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.