Unhelpful Word Watch: Mass Transit

A reader writes with my favorite kind of question: one that contains its own answer.  It’s about the term mass transit:

I was reading your posts on unhelpful words, and I thought of one
myself. I would be interested to hear your opinion on the word “mass” –
as in “mass transit”.When I hear the word “mass” the first phrase that comes to mind is
“mass marketing”. Other, worse examples: mass demonstrations, mass
murder, mass destruction! In each case, the connotation of the word is
of something that is indiscriminate. Something big in which the
individual is lost and meaningless.It doesn’t help that “mass” also reminds me of the “masses”, Karl
Marx’s vaguely derogatory term for the proletariat who should silently
accept the uniformity imposed by a communist state.  [JW: I disagree with this reading of Marx, but it doesn’t affect the reader’s point.] The implications of that are even more unfortunate for transit.As with many common phrases, there is some truth to it. Transit is
designed for the community as a whole. It is built based on
expectations of how large numbers of people will want to move around.
By its very nature, it will never compete with the automobile in its
ability to tailor itself to the wants and needs of the individual.But if we are trying to convince people to become less dependent on the
automobile and support transit, the phrase “mass transit” is unhelpful.
People want to feel as though the service is catering to them as an
individual. They want to feel like they count. And “mass transit” says
to them clearly that they do not.

Private corporations are intensely aware of this basic human desire.
They operate according to the same laws of large-scale industrial
economics and its resulting uniformity. But they offer just enough
variation to provide the illusion
of a product that is customized to the individual. At Starbucks you can
order a nonfat Vanilla Latte with a shot of hazelnut, and comfort
yourself with the notion that it is “your” drink. I believe there are
over 100,000 permutations of drink combinations you can order at
Starbucks, most of which are essentially the same drink with minor
variations. When you order a laptop, you can “customize” it to your
specifications, despite the fact that your options are determined ahead
of time and the manufacturing process is streamlined.

Large corporations are subject to the same limitations of industrial
economics as public transit: to provide a good/service to large
quantities of people at a reasonable price, the uniqueness of
the product as tailored to the customer must be compromised. But the
private sector recognizes this handicap, and goes to great lengths to
mask it in their product presentation.

I don’t know if transit should make the same effort to avoid the
appearance of being indiscriminate. But it should certainly avoid emphasizing it. And to that end, the term “mass transit” is quite unhelpful.

I agree completely.  Nobody wants to be part of the masses.  For the record, Webster’s definition of mass as an adjective is:

a:  of or relating to the mass of the people <mass market> <mass education>; also : being one of or at one with the mass : average, commonplace <mass man> b : participated in by or affecting a large number of individuals <mass destruction> <mass demonstrations> c : having a large-scale character <mass plantings of tulips>. 

There may be political contexts in which you want to invoke “mass” in the sense of “democratic power” (e.g. mass demonstration, mass movement) by using mass transit, but to my ear mass transit is more likely to invoke mass as in “average” or “commonplace.”  You also risk invoking the sense of the noun mass as used in physics, which suggests heaviness, and thus leads to connotations of manual effort that come with that other unhelpful word, the verb to transfer.

Some engineers do use mass transit to mean “high capacity transit” as opposed to lower-ridership kinds of transit.  I use high capacity transit or high-patronage transit when that’s what I mean.  Somehow, I seem to get by without using the term mass transit.  You might consider whether you can, too.

Of course, you can always say human transit!

