Where does Paris get its Metro station names?

Wherever did all those names come from? Image: RATP.

A few weeks ago, I finally published the first draft of a piece I’d been agonising about for a while: an attempt to categorise the myriad ways cities name their metro stations, whether after streets, districts, notable people and so on. The article produced more correspondence than anything we’ve published in ages. Much of it was even polite.

Over the weekend, the architect and designer Jug Cerović, whose work we've featured on CityMetric before, got in touch with his own thoughts about naming conventions in his own city of Paris. I thought you might like to see them.

I grew up in Paris, so I'm quite familiar with its metro network and history. There are too many metro station names that fail at their task – namely providing an efficient and useful wayfinding tool. Many are simply too long and cumbersome; others are duplicated, vaguely pointing to a street name but failing to provide accurate location.

I’ve made an attempt at classifying all the stations in Paris. My first observation is that most stations are named according to roads. My second is that, when identifying a name’s origin, it can occasionally be difficult to decide whether it was named after a street or a person.

Usually stations that carry a person's name do it because a nearby street that has this same name: it would take much deeper historic research to tell whether a station was named after a person before the street was named, or whether they have been renamed simultaneously.

For now, I am keeping only two stations in the ‘people’ category: Montparnasse-Bienvenüe (named, in part, after the father of the Metro network, Fulgence Bienvenüe); and Robespierre, which according to Wikipedia was named French revolutionary Maximilien de Robespierre by a local communist mayor in 1936. Early in the 20th century, the nearby Rue Robespierre had a different name – so I’d guess it received its current name at the same time or after the station.

Robespierre metro station, in the eastern suburbs of Paris. Image: Google.

Another tough thing to work out is whether a station is named after a neighbourhood. I kept stations in this category only if there is nearby street with the same name: otherwise, I considered that the station name refers primarily to the street itself rather than the area, as is the usage in Paris.

Some more observations about streets.

1) Most stations take the name of a lateral street (that is, the cross street) – for example, Bolivar or Garibaldi. This is quite an accurate way to pinpoint their position, provided you know the name of the main street they run under.

2) Sometimes stations take the name of a nearby street, usually because both the one they run under and the one intersecting them are already taken.

Examples include Maraîchers on the Avron and Pyrénées intersection: both these names are already in use elsewhere.

These stations are surprisingly far apart. Image: Google/CityMetric.

3) Some stations take the names of two lateral streets, most often one on each side of the main one they run under – for example, Lamarck–Caulaincourt, or Richelieu–Drouot.

4)  Some stations have the name of the main street they run under, which is confusing, at best. These fall into two subcategories: stations located somewhere along that street (Commerce, Bercy) and stations located at the end of that street (Gambetta, Mirabeau).

Vaugirard metro station, marked on the Rue de Vaugirard (highlighted in yellow). Image: Google/CityMetric.

The best/worst example is Vaugirard, which is located along the Rue de Vaugirard, which, at 4.3km, is officially the longest street in Paris. Talk about accuracy.


5) Some stations have the name of two streets intersecting at its location.

Now this, sincerely, is what I call accuracy – the very definition of a unique point. For example: Reuilly-Diderot.

But of course Paris wouldn't be Paris if things didn’t get more confusing. The problem is that, when a station has the name of two streets, you do not know if the name refers to an intersection, or two lateral streets joining the main street. Sevres-Babylone, for example, refers to an intersection; but Sevres-Lecourbe refers to two lateral streets – or even the same street, which changes its name either side of the intersection with Boulevard Pasteur.

Another curiosity is Pont de Levallois–Bécon. Pont de Levallois is accurate – the station is indeed located on the eastern side of that bridge. But that side of the river is "Levallois", not – as the name suggests – Bécon, which is a district lying on the Western side of the Seine.

Image: RATP, amended by the author.

Then there’s the curious case of Versailles. While it’s not served by the metro, there are three RER or Transilien stations in the area called "Versailles-Something":

  • Versailles-Rive Droite
  • Versailles-Rive Gauche
  • Versailles-Chantiers

As you probably know, "rive gauche" means left bank and "rive droite" means right bank. Yet there is no river at all in Versailles.

The names actually refer to the Right and Left Banks– the areas north and south of the river – in Paris, 20km away. The stations in Versailles are named not according to the place where they are but to the places they are serving:

- Versailles-Rive Droite trains serve Gare Saint-lazare on Paris’ Right Bank;

- Versailles-Rive Gauche trains serve Gare Montparnasse on Paris’ Left Bank.

The same goes for several other nearby stations in Chaville, Viroflay and Sèvres: all are named according to the place they serve in Paris and not the local waterways.

I hope that this work will help users in the future, at least a little. Naming conventions on existing systems could be neater (shorter, more accurate, with less ambiguity); while newly built ones could use more poetry.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.