When the Nets’ new arena at the Atlantic Yards area opens up, the subway station beneath it will have a new name. For $4 million spread out over 20 years, Barclays will pay the MTA for the naming rights to the station, and straphangers will get off at Atlantic Ave./Pacific St./Barclays Center.
As the authority isn’t giving up the geographic identifiers, the station still serves its purpose of informing riders where they are, and the agency can draw in some dollars as well. It is the ideal naming rights deal and one cash-strapped transit agencies around the country should strive to duplicate. They can’t, after all, lose sight of the fact that the system must still be effective at making sure people can find their ways to and from various destinations.
In Philadelphia, though, SEPTA is on the verge of a naming rights deal that won’t do anyone favors. According to Plan Philly, the Philadelphia-based transit agency is going to completely rename one of its most popular terminals. The station current at Pattison Ave. is home to many fans heading to Phillies, Eagles, 76ers or Flyers games at the sports complex. For five years and $3 million, the station may become simply the AT&T Station. Every trace of Pattison Ave. would be excised from the system.
Plan Philly says that SEPTA has tried a variety of “non-traditional means” for raising revenue including asking the city’s sports teams for help. A spokesman defended the potential deal and claimed riders would not be confused “because the station is at the end of the line and is ‘unique’ because it serves the sports complex.” The station’s place as a unique destination would in fact work against a naming rights deal that completely removes geographic identifiers from the system.
Over at The Transport Politic, Yonah Freemark doesn’t like the deal. He writes:
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.
Freemark notes that the deal nets a pittance for SEPTA as the Barclays deal does for the MTA. When an agency is hundreds of millions of dollars in debt, a contract for a few hundred thousand a year doesn’t make a dent, and riders — the customers of the transit agency — are confused. A rider-based quasi-private government agency should not be inconveniencing the riding public.
As Freemark notes, transit stops are integral to neighborhoods and communities. Trading place names for corporate places instead of appending corporate sponsors onto the stations dehumanizes the city. “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),” he writes, “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 to getting around either.”
As the MTA moves forward with more naming rights deals and its own attempts at securing non-traditional revenue streams, it should take a lesson from Philadelphia. This isn’t the way to go.