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