26 Responses to Unhelpful Word Watch: Mass Transit

  1. Multimodal Man October 15, 2009 at 8:45 pm #

    Mass Transit has been around longer than High Capacity Transit. “Transit” obviously has a much broader definition than moving people in a common vehicle. When streetcars were ubiquitous in cities of any consequence “public transport” didn’t exist as a term. So from my readings “mass transit” spoke generally to all forms of people conveyance at any scale beyond privately owned wagons, cars or jitneys.
    My reads of “Rapid Transit” in old literature (1910s-1920s) suggest it followed “Mass Transit” and assumed exclusive right of way as part of making it rapid. Rapid Transit seemed preferred when BART, or Seattle’s Forward Thrust plan were being developed.
    High Capacity Transit from what I’ve seen is maybe 20-30 years old and I suspect is generally code language for rail. I haven’t read enough transit plans from the late 70s and early 80s but I suspect that as UMTA began insisting on analyses based on effectiveness measures and that was considered “mode neutral,” HCT was an accepted “transit code” for the desired outcome. Which, for most transit planners, was rail of some sort.
    HCT as a result of considering demand is appropriate but what I have witnessed is agencies making mode choices based on capacity objectives that havce little to do with actual or forecast demand. Something like: “we selected light rail over BRT because it has the ability to move 8,000 persons per hour per direction, while most BRT systems (dismissing Colombian examples of course) carry 800-1200.” Never mind that demand is, and will be less than 1,000 per hour per direction. Never mind they could build more corridors that had less capacity but greater frequency.
    So I actually disdain High Capacity Transit more than Mass Transit for the reasons above. Not for what it is but how I believe it is used to manipulate planning analyses and avoid solving real transportation needs and mobility objectives.
    In the Starbucks example, do people go because Starbucks has plenty of seating capacity, or do they like the atmosphere, service and product? For transit, people ride transit for the access (goes where they want to go), speed (in a relatively competitive travel time) and frequency (when; obviously affects travel time as well) and are often willing to crowd into close quarters with strangers just to use it, something they are most unwilling to do for any other activity in the USA. Capacity is actually a measure of constraint, not attraction.
    End of Rant.

  2. anonymouse October 15, 2009 at 8:55 pm #

    I think “mass transit” is used as a cheap substitute when “rapid transit” has stopped really being rapid. The NYC subway for example: nobody calls it Rapid Transit anymore, and with good reason after they’ve slowed it down so much. Now it’s just mass transit, for the trudging huddled masses looking for something, anything, that will get them to work.

  3. Cascadian October 15, 2009 at 9:41 pm #

    Thinking of alternatives, I kind of like “social transit.” People like being social, and it really does highlight the advantages of the form.
    Unfortunately, the adjective has been stained (at least in the US) by association with “socialist.” On the other hand, “social computing” and “social networking” are both current buzzwords that have a positive connotation.

  4. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org October 16, 2009 at 12:52 am #

    Yes, but there is a large service category of services that are (potentially) high-capacity but not rapid. Steetcars/trams, local buses, etc.

  5. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org October 16, 2009 at 12:56 am #

    Quite a rant! I disagree that “high capacity transit” HCT means rail. In fact, there are probably rail advocates reading this blog who think it means bus. (In politics, you know that you’re in the center when you’re getting balanced abuse from both sides.)
    In its intention it’s a mode-neutral term that provides a space for bus and rail options to be compared. That’s certainly the only way I use it.

  6. Peter Parker October 16, 2009 at 6:08 am #

    I don’t think the term has ever caught on in Australia, though it’s understood here amongst planners.
    ‘Rapid transit’ is more common here, eg Doncaster Area Rapid Transit.
    Nevertheless both terms remain planner-speak and the public just refers to trains, trams or buses. In each mode there can be quite a lot of variations that fall under the one name, eg Perth’s suburban lines with metro or commuter rail-type station spacing or Melbourne’s ‘light rail’ vs trams in mixed traffic.
    Is ‘mass transit’ more a North American thing?

  7. Multimodal Man October 16, 2009 at 7:05 am #

    It CAN be used correctly; it’s my opinion that most (you are an exception) like to think about rail as the only true HCT.

  8. Kevin October 16, 2009 at 9:33 am #

    Perhaps we’re over-thinking this a bit. I don’t hear “mass transit” and think of Marx. I generally use the term “public transit,” but that doesn’t for me conjure up images of poor people in sub-standard housing either.
    Ultimately though, I think agencies do better at branding their services than we give them credit for. In London, you don’t take public transit to work. You ride the Tube.
    In NYC, you ride the subway, or Metro North, or LIRR. In LA, we take the Metro, or the Gold Line… etc. etc.
    Sadly though, I take “the bus.” Anyone have a sexier name for that?

  9. anonymouse October 16, 2009 at 10:22 am #

    In LA, I’ve heard people refer to the whole system, buses included, as “The Metro”. So taking a bus would count as “taking the Metro”. Meanwhile in San Francisco, it is apparently common practice to refer to the Muni Metro as “the bus”.

