minneapolis-st. paul: let’s name our network!

The Metropolitan Council in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul is taking customer suggestions on how to name their rapid transit network, which until now has consisted only of a single rail line, the Hiawatha between Minneapolis and Bloomington via MSP airport.  They are now adding Bus Rapid Transit and, in 2014, the Central light rail line.  So they're starting to think about the whole system, and what to call it.

This is one of those moments when two competing impulses tend to diverge.

  • The longing for something that says "new and exciting and transformative!"
  • The desire to convey exactly the opposite, that although it's new, this thing is a permanent, reliable, and an intrinsic part of the city.  This message actually benefits from a branding that's a bit, well, boring

I lean toward the latter message.  I've seen plenty of systems with sexy marketing but incoherent information, so I tend to say that clear information is the best marketing

If you want "new and exciting and transformative," check out Boulder, Colorado, which has excellent transit, and where most of the bus lines have names like Hop, Jump, and Bound.  They seem to be happy with it, and that's great.  But I'm relieved to see that this impulse isn't becoming the norm.  To me, things that like to hop, jump, and bound don't seem especially reliable; these names are asking me to entrust my commute to a bunch of hyperactive rabbits.  They're trying to get my attention, which basic infrastructure doesn't do.  And transit's role is really established only when people think of it as basic infrastructure.

Obviously, there are early stages in transit development where you do need to get people's attention.  So cute names can have a place — on new shuttle buses, for example, that are trying to get a foothold in car-dependent suburbs.  But in the Twin Cities we're talking about naming the basic rapid transit infrastructure that will be the backbone of the entire system.  By the time such expensive projects get built, you usually already have people's attention.

So I hope that after an excellent outreach process, with lots of great suggestions, they pick a name like "Twin Cities Rapid" or "the Metro."  Even Los Angeles — a city built on industries that sell excitement, enchantment, and novelty — calls its transit system Metro, and its elements Metro Rail, Metro Rapid etc.  Boring.  But you can count on it.

14 Responses to minneapolis-st. paul: let’s name our network!

  1. Matt February 23, 2011 at 11:52 am #

    Yesterday I took the Washington Metro to DCA, then took the Hiawatha Line and a bus from MSP to my home. Every time I come back home, I feel like my transit system doesn’t act like a grown up in this regard. Above the maps in the LRT cars, it says “Hiawatha Line (Route 55).” How cheesy is that?
    Maybe we could call it Twin City Rapid Transit or Twin City Lines in recognition of our heritage.
    In addition, my suggestions:
    Convert the “Northstar” brand to include commuter/intercity service to destinations. St. Cloud, Red Wing, Duluth, Mankato, etc. Correlate the name with a network so people can expect a certain kind of service.
    Don’t water down the map by comparing BRT to LRT. Unless it’s something like the L.A. Orange Line, it doesn’t belong on a map the same way as LRT.
    Great post Jarrett!

  2. Leigh Holcombe February 23, 2011 at 12:53 pm #

    I used to live in Boulder, CO, right about the time that the bus system was being rebranded. I used the city bus to get around for many years, sometimes riding thrice daily. The first of the rebranded lines was the Skip, which ran a route similar to the 202, up and down Broadway. The original goal of the Skip line was to provide more frequent service, running every 15 minutes instead of every 40 minutes. Which was quite handy for getting to school, as the route skirted much of the University of Colorado campus.
    I personally felt that giving the new frequent line a different name than the old line, one that signaled a fresh approach to transit, was important. The name may have suggested cuteness, but it also suggested improvement. Plus, Skip is easier to remember than 202. It must have worked, because ridership on the Skip was much higher than it was on the 202.
    I don’t think that every city should follow Boulder’s lead (in so many ways!), but I don’t think the thought process it used should be dismissed out of hand.

  3. Zoltán February 23, 2011 at 1:07 pm #

    I think “Metro” isn’t necessarily such an un-sexy name. There are metros all over the world. Many people will have visited a city that offers a metro, and about everyone knows what “metro” means.
    What “taking the metro” means to me is taking a form of fast, frequent, reliable transit that takes me to many parts of the cities where I might want to go. Others may disagree with me, but I’m happy for it to run on tyres if it fulfils those criteria. When I see a “metro bus”, I think of it as a bus that’s integrated with that fast transit, such that the metro will take me far further than the local bus alone will.
    So I’d be very happy if the Twin Cities go with “Metro”, and if that inspires other cities to make their rapid transit the metro too, so that you can go to any city and know that when you’re looking at the metro, you’re looking at something that will do a good job of getting you where you need to go.

