Public transit naming rights can mean big bucks, but also big headaches
By Rachel Kaufman on September 16, 2014 Transport
The Nickel Tour: Philly’s transit system is the latest to make the news for a big naming rights deal. But what will the trend mean for riders and how they navigate cities?
Philadelphia’s transit system—the unfortunately named SEPTA—is in the news this week for selling the naming rights to one of its rail stations to a hospital complex for $4 million.
It’s the second time SEPTA has changed the name of a station for a corporate sponsor: In 2010, SEPTA received $5 million for a five-year deal to change the name of Pattison Station to AT&T Station to reflect the nearby sports complex.
While, as blogger Benjamin Kabak writes, “it’s hard to argue too much with essentially free money,” this does raise the slightly scary specter of one day commuting from Coca-Cola to Wells Fargo, with a transfer at Google.
SEPTA’s certainly not the only transit agency to sell naming rights. New York’s MTA agreed to a $200,000-a-year-for-20-years deal with Forest City Ratner to add Barclays Center, a new sports arena, to the name of one of the busiest stations in Brooklyn. Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) is offering the naming rights to four train lines and 61 stations, which the agency estimates could bring in $24.5 million.
Madrid renamed one of its lines “Line 2 Vodafone” and its central Sol station “Vodafone Sol” for 3 million euros in a deal that includes lots of free advertising for the telecom company, too.
While I’m all for bringing more money to struggling transit agencies, I also think stations and trains should be named functionally, using either an intersection or street name (say, 23rd Street), a landmark (59th Street – Columbus Circle) or a major, major landmark (Yankee Stadium). Removing geography from station names, or making it secondary to corporations, seems a little too reminiscent of the fictional “Subsidized Time” in the book “Infinite Jest,” in which chronology is removed from the calendar in order to make room for advertising. (Not surprisingly, readers of the 1000+-page tome usually have to keep a cheat sheet handy.)
Some agencies are aware of this issue: the MTA has, for example, released naming guidelines that stipulate naming requests will “only be accepted from sponsors with a unique or iconic geographic, historic or other connection to such [station] that would be readily apparent to typical MTA customers.”
That means no “Times Square, presented by Coca-Cola,” for now. As transit agencies find themselves increasingly strapped for cash, though, who knows what they’ll decide to do.