Metrolinx wants to sell naming rights to key stations — but this hasn't worked well for other cities

The Government of Ontario — via its Metrolinx subsidiary — is looking into the sale of naming rights for GO Transit stations, parking lots and washrooms throughout the GTA in an effort to find new funding sources for the regional transit system. There are 66 regularly used GO train stations and many more bus stops located from Kitchener to Peterborough and from Barrie to Niagara Falls.

Initially the sale of naming rights is being investigated only for Whitby, Pickering, Exhibition, Clarkson and Oakville stations — all stations along the Lakeshore East and Lakeshore West train lines. These five stations make up _ percent of GO Transit’s ridership.

Ridership at the busiest GO Transit train stations, in millions

It is estimated that the province could generate between $50,000 to $500,000 per year on rights for stations, according to Global News. Stations would likely keep their original names, but would have advertising and branding from the sponsor. These agreements could last between 5-10 years and would include sharing anonymised ridership data.

Other cities have sold naming rights with some success:

  • In Philadelphia, SEPTA sold the rights to Pattison station to AT&T in 2010 for $3 million (it received $1 million of this) and in 2018 to NRG Energy for $5.25 million

  • Cleveland’s HealthLine is named after the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals of Cleveland

  • Boston’s MBTA renamed State station to State/Citizens Bank from 1997-2000

But in Los Angeles, Metro had to repeal its naming rights policy after receiving guidance that refusing a naming deal because of a company’s views or practices could expose it to lawsuits. It’s unclear whether the same issue could arise for Metrolinx if it were to reject a deal because of the company (ie. rejecting a naming proposal from an anti-abortion or anti-immigration organisation).

📸:  Wikimedia

📸: Wikimedia

It’s not that profitable for transit agencies

There are several reasons why the sale of naming rights is iffy — corporations aren’t always able to justify spending big ad bucks on something that passengers might resist. While SEPTA was able to make a profit of $1 million from its deal with AT&T, the NYC MTA’s deal to name Atlantic Avenue/Pacific Street station to Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center station nets the transit agency a measly $200,000 per year.

It might seem like there’s a good chunk of change to be made from selling naming rights, but it’s more complex than that. By changing a station’s name, new maps and wayfinding materials need to be printed and new announcements need to be recorded.

You risk confusing passengers

Inarguably, a station’s name should indicate its location. Toronto GO stations are named after neighbourhoods or cities they are in, making it easy for people to understand the network.

The aim with renaming stations is to not confuse riders into abandoning the system — it’s one thing to add affix a brand name to the beginning of the station name, but another thing altogether to drop the old name completely. It’s a slippery slope between progressive branding and branding that diminishes people’s ability to understand where they need to get off.

This is what happened in Philly when Pattison Station was renamed to AT&T station with no reference to the old name — setting a president that people soon might be taking the T-Mobile subway from Diet Pepsi to Target before hopping on the K-Mart BRT line.

But there is some hope

Chicago’s North/Clybourn station is an interesting example of how this sort of deal could work. In 2010 Apple invested $4 million in the station in anticipation of a new store opening close by — helping to fund public space, including a fountain and benches. Its investment helped fund a deep-cleaning of the station and, in return, it was allowed to take up all the ad space inside it.

In return, Apple gets first dibs when the CTA decides to sell naming rights to the station — this time could be in a couple years, or never. This case has made transit riding a little bit more attractive and is something that Metrolinx should be looking at as an example.

📈: Metrolinx