” to Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue station for $200,000 annually last year, but that agreement does not remove the current name, it just lengthens it. Cleveland’s Euclid Corridor bus rapid transit line was renamed the Health Line after the local Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals, though that project was a brand-new service. And Detroit’s planned streetcar will include stations whose names will be sold to sponsors.

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.

Transit agencies today already find ways to pull private dollars into the system through advertising revenue, so it would be unreasonable to argue that American bus or rail operations are idealistic models of public services unaffected by the negative and intrusive aspects of the capitalist environment around them. But there are limits: Taxpayers foot the majority of the bill for most transit systems, so they shouldn’t have to be overwhelmed by ads providing only minimal additional revenues.

What may most infuriating about the sale of station naming rights is just how cheap they are relative to transit agency size. SEPTA’s annual budgets are over one billion dollars each, so the sale of a station name will do almost nothing to relieve the fiscal problems the organization faces. It seems unfair to change the name of a station to that of a business when most money comes from the public treasury; decisions should as a result be based in the public interest, not in that of a corporation, even if it gives some money to the agency. A compromise might be New York’s solution of adding the corporate name to the end of the existing name.

But Philadelphia’s approach — simply axing the current title — will remove the sense that the station’s name in some way denotes the urban geography of the place it serves. Most rail transit stations are named after streets (New York’s Subway exemplifies this), and for people who live in walkable city centers, that’s incredibly important, since it allows instant information about where trains and buses are when they stop. The name AT&T Station provides absolutely no information to anyone about where in the city it is.

Similarly, with neighborhood-based naming, such as used by Washington’s Metro, the station becomes the core of the community and becomes a meeting point for people coming from different parts of the city. Can you imagine people discussing whether to meet up in AT&T or Pizza Hut — and meaning the station areas, not the stores? It seems likely that transit agencies will be forced to add supplemental information on all signs to indicate just where each corporate station is located.

Removing the geography-based name and replacing it with a corporate name virtually ensures that either infrequent commuters are fated to be completely lost in a transit system with completely irrelevant station names (especially if it’s underground), or that maps and signage are threatened with being overwhelmed with multiple layers of information, some important, some not, an end product that certainly won’t add ease getting around either.

My major concern for Philadelphia and cities considering similar name sell-offs — the more wide-scale, the more problematic — is that they are sacrificing the ability of transit riders to find their way around the city. That seems to be a bad compromise in favor of a small amount of extra cash.

Image above: A Philadelphia SEPTA commuter train near Paoli Station, from Flickr user jpmueller99

32 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • The New York case seems like a very different case because an actual structure called the Barclay Center is going to be built next to the renamed subways stops, so the name will improve wayfinding, not hinder it. The equivalent would be if AT&T paid San Francisco Muni to rename the 2nd and King Metro stop AT&T Park. The Philly example appears to really just be a brand name floating in space.

  • Ocean Railroader

    This sounds like some thing from the Moive Idoitorcy.

    I could picture going from Lancaster to Richmond in the Future. OK take the Pizzia Hut Express down from the Staples Train Station to the Washingtion Spongbob Union Station and then swich over to AT&T Tee Mobible express running between the Sprit Station and the AT&T station and then take it over to the Hoilday Inn station and you should now be in Lancaster County then.

    It’s like our places great names are dying off to be replaced with common names that are used over and over again.

  • Chris

    As a Philadelphian, this is rather dumb. It would be better if the name Pattison remained. Like “Pattison Ave-AT&T”. I’m actually not surprised SEPTA did this, they haven’t made a smart decision in 30 years.

  • Anyone who seriously thinks corporate sponsorship of stations is a good idea needs to read this:

    http://www.humantransit.org/2009/06/next-stop-citibank-station.html

  • Stirner

    AT&T Station @ Sports Complex would be a nice compromise.

    The majority of riders at that stop are looking to go to the stadiums, it’s only the locals that are going to “Pattison Ave.” So the negative impacts are minimal.

    As sponsorships change over the years, SEPTA could keep the same nomenclature, minimizing the disruption as the sponsors changed.

    3 million might be a drop in the bucket, but if they could use that money to powerwash the urine off the walls and floors of the City Hall Commuter Concourse, it would be a great boon to the image of mass transit in Philadelphia.

