Towards a taxonomy of metro station names

Elephant & Castle station, London. Image: Prioryman/Wikimedia Commons.

In Synecdoche New York, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a director attempting to create a genuinely truthful piece of theatre. But the work never feels quite real enough for him: he spends so long adding more and more detail to his fictional world, that the project can never be finished.

I have a similar story to tell about an unfinished piece of train nerdery. The names of a city’s metro stops do much to shape our perceptions of a city – and it strikes me that there are many different systems for choosing those names. Some networks prefer to name them for streets, others for landmarks; others still favour districts. American cities generally opt for the drab and functional: others, like Paris, tend more towards the whimsical. London, awkward in this as in all things, has gone for a slightly messy mix.

So for some years now I’ve been toying with the idea of putting together a sort of taxonomy of metro station names, because it seemed like the sort of thing that you lot might read. But, there’s a problem: like Cotard, I keep spotting details that it feels dishonest to leave out.

There is an obvious difference between, say, Cannon Street and Paddington. But then, were they named after a street and a district – or were both actually named after the mainline stations which preceded them? Or consider the neighbouring stations of Borough and Elephant & Castle. Both seem to be named after districts – but while Borough was a place first, the use of Elephant for a stretch of south London has its origins in the station which took its name from a junction which took its name from a pub. So are these two really the same sort of name or not?

And then there’s the fact there really aren’t that many metro systems where I actually know all the names. London I know backwards of course, and I’m familiar enough with a few others (Paris, Manchester, NYC) to draw at least some conclusions. 

But after that though I get hazy. I’ve been to Barcelona three times, but would struggle to name more than half a dozen stops on its metro without googling it – let alone tell you where all the names come from. Who knows what else there is out there in the big wide world that I’m missing? 

So for a long time now – literally years – I’ve been putting off the moment I start writing. There is always some sub category I need to add, some detail I’ve missed. I’ve been failing to write this article since David Cameron was prime minister and the word Brexit was a joke. 

Which is, quite obviously ridiculous.

So: I’m just going to do it. What follows is not, after all, a definitive attempt to produce a taxonomy, merely a sort of first draft. Please do write in with feedback – let me know what I got wrong, and what sorts of names and fine subdivisions I have missed. And definitely feel free to offer names from cities I may not even have considered, because I love this stuff and almost literally everything else going on in the world right now is awful.

Right. On with the show.


1. Place names 

In a pattern that will swiftly become familiar, there are several different types of these. Sometimes they overlap – but it’s not always clear where.

Firstly, there are the names of quarters of the city that got attached to stations: Southwark, say, or Whitechapel. Then there are the names of whole settlements that were places in their own right have since been swallowed: Uxbridge feels to me like a different sort of place to Holborn because it was a place in its own right, rather than just a corner of London. And it’s not always clear where the line is. What’s Westminster?

Then there are district names that came from the station, rather than the other way around. Waterloo is an area of South London named after the station named after a bridge which was named after a battle. So where would the name fit in our putative taxonomy? Or what about Angel, an area named for a station named for a pub?

I’m only one category through and already I’m getting a migraine.

2. Streets

I’ve never been wild about naming metro stations after streets, for reasons I’ve bored on about before. I can see why they’re popular – a station may not clearly belong to one specific district, or sit next to one obvious landmark, but there will always be a nearby street name to hand. 

Nonetheless, it strikes me that there are two problems with using street names for stations Firstly, not all streets are famous names, so the station name may not tell you anything about where in a city it is (Warren Street, to pick one, would be entirely obscure were it not for the tube station).

Secondly, a street is a line, not a point, and some streets will be served by multiple stations – so calling just one of the four stations on Holloway Road “Holloway Road” doesn’t feel very useful. Then again, calling three different stations on the Chicago L network “Chicago” on the grounds that they serve different bits of Chicago Avenue doesn’t feel very useful either. 

Chicago station, Chicago. Not to be confused with Chicago or Chicago. Image: Graham Garfield/Wikimedia Commons.

Street-based names are stupid, is what I’m saying here.

Anyway, we’re stuck with them, so here are some different sub-categories. There are stations named after squares (Russell Square, St Peter’s Square). There are stations named after junctions: Oxford Circus is one of those; so are 14th St-Union Square and Réaumur-Sébastopol. Those avoid the problems I was bitching about above, because they refer to points rather than lines.

Then there are stations named after the street they sit on (Cannon Street); and – this feels subtly different to me – stations named after the street the line happens to be crossing at that point (let’s say, Baker Street). Something like Warren Street could be in either group.

