April 21, 2003
Boston has its T, Chicago its El. San Francisco, BART.
Transit system names have become as much a part of their cities' lore and culture as their cuisines, sports teams or civic monuments.
Comes now the upstart Phoenix area, seeking a catchy name for its light rail system to last the ages.
"This is a gut-level issue. We're naming the baby," said Daina Mann of Valley Metro Rail, which is taking suggestions from the public in a Name the Train campaign this month.
Should it be Sunrail? Desert Express? Copperhead? Sol Train?
Or, as some light rail opponents have suggested, Snail Rail or Trolley Folly.
Valley Metro has two linguistic challenges. The first is to insert a handy new word into the permanent vocabulary of the city through somewhat less-than-organic means, a trick that has had mixed results in Arizona. The second is to define the train before the vox populi can define it in potentially unflattering terms.
"You need to get ahead of the public's tendency to name something by shorthand," said David Burd, president of the Naming Co. of East Stroudsburg, Pa.
He cited Boston's $12 billion attempt to route a freeway under Boston Harbor, spawning a massive traffic headache that the public nicknamed the Big Dig.
In older cities, the names of the train systems filtered up from the language of the street without official sanction.
Chicago's El is short for "elevated railway." Londoners funnel under their city into the Tube, while the New Orleans streetcar has become a lasting icon of the literature and music of the city.
The names of newer transit systems are less evocative, tending toward the technocratic, acronymic or soporific. In Salt Lake City, it's TRAX, in Seattle, it's LINK and Dallas speeds along riding DART.
Most impenetrable of all is a name for an East Coast supertrain recently put into service by Amtrak (itself a rail system bearing an artificial moniker). The Acela offers regular service between Boston and Washington, D.C., on a train that some people complain sounds like a drug or a vitamin supplement.
Phoenix should pick a name that "really shakes things up, that gets people excited, that gets talked about at cocktail parties," said Steven Manning, managing partner of Igor International, a San Francisco naming consulting agency. The name becomes a powerful advertisement in itself, he said.
Mann of Valley Metro agrees that's exactly the one-phrase burst of good public relations the light rail system needs. A committee made up of rail staff members and citizens from Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa will make the choice after the April 30 deadline for entries expires, she said.
"The name we select is going to be emotional, something we can put our arms around and, I know this sounds corny, but something where people will say, 'Yeah, that's Phoenix.' "
Two of her favorite entries so far have a musical flavor. The Arizona Train, referencing the A Train of Duke Ellington fame, or the Sol Train, evoking both desert heat and rhythm-and-blues.
Whether the public will swallow a ZIP (Zoom into Phoenix) or a Roadrunner or an Aztec, or give it their own tagline is yet to be seen, as the practice of naming things from the top down has had a mixed record in Arizona.
One notorious flop involved a 1981 attempt to give Tucson a new nickname. The local Convention and Visitors Bureau thought Old Pueblo sounded too moth-eaten and announced a contest for a new name.
The winning entry, the Sunshine Factory was widely ridiculed, especially after one of the judges tried to defend the choice by saying it reminded him of "a little guy running around like elves or dwarfs, making little sunshines." Tucson ditched the slogan after the furor died down.
A more successful linguistic graft was begun in metro Phoenix in 1933 when a local agency called Advertising Counselors partnered with the Chamber of Commerce to create the real estate slogan Valley of the Sun.
There are several contenders for the exact coiner of the phrase, but one strong claimant is late advertising executive Emmett Vance Graham, who said the slogan was cooked up "because Salt River Valley sounds really cruddy on brochures."
Valley of the Sun slipped into widespread national use in the 1950s and through the process of collective word-sanding, the Valley is now commonly understood local shorthand for Greater Phoenix.