Tuesday, October 28, 2014

What's in a Transit System's Name or Acronym?; Alternative Names for Houston's METRO

What's in a name? that which we call a transit authority
By any other name would our ride be so sweet;
                        -not William Shakespeare, not Romeo and Juliet

Here in Houston we have METRO, or if you call it by it's full legal name, the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County. But no one calls it that; it's too much of a mouthful. And no one ended up calling the Authority "M-TAHC" (pronounced M-tack?), even though that sounds much zippier than METRO.

METRO has little descriptive element. It seems a bit impersonal, without connection or context. Any regional transit authority that serves cities can make a case to name their service "METRO". Of course it can, because it's in a metropolitan area. And, as I'll list, many agencies chose to use "Metro" in their names.

Don't misunderstand me. This isn't about METRO's service or ridership experience. I ride the bus every day and I love it. There's certainly always strides to be made in service and ridership experience. METRO is going a great job with the resources they have available, building ridership and making drastic route changes with their Transit System Reimagining, hoping it will lead to even more bus ridership in the future. They're also looking at strengthening their rider code of conduct.

Transit System Acronyms Across The United States

A SMART bus in Southeast Michigan
When you look around the country at public transportation agencies, there are some pretty good examples of transit agency naming, branding and creativity. They're names that are short and sweet, stick in your mind, and actually build on descriptors of the agency's mission or geographic coverage.

In Southeast Michigan I grew up around SMART (Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation). I always thought the name was derived from "Southeast Michigan Area Regional Transit", which would be apt as well. The name alone conjures up images of a smartly run transit network (which was not the opinion of many). Or that it was smart to use public transit. But be assured, the service provides much needed transport for many from the suburbs into Downtown Detroit.

Capitol Area Transportation Authority in Lansing, MI
In the City of Detroit you have DDOT (Detroit Department of Transportation), and in college at Michigan State, we rode CATA (Capitol Area Transportation Authority). DDOT is short and sweet, and includes the first letter of the name of the city which it serves. Meanwhile CATA, with its cat-like logo, conjures up a sense of quickness, like the reflexes of a cat. Down in Columbus, Ohio, there's the COTA (Central Ohio Transit Authority). In Louisville, Kentucky you can get around on the TARC (Transit Authority of River City). In Charlotte, North Carolina, there's CATS (Charlotte Area Transit System). CATS has even further carried out the cat-related names, as evidenced in their LYNX rail system. (I bet they've applied for a bunch of TIGER grants too...) The system names really had great cross-promotional opportunity before the Charlotte Bobcats reverted back to the Hornets.

I've always liked the Bay Area's BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) or Atlanta's MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority). The names almost personify the agency. And, actually, MARTA's website, www.itsmarta.com, makes it sound like the agency is introducing you to someone. And, like everyone we know, they've got stories.

Philadelphia's SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) is another great acronymic name; short and sweet, but also descriptive of the region it serves. Even things like the CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) are a bit more descriptive, and at least have a little more zing or pep to them.

Of course, there are many other systems that use some variation of the word "Metro" in their name. Washington DC's Metro is sort of downer, but is also known as WMATA, (Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority) so they've actually got something more descriptive for their agency than what is on the side their rolling stock. Joining Houston's METRO at the end of the creative spectrum are Los Angeles (Metro Rail and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority), Miami (Metrorail), Minneapolis (Metro Transit), Phoenix (Valley Metro), Austin (Capitol Metro), and Saint Louis (Metro). I am sure there are many others across the country as well.

New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority operates the city's subway and bus lines, and has a subsidiary commuter rail line, aptly named the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR). There's also the PATH trains from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. There's nothing like knowing you're on a great "path" to your final destination.

San Antonio's VIA (VIA Metropolitan Transit) may be one of the best, using the term "via", which means "by way of". It leverages the city's Spanish and Mexican culture to describe the value and mission of their transit authority. It's simple: "You'll get around San Antonio 'by way of' our transit system."

Then there's DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit) in Dallas. Doesn't that name just invoke a sense of quickness? You know, like the fact that you can "dart" from here to there on their service? It may not actually be true, but it's a catchy name.

What Could Have Been in Houston

Houston missed out on an opportunity on a regionally descriptive or personalized transit system name or acronym. Unfortunately, places like Hillsborough County in Florida have taken advantage. HART (Hillsborough Area Regional Transit) operates in the Tampa, Florida area. From all accounts, Houston's METRO is just about a year older than HART, so METRO certainly had the opportunity to do something more creative with its name. METRO was created in 1978, and a year later in 1979, HART in the Tampa area was born. I wonder if the first METRO officials ever had any other options on the table for naming their authority? Was there any consideration of "Bayou METRO"? That would provide a bit more description and draw recognition to one of Houston's attributes, much like Austin's Capitol Metro, or Phoenix's Valley Metro.

The acronym"HART" has also recently been adopted by the City and County of Honolulu, Hawaii (Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation), where in 2010 voters "approved a charter amendment to create a semi-autonomous public transit authority to oversee the planning, construction, operation and extension of the rail system."

With an acronym like HART, a system can leverage  Just think about how Houston missed out on being able to take advantage of our concentration of the medical industry. The low hanging fruit in creative marking would leave us with things like:

HART - Houston Area Regional Transportation, with slogans such as;
"The Heartbeat of Houston's Travel"
"The Pulse of Houston Transit"
"You'll Be Captured by Our Service"
"We Don't Miss A Beat"
"A Reason To Love Public Transit"

Or, you can branch out from HART and look at other (sometimes increasingly outlandish) options:

MATH - Metropolitan Authority for Transit in Houston, with slogans such as:
"Add Us To Your Commute"
"Public Transit Adds Up"
"Public Transit > Driving Your Car"
"Transit From Every Angle"

HAFTA - Houston Authority for Transit Accessibility, with slogans such as:
"You Have To Ride With Us"
"You Don't Have To Sit In Traffic"
"You Don't Have To Be Frustrated With Your Commute"
"When You Have To Arrive On Time"

HMMM - Houston Area Management for Metropolitan Mobility, with slogans such as:
"Don't Second-Guess Your Commute"
"Don't Wonder About Public Transit"

Transit systems with creative names surely will not cause our transit experiences to be any sweeter, but in this world marketing and name recognition can mean a great deal. It's a transit system's service, reliability and experience that will keep us riding. If people can get from place to place reliably, no matter how general, creative or outlandish, they'll keep riding.

If you've got some transit acronym suggestions, let's hear them!