Stations named after cross streets are particularly prevalent in cities with grid systems. This makes some sense – if you know you’re on the Lexington Avenue line, then knowing that the train is just crossing 86th Street does actually tell you how far up Manhattan you are. But this system is also responsible for absurdities like Tottenham Court Road or those three Chicago stations, so I’m sticking to my belief that anywhere outside Manhattan it’s a stupid system.

So, anyway, moving on.


3. Landmarks

London, famously, has five tube stations named after pubs (Angel, Elephant & Castle, Manor House, Royal Oak, Swiss Cottage). It also has stations named after parks (Regent’s Park), cathedrals (St Paul’s), docks (West India Quay), government buildings (Mansion House and, if you squint, Bank) and long dead gates in its long demolished walls (Moorgate, Aldgate).

You can find most of these in other cities. New York has Borough Hall in Brooklyn. In Manchester you’ll find Abraham Moss, which is named after a school named after a person. Paris and Brussels both have stations named Bourse, the continental name for the stock market. Barcelona has Ciutadella – Vila Olímpica which is named after the Parc de la Ciutadella, and the Vila Olímpica, which probably don’t take much explaining. (I was also going to accuse it of having Jaume I, named after a statue of a king, but it turns out it’s just named after a street named after a king which is much less interesting.)

Anyway, there’s loads of these, but all the ones I can think of fall into the same basic patterns, so let’s jump on to:

4. Bigger stations

Most cities have mainline railway termini, which are served by their metro networks. I’ve covered this before, and can’t be bothered doing it again. The only interesting points I can think of as they relate to metro systems is:

  • Some metro stations serve more than one main line station (Kings Cross St Pancras);
  • Some cities end up including other things in their metro station names other than the mainline station itself (Grand Central-42nd Street; Montparnasse–Bienvenüe);
  • Some cities use the word for railway station in the names of their metro stations to communicate the fact that the metro station serves a specific railway station, in a way that would feel bloody weird in British usage (Gare du Nord in Paris, Sants Estació in Barcelona).

Occasionally a metro station does more than one of these things, like 34th Street–Penn Station. The more you know.

5. Commemorative names

There are ostensibly loads of these in Paris. Stalingrad, for example, or Franklin D. Roosevelt, or George V. 

All of these admittedly share their names with streets – but those streets were actually renamed at the same time and for the same purpose as the station. So I think we can think of the stations as named to commemorate a person or event, rather than after the street.

Stalingrad station, Paris. Image: Pline/Wikimedia Commons.

It’s a similar story with one of my favourite Paris Metro names (yes, I have a favourite, so sue me). Fulgence Bienvenüe was a late 19th century civil engineer, responsible for the construction of much of the original metro system. In 1933, to commemorate his work as the father of the metro, both Avenue du Maine station and a nearby street were renamed Bienvenüe in his honour. A few years later the station was connected with another nearby to form the aforementioned Montparnasse–Bienvenüe. 

I’m sure there are loads of examples of stations named in this way from cities other than Paris, but the only one I can think of right now is not a metro station at all: Edinburgh Waverley, which is named after some novels by Sir Walter Scott. If you can think of others, please do write in.

6. Cash money

On Dubai’s fledgling metro system, you’ll find such stops as Nakheel, DAMAC Properties and Emirates. These are the results of a 2008 scheme in which the metro auctioned 19 of its station names, raising itself DH1.8bn. The ugly DAMAC Properties was previously the more geographic and explicable Dubai Marina.

London experimented with this in the dark days of the Boris Johnson era. Its cable car is the Emirates Airline; its two stops are named Emirates Greenwich Peninsula and Emirates Royal Docks, even though those two termini sit next to North Greenwich tube and Royal Victoria DLR station respectively.

This is horrible and we shouldn’t do any more of it.

On modifiers, and other thoughts

A lot of cities lumber individual stations with more than one name. We’ve already seen a couple of examples from Paris (Montparnasse–Bienvenüe, Réaumur-Sébastopol) and New York (14th St-Union Square). Manchester has Deansgate-Castlefield. In London, we have a few of these, but don’t go in for the dash, instead opting either for the ampersand (Caledonian Road & Barnsbury, Finchley Road & Frognal) or nothing at all (Kings Cross St Pancras).

Deansgate-Castlefield, Manchester. Image: Zack Hallam/Wikimedia Commons.