  • John W

    Charge much more, have the money in escrow in case the corp goes bankrupt, have the contract run for 25 years, and ironclad the name – if the corporation changes it’s name, tough luck, the station name doesn’t change. That’s about the only way it could work, and that’s still pretty rubbish.

    I could see sponsoring line names, however, subject to the above rules. In London, for instance, they mostly have some geographical meaning, but not all – eg the Jubilee line. Ditto the Canada Line in Vancouver (which, in a sense, does have a sponsor – iircc the name change was in exchange for the Canadian govt ponying up a whack of cash). Certainly for the many US cities that have lines named after colours, it would do nothing to hinder mobility, findability or usability.

    • John W

      I should clarify – I can see that being feasible. Doesn’t mean I like it or think that it’s for the public good. Line names are pretty emotive things (though people do get used to them, or bastardise them – I love that Vancouverites have undermined the branding of GM Place by referring to it as ‘The Garage’).

      The one thing, please, please, if they do go ahead with it is to simplify the corp name to the minimum. The Molson Line sounds reasonable, the Molson Brewery Inc Line sounds plain stupid. I would pay to see someone name their subway the Coke Line, though ;-)

    • Nathanael

      I believe it was London — or was it NYC? — which priced out how much it actually cost them to change a station name (signs, maps, documentation, publicity, etc.) and announced the amount.

      The result showed that a company would have to offer a *lot* of money to even cover the direct costs. $3 million won’t even cover SEPTA’s costs to change signage and maps.

      • Adirondacker12800

        That’s if they change the signage and maps. Bostonians make a sport out of finding all the places the MBTA hasn’t bothered to change the maps etc.

  • Tom West

    $3m seems like a paltry sum… if a company wishes to sponser a station, it should pay for all its construction costs, and for all its maintainence costs every year thereafter (to standards set by the transit agency).
    There is a common habit of advertising companies paying to install and maintain bus shelters in return for the ad revenue from a poster on it.
    The maintanence part is key… the sponser will get an on-going benefit, so they should pay out money every year.

    • Nathanael

      Agreed — if you’re going to do something fairly obnoxious and ridership-upsetting like this, you’d better be getting a LOT of money. $3 million (over five years?!?) is paltry.

      The sponsor should (a) pay the full cost of changing signage and maps, (b) create an escrow account to pay the full cost of changing signage and maps BACK should the sponsor drop out, and (c) pay in perpetuity the full costs of maintenance of whatever is being sponsored (like a station).

      At that level of funding, this sort of deal would make sense. I think SEPTA’s getting shortchanged.

  • I agree Stirner: a smart compromise would be for AT&T Station at Broad-Pattison. The geographic identification of stations is crucial to their utility. It certainly is not the most graceful sounding name, but I’d rather take Pizza Hut Station at Girard than simply, Pizza Hut Station. <<

    Perhaps this one is being proposed because its terminus is at the stadiums so it won't engender as much confusion as, say, an intermediate station like Walnut-Locust.

    And yes, $3 million seems quite low.

  • Danny

    What I don’t understand is why a company would want to sponsor a subway station, stadium, concert hall, etc. They almost always have near zero (and sometimes negative) effects on brand perception, and minimal effects on brand recognition. And they cost a hell of a lot more than more effective forms of advertising and PR.

    But I guess as long as there is a marketing budget to spend, you might as well spend it, even if it does nothing for you.

  • macgregor

    I say if SEPTA doesn’t want to pony up $3 million a year, sell the rights. Budgets have to be balanced. Sure it’d be nice if the old name was kept but how else are you going to plug the budget hole?

    Yonah, why don’t you cover the RTD Eagle P3 privitization scheme, where the winning bid came in $300 million under RTD’s estimated price and RTD and the winning bidder get to use all the intellectual property and cost cutting ideas submitted by every bidder.

  • Toast2042

    @Macgregor
    Isn’t the EagleP3 line being reduced in infrastructure and service in order to make that budget?
    Transit infrastructure is not and shouldn’t be attempted to be made into a money-making venture. People need to accept that there are costs to living in a modern city. Pay your taxes and get over it or move to Idaho and live on a compound.

