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.

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Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

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