Commercialism is only one of many reasons for cities not to sell out their stops

Early last year, officials from the MBTA, Boston's transit agency, decided to consider selling naming rights for stations as a way to ease a budget deficit of roughly $150 million. In July the MBTA sent out a request for proposals from a project consultant, and last month it announced that IMG Worldwide would conduct a thorough analysis of the naming rights market. 

That news didn't sit well with Commercial Alert, a consumer protection group that objects to the plan's "crass commercialism."

In a letter to Richard Davey, former general manager of the MBTA and now secretary of the state Department of Transportation, representatives of Commercial Alert say the idea of naming T stations "undermines the integrity" of the city’s public transportation system:

Americans already face a deluge of advertising everywhere they go. In the historic city of Boston, we urge you to protect citizens from having to face still more advertising for the corporations you propose to name T stations after. We ask that you shield citizens from confronting the names of products and brands that are not only a nuisance and drain on our culture, but often injurious to our health.

Boston is hardly the first American city to consider naming its transit stops. In 2009 New York's MTA sold the rights to a new terminal in downtown Brooklyn to Barclays. In September of 2010 Philadelphia's SEPTA system welcomed the AT&T Station to its Broad Street line.

A number of other cities have tossed around the idea in recent times - Chicago, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, and Austin, among them - but few have gotten far with it. Boston itself was unable to attract interest in the rights to the Back Bay, Downtown Crossing, South Station and Sullivan Square T stops about a decade ago.

A fear of commercialism is the least of many reasons why cities should cease recycling this tired idea. For starters, the rights haven't been very lucrative; whatever the reason, corporations don't consider whole transit stations to be valuable advertising platforms (so to speak). New York's deal with Barclay's fetched just $200,000 a year. Philadelphia did better, generating $3 million over five years from AT&T. Officials at the Washington Metro believed they could earn just a couple million dollars a year by selling naming rights. Those drops in the budget bucket would look even smaller if one considered the cost of reprinting an entire system's maps.

The maps bring up a second reason not to sell out the names of transit stations, namely basic city navigation. A stop's name should indicate something essential about its location in the city or the neighborhood it services. In the case of New York, the Barclays name will be added to the existing station name, at least; it also bears relevance to the Barclays Center being constructed next door.

In Philadelphia, however, AT&T Station was renamed without any reference to the old Pattison Station. That's confusing to riders, and also a bad precedent. "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," wrote Yonah Freemark at Transport Politic when the news emerged in 2010.

Yonah's "frightening prospect" is only a slight exaggeration. Transit officials typically pledge to exercise taste when issuing new station names - Richard Davey told the Boston Herald he'd be "reluctant to rename Park Street the Anheuser-Busch Park Street Station" - but if the history of sports stadiums is any guide, naming rights follow a slippery slope. It's bad enough to move shop from R.F.K. Stadium to FedEx Field; it's another step entirely to hold an event at the KFC Yum! Center.

The North/Clybourn station in Chicago may offer a blueprint for compromise. A few years back, in anticipation of a new store opening nearby, Apple invested $4 million in station renovations. In return the city promised Apple first refusal if it decides to sell the stop's naming rights.

This transaction hints at the type of public-private real estate partnerships that have made some transit agencies very profitable, as we've explained before. The Boston blog Transit on the Line seems to agree that this is the way the MBTA should go:

Looking at just Porter Square, why is the Shaw’s located so far away from the public transport hub that likely brings in the majority of its business from commuters picking up their groceries on their commutes home? Why is there not a passage under Somerville Ave to connect to a basement level of CVS or another business and provide a safer crossing of the major boulevard? This is the ultimate form of not only transit-oriented development, but also leveraging MBTA property as convenient and profitable real-estate to developers.

Photo credit: Brian Snyder/Reuters

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