  4. Zoltán February 23, 2011 at 1:11 pm #

    I disagree with your final point about BRT, because if a rapid transit map is going to be useful to me, it’s going to tell me all of the places I can get with a reasonable degree of speed and frequency.
    I’d feel misled if the map denied the possibility of getting to some places quickly, because I could only go to them on something that wasn’t quite as good as a train.

  5. Matt February 23, 2011 at 1:52 pm #

    Zoltan, there are definitely BRT lines that qualify (I referred to the L.A. Orange Line). Unfortunately the new “BRT” lines in the Twin Cities are far from this definition.

  6. Alon Levy February 23, 2011 at 2:45 pm #

    I’m somewhat reminded by Ant6n’s post about Montreal’s contest for train design. Relatively simple design decisions are left to the public, while important social decisions such as which communities to serve are done with little public input.

  7. JJJ February 23, 2011 at 6:24 pm #

    Call the system “Highway”
    “Commuters protest as politicians debate cutting service on the Highway”
    “Fares are set to rise on the Highway next week”
    “The feds will fund $20 million in improvements to the Highway”
    “The Highway will close this weekend for maintenance”

  8. Jack Hope February 23, 2011 at 6:45 pm #

    Vancouver’s SkyTrain always struck me as a great name for a rapid transit service (appropriate for a mostly elevated service too) but it also seems to have met both of your requirements. At the time SkyTrain definitely suggested “new, exciting and transformative” when it opened and now is intrinsic, reliable (as much as any other system) and part of the city’s identity as any other type of metro system. Occasionally on something like this you can have it both ways.

  9. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org February 23, 2011 at 7:45 pm #

    @Jack.  Yes, the only problem with "SkyTrain" is that it implies "elevated," which it doesn't have to be.  You'll have noted the confusing signals about whether the Canada Line is part of "SkyTrain."  If it's not, they need a new word.  These things are always works in progress. 

  10. Jack Hope February 23, 2011 at 8:47 pm #

    @Jarrett. You make a good point, although the issues with the Canada Line is that it’s operated by a separate company (a P3) that has its own issues and desires to brand it separately. Its one of the general branding problems that Translink. Although given how much of the Canada Line does run elevated its that doesn’t strike me as a major issue, more the fact that Translink can’t enforce its brand on the full system because of the P3 model that was used.
    Hence why a train line that is named after the country itself(huh? that’s weird branding in and of itself although I understand it was because of the Federal contribution) uses a colour scheme of light blue and green with not a bit of red anywhere. And instead of using another primary colour on the metro map, uses a a light shade of blue when we already have a “blue line” and there are lots of other colours in the rainbow left. The lesson here is that if you’re going to do this kind of P3 again (which I personally hope BC never does again) you have to make sure that the overall agency has control of all of the branding. You can’t let a random private company that is participating in your overall transit network go off in any old branding direction that it likes.

  11. K February 23, 2011 at 11:33 pm #

    Just be careful when you ask people to contribute names to things, especially when putting it to a vote…

  12. Alex February 24, 2011 at 6:32 am #

    I suggest the name “Pleasure Cruise” since “The 17-member Metropolitan Council is appointed by and serves at the pleasure of the governor.”

  13. EngineerScotty February 24, 2011 at 11:33 am #

    Reminds me of the old Flintstones episode where Fred and Barney win a pleasure boat on a game show, but cannot decide on the name (one wants “Nautical”, the other wants “Seaworthy”).
    So they compromise on “Nau-sea”.

  14. Anne February 24, 2011 at 3:21 pm #

    I think transit systems, when done right, aren’t just commodities. It’s more than just infrastructure. If the planning and implementation are done properly, that transit system becomes like a new member of the family, so to speak, and using it is an experience. It’s a relationship. I think, depending on how we name it, we can influence whether its riders view it with affection – as a part of their lives and communities – or with indifference (or worse).
    I’ve lived in various places and ‘commuted’ on quite a variety of transit modes – including helicopter, ferry, and mountain shuttlebus. You could even include gondola in that list (lift, not boat). In many of those places those transit systems were given affectionate nicknames, according to the nature of that relationship.
    The name we choose (or more frequently the nickname that gets built from that name) can influence whether we see the system as something organic that we are part of (passengers, drivers, staff, locals, tourists, buses/streetcars/subways/routes that have a specific character), or something inorganic ( hardware, stops, maps, passes/tickets/tokens). Is it part of our community and something we experience positively and therefore have a personal stake in, or just something we use?
    Although both routes are equally beautiful, contemplating the commute between Banff and Lake Louise on “Highway 1” just doesn’t have the same feeling of place or sense of anticipation as contemplating the commute between Vancouver and Whistler on the Sea-to-Sky Highway.