I may be misreading this, but my sense is that London is also bigger on modifiers than many other cities: Ruislip Gardens, Dagenham Heathway, Hackney Downs and so on. Acton famously – for a certain value of famous – has stations named for every point of the compass, plus a Central, a Town and a Main Line. 

It also feels to me that there’s a difference between putting the compass point before and after a place: West Hampstead is a place in its own right, Dagenham East is just the eastern bit of Dagenham. That said, East and West Croydon totally bugger this model up – they’re really just the eastern and western stations in the town centre – even though South Croydon is a place in its own right. (There is no North Croydon, thankfully.) So maybe I’m talking shite again.

Anyway, if the three Chicago Chicago stations adopted this system, or at least added the name of another nearby street to distinguish them from one another, that might be in some way kind of useful, don’t you think? 

One last thought. I said at the start that some systems had much more whimsical names than others. I was mostly thinking of Paris, and I stand by that.

But something I’ve realised in the writing of this is – a lot of Paris’ station names are really just street names, with the “Rue de” or “Place” bits knocked off. Les Gobelines sounds much more poetic than Avenue des Gobelins; Poissonnière better than Rue du Faubourg Poissonnière.

London has done this a little on the DLR, where you’ll find East India, Cyprus and Royal Albert, and very nice those names are too. But then again, while Holloway or Caledonian would work, stations called Baker or Bond would sound stupid in London, so.

I’m going to stop there. I’m aware I’ve only referenced half a dozen cities here, and focused heavily on London and Paris. So what have I missed? What other sources have cities found for station names?

Do write in, if you want to encourage this madness.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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To boost the high street, cities should invest in offices

Offices in Northampton. Image: Getty.

Access to cheap borrowing has encouraged local authorities to proactively invest in commercial property. These assets can be a valuable tool for cities looking to improve the built environment they offer businesses and residents.

Councils are estimated to have spent £3.8bn on property between 2013 and 2017, funded through the government’s Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) at very low interest rates. Offices accounted for half of this investment, and roughly a third (£1.2bn) has been spent on retail properties. And local authorities were the biggest investor group for UK shopping centres in the first quarter of 2018.

Why are cities investing? There are two major motivations.

First, at a time when cuts are squeezing council revenue budgets, property investments can provide a long-term revenue stream to keep quality public services up and running. Second, ownership of buildings in areas marked for redevelopment allows councils to assemble land more easily and gives them more influence over the changes taking place, allowing them to make sure the space evolves to meet their objectives.

But how exactly can cities turn property ownership into successful place-making? How should they adapt the buildings they invest in to improve the performance of the economies?

Cities need workers

When developing the city’s property offer, the aim should be to get jobs back into the city centre while reducing the dominance of retail space. For councils who have invested in existing retail space and shopping centres, in particular, the temptation may be to try and retain their existing use, with new retail strategies designed to reduce vacancies.

But as the Centre for Cities’ recent Building Blocks report illustrates, the evidence points to this being a dead-end. Instead, cities may need to convert the properties they own so they house a more diverse group of businesses.

Many city centres already have a lot of retail – and this has not offered significant economic benefit. Almost half (43 per cent) of city centre space in the weakest city economies is taken up by shops, while retail only accounts for 18 per cent of space in strong city centre economies. And many of these shops lie empty: in weaker city centres vacancy rates of high-street services (retail, food and leisure) are on average 16 per cent, compared with 9 per cent in stronger city economies. In Newport, nearly a quarter of these premises are empty, as the map below shows.

The big issue in these city centres is the lack of office jobs – which are an important contributor to footfall for retailers. This means that, in order to improve the fortunes of the high street, policy will need to tackle the barriers that deter those businesses from moving to their city centres.

One of these barriers is the quality of office space. In a number of struggling city centres, the quality of office space on offer is poor. But the low returns available for private investors mean that some form of public sector involvement will be required.


Ownership of buildings gives cities the opportunity to reshape the type of commercial space on offer. Some of this will involve improving the existing office stock available, some will involve converting retail to office, and some of will require demolishing part of the space without replacing it, in the short term at least. Without ownership of the land and buildings on it, this task becomes very difficult to do but will be a fundamental part of turning the fortunes of a city centre around.

Cheap borrowing has provided a way not only for local authorities to generate an income stream through property investment. but also opens up the opportunity to have greater control over the development of their city centres. For those choosing to invest, the focus must be on using ownership to make the city centre a more attractive place for all businesses to invest, rather than hoping to revive retail alone.

Rebecca McDonald is an analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.