photo: passengers in D.C.'s Metro
What's in a name? A plan to rename Metro stations in D.C. for corporate sponsors has hit some resistance. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

D.C.’s Metro plans to raise extra revenue by having companies buy naming rights for public transit stations. But corporate “namewashing” may not be easy money.

On November 21, the board of Washington, D.C.’s Metro planned to announce the sale of naming rights to one the system’s newest subway stations. Specifically, Metro would rename the Innovation Center station, now being built in the D.C. suburb of Herndon in Fairfax County, Virginia, after an as-yet-unidentified Fortune 500 company. The station, which is set to open in summer 2020, is one of six new stations on Metro’s Silver Line that are in the works.  

But it seems like Metro forgot to consult Fairfax County. Virginia officials were caught off guard and objected to the idea, and last week Metro caved on the scheme to rename the Innovation Center station, which is so named because it’s right next to the Center for Innovative Technology. Local leaders and Metro worked out all the names for the Silver Line extension years ago, through lengthy (and public) debates.

But despite the setback—and despite the fact that all of the D.C. area’s stations already have names, ones that locals and tourists alike have spent many years getting familiar with—the Metro board is moving forward with a policy for selling the naming rights to other stations, and possibly even putting the name for an entire line up for auction.

Selling naming rights to public transit centers has one obvious upside: cash. For a beleaguered agency weighing fare raises and eliminating several bus lines, scrounging some extra revenue from station-name sponsorships might look like a no-brainer. But there could be unforeseen costs. Not only does “namewashing” erase local history and diminish the qualities that define a region, the process can end up contributing to the problems that result in budget deficits in the first place.

“The argument in favor of it is, ‘Look, no one really cares what the stations are called. All that happens is that we get some extra revenue,’” says Timothy Weaver, assistant professor of public policy at the University of Albany-State University of New York. “I’m not so sure it’s actually a win-win.”

There’s a phrase that urban geographers use for this private rebranding of public space: “toponymic commodification.” Weaver describes it as a form of enclosure, referring to a centuries-long process in Europe whereby the landed aristocracy gradually forced peasants off commonly shared lands. He draws on the work of the early 20th century political economist Karl Polyani, who described the enclosure movement as a “revolution of the rich against the poor.” In a recent paper, Weaver outlines how station-naming campaigns in Philadelphia and New York amount to “new enclosures”—ways of injecting the market into novel spheres of society.

Weaver began thinking about this when he was living in Philadelphia, around the time when the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) decided to sell the naming rights to Pattison Station, the southern terminus on the Broad Street Line named after the intersection of Broad and Pattison Avenue. SEPTA sold the name to the station to AT&T for $5.4 million in 2010. Four years later, the naming rights for another SEPTA station, Market East, were bought by Jefferson Health System; now that station is known as Jefferson Station.

The biggest winner in the AT&T deal was advertising. A New York-based agency, Titan Outdoor, took home 37 percent of the entire deal, or nearly $2 million. After eight years, the name changed again: The station is now named after a utility company. New ads for the station popped up in summer 2018 that read, “Hey Philly, we’re taking over. Welcome to NRG Station.”

With every shift in nomenclature comes new costs that must be borne by the city. Changing station names means reprinting or adjusting apps, maps, brochures, and other media. Generic, corporate place names that are essentially placeless (“AT&T”) can be as confusing to visitors and as they are insulting to residents. Critics argue that the city should have charged AT&T (and now NRG) more for permanent advertising at the subway station within walking distance from the city’s professional baseball, basketball, hockey, and football stadiums. (Philadelphia could have done worse: In New York, the Metropolitan Transit Authority receives just $200,000 a year for the naming rights to Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center.)

Yet the greater cost for transit agencies and the citizens who support them is the implied suggestion that the public has failed public transit. Weaver draws a comparison with stadiums: In the PWC Stadium Complex in Philadelphia, for example, fans exiting NRG Station can watch the 76ers or the Flyers play at Wells Fargo Center, catch a Phillies game at Citizen’s Bank Park, see a concert at XfinityLive! Philadelphia, or suffer with their fellow Eagles fans at Lincoln Financial Field. One might walk away with the impression that these corporations were responsible for building these structures, which were all financed publicly.