  • eldondre

    I agree with Stirner, AT&T Sports Complex. Really, Pattison is irrelevant, no one cars what street the stadiums are on. I’d also prefer if it went to maintenance, new excalators, paint, tilework, etc. It would work in their favor as there would be a direct to between station improvement and AT&T’s name. BTW, teh city also got $2m out of this deal (AT&T is paying $5 million).

  • In a perfect world, it’s easy to say cities don’t need to do this but…

    My take on this for LA:

    Selling Metro: Why It Doesn’t Hurt to Ask, and Lessons from Cirque du Soleil
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joel-epstein/selling-metro-why-it-does_b_384361.html

    Take the (A) Train — Your Name Here on Metro
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joel-epstein/take-the-a-train—-your_b_369462.html

  • Chris

    “Is there a point where the public sphere must be separated once and for all from the private world?”

    There are very few limits on government’s reach into the private sector, so let’s not get worked up about the reverse happening.

    Plus, not taking corporate sponsorship money is basically just leaving money sitting there–money that can be used to strengthen the public sector in general and mass transit specifically. All sorts of other public products, such as sports stadiums, accept corporate sponsorships, and mass transit should not waste taxpayer dollars by rejecting corporate funds.

  • Richard

    The idea of moving station and transit line names from geographic naming to corporate naming is far worse than merely misguided. Cash-strapped states and cities might well be tempted to do the same thing — for the right price — but at the expense of sanity. So instead of flying from Cleveland Ohio to Dallas Texas, one might instead fly from Toys-R-Us, Texaco to Kraft Foods, General Motors! We have enough absurdity in our daily lives already!

  • John W

    @Richard: It’s been done before – Truth or Consequences, NM.

  • kidcharles

    Here’s a crazy idea: tax AT&T to pay for public transit and name your stations whatever the hell you want. They apparently have money to burn despite the state of the economy so they won’t miss it. What’s going on in this country?

  • Railguy

    The point that seems to be missed in this discussion is this: If not for the fact that we (as a society) have heavily skewed our transportation funding into highways and airports, transit agencies and commuter railroads would not have to resort to selling naming rights to corporate entities. But until our political leaders dedicated a more releiable source of funding to rail & transit, those agencies are left with little choice.

    If naming a station for AT&T brings in revenue that either saves service or enables better service, it’s a deal worth making.

  • [...] Transport Politic: Philadelphia selling full naming rights to SEPTA station to AT&T [...]

  • hammersklavier

    The station name will be “AT&T Sports and Entertainment Complex”, which (ironically enough) tells us Philadelphians more about what’s there than “Pattison” ever did.

    Here is the map.

  • David

    They sold the naming rights so they could get rid of R# regional rail sign-age for free

  • John W

    Slightly OT, but the Guardian has an interesting article on the corporate sponsorship and branding for London’s new bike-sharing system – Barclays Cycle Hire. There’s even a shotgun wedding of a logo for the scheme, combining the bank’s brand with a variation of the classic London Underground roundel.

    I hadn’t realised, but not only are the bikes emblazoned with the bank’s logo, but the new bike paths – Barclays Cycle Superhighways – are sponsored by them as well (though I’m not sure if the branding appears out in the real world for those or just on the website).

    Sponsorship of cycling projects – £25 million. Overwhelming corporate presence in the centre of one of the world’s most touristed cities – priceless.

    • Frank

      Oh no, all new cycle paths, or at least the “Cycle Superhighways,” are that hideous blue. I was just in London a few weeks ago and I wondered to myself, why are they using such a cringe-inducing color when the current green works just fine? Unfortunately, now we know why. For forcing Londoners to be blinded by such an awful shade of blue, Barclays should have picked up the entire tab (£140 million).

      • John W

        According to various commenters below the Guardian article, it’s a coincidence – the blue was chosen before Barclays was even in the picture. Still seems daft not to use green though. What are motorists going to think? Well, if it was green I’d have no problem being a selfish prat and parking across the bike lane, but since it’s blue I won’t?

        (I’m guessing it’s based on highway signs: green equals A road, blue equals motorway).

  • How do you think this is going to effect the industry?

  • Praxxo

    Like in Pyongyang where subway station names have no geographical correlation.
    Hypercapitalism meets hypercommunism!
    Prosit!

  • John W

    Name-selling is rearing its ugly head again in London…

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-22745677

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