  10. EngineerScotty October 16, 2009 at 10:26 am #

    The question is, how high is high capacity?
    Above certain capacity levels, rail becomes far cheaper to operate than bus, given the far larger number of passengers that a train can carry compared to a bus, even an artic. Using more smaller vehicles to improve headway works well in places where labor is cheap, but can easily be a budget buster in developed nations.
    If you only need to do 1000 pphpd peak, for now and evermore, than yeah, busses are more cost-effective. You’d be talking 20 minute headways for LRT at that capacity, assuming 2-car trains, and that’s a sufficient service gap to become significantly annoying.
    But at that low level of demand–is a linear transit line in a dedicated ROW even justified? Other service topologies, including modes generally not called “rapid transit” may be more appropriate in that situation.
    Obviously, if a planner is building systems to handle 8000 pphpd when there’s no chance in heck of actually NEEDING that capacity, that’s wasted money. What city were you talking about, BTW–where LRT was built in anticipation of demand which planners knew was unlikely?

  11. peter smith October 16, 2009 at 12:36 pm #

    ‘mass transit’ is not the best term, but ‘rapid transit’ is no better, for various reasons, some already mentioned.
    but it’s easy to say something is not perfect — what’s a better alternative?

  12. John October 16, 2009 at 1:45 pm #

    A friend of mine uses BMW – bus, metro, walk…

  13. ZA October 16, 2009 at 2:36 pm #

    “human transit” sounds like “human trafficking” to me.

  14. Alon Levy October 16, 2009 at 3:48 pm #

    In Hong Kong, mass transit means any public transit, and Mass Transit Railway, or MTR, means the subway. I think this is the same as in the US, where mass transit refers to both trains and buses.
    In Singapore, they use the word mass to mean high-capacity, so Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) means the subway, distinguished from low-capacity people movers, which are called Light Rapid Transit (LRT). The Singaporean use of rapid transit to mean grade-separated rail is similar to the usage in New York and Toronto, where rapid transit means the subway or subway-like service.

  15. Russell in Cincinnati October 17, 2009 at 9:04 am #

    A super-nerd observation is that the phrase “Human Transit”, while not too catchy, actually has a bit of additional information in it that “mass transit” does not–‘human transit’ describes a transit system that is inherently only capable of properly moving autonomous humans, not freight or wild animals.
    It is quite easy to think of mass transit systems, such as ordinary surface roads with cars and trucks on them, that are equally adept at handling freight and human passengers. After all every container on a road has a driver, and that container can have “whatever” in it.
    It is also easy to imagine and recall many a transit system that is simplified/reduced in cost by taking advantage of human abilities to walk and make decisions, and thus can only realistically handle humans. A system of department store escalators is an example of a transit mode that pretty much only handles people, not packages.
    In its preservation of the idea that urban transit systems might benefit from being optimized solely for human commuters, in a way that roads/cars/trucks are not, I slightly like the idea of “human transit”, though it was obviously meant to be one of Jarrett’s jokes.
    But we really do need a cool alternative phrase to “mass transit”. “Public transit” sounds awfully good to me, with the slight problem that the phrase sounds like it does not include public right-of-way systems that use single-occupancy/private vehicles like PRT.
    Hmm, if not “Public Transit”, what about “Municipal Transit Systems”? The idea being that people won’t think that means cars, and also the phrase needn’t cover inter-city railways, because that is a whole separate topic. There is also a hint/implication of the “human” aspect to Municipal Transit, because the thing that is special about municipalities is that there are inevitably humans in them, not just objects.
    Thanks Jarrett for another great article, leading once again to some pleasant and profitable rumination.

  16. Russell in Cincinnati October 17, 2009 at 9:12 am #

    Or “City Transit”?
    …as perhaps a nicer term than “Mass Transit”.

  17. anonymouse October 17, 2009 at 12:31 pm #

    But what about rural services? Or outer suburban service for that matter. I wouldn’t call the Golden Gate bus to Santa Rosa “City Transit”.

