Renaming tube stations, or even whole lines, with sponsor names could bring in enough money to freeze fares for several years, says a new report by Conservatives on the London Assembly.
The idea has been proposed before, and even implemented on other metros, but has always been rejected by Transport for London as potentially jarring and confusing for passengers.
The new report challenges these assumptions with some elan. Don't worry about confusion, it says:
...if Harrods were to sponsor Knightsbridge station in some way, or if an airline was to sponsor underground stations at Heathrow, the opposite effect is possible: sponsorship could help people find their destination more easily.
Although TfL has never renamed a station to suit a sponsor*, it has pulled such tricks with new infrastructure. The Thames cable car, constructed last year, is sponsored by Emirates, which managed to get its brand placed eight times on the tube map. While there were dissenting voices, this commercial intrusion appears to have been accepted without too much public outcry (that's reserved for the cable car itself, which is largely perceived as a white elephant, albeit an ever-so-slightly-glorious-on-a-sunny-day white elephant).
But that's a novelty cable car, newly created, which few people ever visit. Could Londoners stomach a Babybellsize Park, a Northern Line brought to you by Coca Cola, or a Mudchute sponsored by Andrex?
Yes, says the report. In an independent survey by Censuswide, which contacted 531 Londoners, 74% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed to the statement that: "TfL should expand their use of sponsorship across public transport in London and use the money generated to freeze or cut fares.”
As with so many surveys, it's all in the phrasing. Further questions were asked, such as the types of sponsorship people would find acceptable, yet at no point did the survey mention the tube map. This is an important point. People might welcome more corporate trimmings on the platforms and entranceways if they would help keep fares down — after all, the Underground environment is already festooned with advertising, some of it upliftingly creative. But we suspect there would be much more resistance to disfiguring the sacred cow that is the tube map.
Much of the report argues for brand placements on said map — indeed, at one point, there's a mock-up map showing 'Burberry by Bond Street' and 'Virgin Euston', showing how certain stations can tolerate longer labels without squashing the map. Yet this form of intrusion was not part of the survey used to back up the public acceptance, and we suspect the response might have been less enthusiastic.
There's certainly an interesting debate to be had here, though. While the report carries no weight in itself, it seeks to influence TfL's new sponsorship strategy, currently being drafted. There are clearly opportunities for raising revenues through untapped sponsorship, thus saving passengers money by freezing fares. But how far down the Corporate Line do we want to travel? What if a sponsor goes bust, or does something spectacularly foolish the day after all the new posters and maps have been printed? Would tube stations become magnets for protesters who have a beef with the sponsor? Will the good people of Cockfosters mind being associated with Durex?
It feels like a potentially useful idea, but one with a McWhopper of unintended consequences.
*It almost happened, mind, with Oxford Landing coming oh-so-close to getting its name all over Oxford Circus. Plus, the nitpicky historic exception of Gillespie Road getting a rebrand following lobbying by Arsenal in 1932.