A New Transit Problem: Excessively Wordy Train Station Names

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(Washington D.C. - David Schultz, WAMU) Metro, the public transit agency here in D.C., is facing a problem familiar to Twitter users everywhere: it needs to shorten the names of its train stations so they fit within a defined character limit.

The names of Metro's 86 stations are remarkable in their wide variety of lengths. Some, like Rosslyn or Takoma, are monuments to brevity. Others... not as much. The following are the actual, full-length names of stations as they're displayed on Metro's signs:

  • West Falls Church-VT/UVA
  • Mt Vernon Sq 7th St-Convention Center
  • Archives-Navy Memorial-Penn Quarter
  • U Street/African-Amer Civil War Memorial/Cardozo

Now, obviously, these jumbles of slashes, hyphens and abbreviations are not what locals use to refer to these stations. For example, Washingtonians usually just call the latter example U Street.

But this can pose problems for anyone not totally familiar with Metro. It's easy to see how a newcomer or a tourist could look out the window of a train, see a sign reading U Street/African-Amer Civil War Memorial/Cardozo, and think to themselves, "Wait a minute... where am I?"

Believe it or not, Metro actually has a rule that station names can't exceed 19 characters in length. Metro's chief customer service officer, Barbara Richardson, said that rule has been in place since Metro's founding in the late 1960s.

The problem is the process for how these train stations get named. The way it works is, the local jurisdiction where the station is located - Arlington, Fairfax, D.C., etc. - submits a nomination for a name and then Metro either approves or denies. In recent years, the jurisdictions kept asking for more and more exceptions to the rule, as they began to realize that putting the name of an attraction in a station name could drive lots of people there. And Metro, which is run by a Board of Directors chosen from the various jurisdictions, always acquiesced.

"I think that over time what has happened is that the names are becoming a marketing tool," Richardson said.

Now Metro is preparing to revamp its iconic subway map and Richardson says this is a good time to do some wholesale station name trimming. Richardson's office is beginning the process of soliciting ideas for what riders would like, and she plans on meeting with the jurisdictions later this summer to see what they'd like as well.

However, Richardson herself has made her preferences perfectly clear: when it comes to the names of train stations, she says, "the shorter, the better."