» 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