When cities name stadiums after private companies, the act shades the hundreds of millions of dollars that the public pays to build these facilities. Privatization of transit is a different sleight of hand: Renaming stations disguises the operating costs of public transit. It’s harder for officials to argue for higher taxes to fund buses and subways when they’re signaling to the public that private sponsors are picking up the tab. Namewashing is a hedge on the shared responsibility of public transit, a compromise that corrodes a system’s commitment to equitable service. In the paper, Weaver describes this enclosure of the public realm as a neoliberal tactic that requires a “severing of the link between the citizens and their public transportation system.”

“Rather than providing services in a decommodified realm, which is to protect people from the vagaries of markets, by providing affordable and reliable transit, forcing cities to become entrepreneurial means that the separation from public and private has been eroded,” Weaver says. “That sweeps into all sorts of areas hitherto walled off from the invasion of market forces.”

As I was writing this story, I received a phone call from a poll, conducted on behalf of Metro, about this very subject. (D.C. is a small enough city that freaky coincidences like this happen.) The pollster asked me how frequently I use rail and bus services and tested my knowledge of the planned Silver Line station names. (I aced this test.) The survey also asked my feelings about Metro putting station naming rights for sale, providing as examples the Capital One-Gallery Place-Chinatown Station (currently Gallery Place-Chinatown) and the Marriott International Station (unclear, maybe Mount Vernon Square?). The pollster wanted to know how I felt about a Target train “take-over” or a Lockheed Martin Yellow Line. (At least that sounds fast?)

If the poll is any indication, what Metro is contemplating would go further than either SEPTA in Philadelphia or MTA in New York. (Although Philadelphia set a high bar when they named a public high school after Microsoft.) With the proposal for Innovation Center in Fairfax County, Metro signaled its willingness to do more than tack on a corporate prefix to an existing station name. While scrubbing Metro station names or lines might not draw outraged mobs—who really loves Metro Center?—a corporate moniker can only emblanden a city.

The prospect of putting station names up for auction raises another concern: How will transit agencies decide which stations have economic value? In the case of the Innovation Center station, an unnamed multinational company that is building offices nearby approached Metro. This is unlikely to be the only offer that Metro fields: Amazon is determined to rename an entire suburb, after all. Namewashing stations or lines in affluent areas might make the geographic disparities in the District—already brightly demarcated by the Anacostia River—even more glaring.

“The rebadging of places consistent with corporate identification helps to reinforce the areas of the city that are or are not valuable and are or are not worthy,” Weaver says. “To the extent that we’re going to measure worthiness according to market logic, this really reinforces the idea that there’s something right with these places and something wrong with those places.”

Back in 2015, activists in Philadelphia pushed SEPTA to rethink a campaign at the Cecil B. Moore Station on the Broad Street Line that papered over signage bearing the name of the civil rights-era icon with advertisements for Temple University. “People with money [feel] entitled that they can do anything,” Karen Asper Jordan, head of the Cecil B. Moore Freedom Fighters, told Philly Mag.

In Fairfax County, the answer might ultimately be that the name is not Metro’s to sell. “I don’t think [Metro] paid anything for the Silver Line,” Fairfax County Supervisor John W. Foust told The Washington Post. “We paid for that. The landowners out there, who will be impacted by this decision, paid for it with their tax district.”

Metro’s board has yet to surface any name swaps for stations inside the District. When that happens, it will be more tinder for a raging debate over the city’s soul. CityLab’s Brentin Mock has already explained how the war between gentrification and go-go is a spiritual test of Chocolate City’s “undercommons.” Corporations are coming for the public commons as well. The stakes are high: Weaver quotes Bonnie Honig, a theorist at Brown University, as saying that “democracy is rooted in common love for, antipathy to, and contestation of public things.”

”What do we do to the public realm when we start making it feel less public?” Weaver says. “It potentially undermines the sense that it is collectively owned and therefore has to be collectively paid for. The sense of publicness is really quite important.”

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