  18. Nathanael October 17, 2009 at 5:05 pm #

    One of the problems with it is that there is no objective definition of “high capacity”.
    Relative to taxis and minibuses, big city buses are “high capacity”. But relative to the NYC Subway, absolutely no buses are “high capacity”.
    It’s sort of a meaningless term because “high” is so relative.
    “Mass” is less relative, oddly enough, partly because of the political “mass movement”, “mass demonstration” aspect to it: it means a *crowd* at the very least.

  19. Nathanael October 17, 2009 at 5:08 pm #

    I tend to go with “public transportation”.
    Now, in some circles, “public” is a demonized word. (!) But apart from that this has fully positive connotations. It’s open to everyone, and it’s transportation.
    “Transit” is actually a weird geeky jargon term and should be avoided — I find most people don’t know what it means or use it. “Public transportation” is much better.

  20. Nathanael October 17, 2009 at 5:22 pm #

    Actually, I’m thinking about this more and this is *the* single most unhelpful, misleading jargon term in, uh, “transit planning”. Nobody outside the field calls it “transit”.
    It’s “transportation” as a general thing, or the “bus” or the “train”, or the “el”, “subway”, “bikeway” or a brand name.
    Outside of transit circles, “transit” brings up images of astronomy (the transit of Venus?) or of being stuck in the airport waiting lounge (“international transit area”). From the dictionary, it actually means going through or by without stopping…. it’s a terrible terrible word to use.
    It’s bad enough that elected officials seem to avoid it instinctively. The House and Senate panels in the US have Mass or Public *Transportation* in their names, not “Transit”.
    Maybe another “unhelpful word watch” entry for your blog? 🙂

  21. Multimodal Man October 17, 2009 at 8:00 pm #

    In my opinion: light rail between Bellevue and Seattle via the I-90 floating bridge. See http://www.soundtransit.org/Sound-Transit-2/Frequently-Asked-Questions.xml
    regarding the maximum throughput of each leg. Given the service design no leg will be able to have throughput; it will be less than 1/3 what is cited. Which is plenty given the poor service design employed.

  22. dustbury.com October 19, 2009 at 12:48 pm #

    Another fine mass

    One of Jarrett Walkers readers objects to the term mass transit:
    When I hear the word mass the first phrase that comes to mind is mass marketing. Other, worse examples: mass demonstrations, mass murder,…

  23. Jason October 25, 2009 at 5:54 am #

    I use the term ‘public transport’. That’s what defines it. Even larger masses of people use cars. The big difference is that they are *private* transport…
    I agree with nathanel that ‘transit’ might be as unhelpful a term as mass. I feel as though i’m using jargon i don’t fully understand if I use the word ‘transit.’
    And on negative connotations, one use of mass is the ‘critical mass’ event that cyclists hold. They try to turn out shows of strength. They’d obviously like to have the political clout that ‘transit’ does. Being ‘for the masses’ might put a floor under your political support…

  24. Daniel Sparing November 11, 2009 at 9:15 am #

    “Public” is not bad but what I like that in Dutch and German, transit is called “Open transport”.
    I think this is a pretty good support to transit: this is something that each every one of us can easily use as a service, instead of some private property. Like Open software, etc.
    Of course i know that economically speaking, transit is just like driving: it has a price that you have to pay, so it is just as open option for you to walk down the car dealer and buy a car and sell it half an hour later at the end of your journey, but come on 🙂

  25. Riccardo December 23, 2009 at 1:00 am #

    In Australia you wouldn’t be able to say “Municipal” transit – that word is what we use for public libraries and a public swimming pool.
    Public transport is the common term though oddly enough I prefer Mass Transit
    When cities begin to fail (as ours are) with poor urban connectivity, roads and buses jammed and people crying out for something better, it is actually quite comforting for the government to propose something that actually can begin to move a lot of people.
    We are not experiencing the Detroit effect or hollowing out of city cores – quite the opposite. But our governments will not supply additional transport road or rail- hence the situation is becoming acute and a widely recognised need for mass transit.

  26. Bob Davis October 8, 2010 at 1:06 am #

    I guess I’m coming in late, but here goes: B. Bruce Briggs, in his “War Against the Automobile” (published around 1974) used, and maybe coined the term “collective transit”, since with the exception of a few metro areas, the vast majority of “the public” used their own cars, what might be called “individual transit”.