(Another short selection from the draft of the book I'm writing.)
The word for the path followed by a transit vehicle is sometimes route, and sometimes line. Whenever you have two words for the same thing, you should ask why.
Most of the words used in transit discussions also have a more common meaning outside that context. That common meaning often forms a connotation that hangs around the word, often causing confusion, when we use the word to talk about transit. In saying the word, we may intend only the transit meaning, but some people may be hearing the more common meaning. Regardless of our intentions, the commonplace meaning of a word is often still there, as a connotation, when the word’s used in a transit context. The words route and line are a good example.
A route, in its common meaning, is the path traced by some kind of person or vehicle. When a package or message is going through a postal system, we say it’s being routed. The person who delivers newspapers to subscribers in the morning is following a paper route. School buses typically follow routes.
What these meanings of route have in common is that the route isn’t necessarily followed very often. A package going through a delivery system may end up following a specific route that no package has followed before. Paper routes and school bus routes run only once a day, and not at all on some days. These common uses of route imply a place where some kind of transport event happens, but possibly not very often.
The word line, on the other hand, has a clear meaning from geometry: a simple, straight, one-dimensional figure. In common usage we often use line for something curved, like the laugh-lines and worry-lines on a face, and transit lines may be curved as well. But in any case, the word line doesn’t imply an event, as route does. A line is a thing that’s just there, no matter what happens along it.
Lurking inside these two words, in short, is a profound difference in attitude about a transit service. Do you want to think of transit as something that’s always there, that you can count on? If so, call it a line. We never speak of rail routes, always rail lines, and we do that because the rails are always there, suggesting a permanent and reliable thing.
If you’re selling a transportation product, you obviously want people to think they can count on it. So it’s not surprising that in the private sector, the word is usually line: Trucking and shipping companies often call themselves lines, as do most private bus companies and of course, the airlines. This doesn’t mean that all these services are really line-like – some may be quite infrequent – but the company that chose the word wants you to think of it as a thing that’s reliably there, that you can count on.
So in general, when talking about transit, think about the more commonplace meaning of the word you’re choosing. In this case:
- Use route to indicate the site of a (possibly very occasional) transportation event. The word route reminds many of us of school transportation, newspaper deliveries, and delivery systems that may operate only infrequently.
- Use line when you want to imply something that has a continuous physical presence and availability – for example, a transit line where service is coming so often that you don’t need a schedule.
To put it even more simply, the word route lowers expectations for the frequency and reliability of a service. The word line raises those expectations.
Often, transit agencies themselves will use these words in a way that’s not quite conscious of these connotations. In Australia, for example, bus services are usually routes, but rail services are lines. This usage carries a hint that we should have intrinsically lower expectations of bus service as compared to rail. In many cases, that’s not true: many bus “routes,” for example, run frequently all day while commuter rail “lines” may run only a few times at rush hour.
Of course, these connotations can be a nuisance. Sometimes you don’t want any connotation. Sometimes you just want the meaning.
Unfortunately, words without connotations tend to sound abstract and dull. I could insist on saying “fixed vehicle path” instead of route or line, just as I could say “nonmotorized access” when I mean walking or cycling, but you wouldn’t get through this book if I did. Language that strikes us as evasive or bureaucratic is often the result of word choices that try to avoid all connotation. Such language is precise but uninspiring, and long passages of it are just plain hard to read.
To keep our speech vivid and engaging, we have to use words with connotations, and do our best to choose those connotations consciously. I’ll do that throughout this book, and note where there may be a connotation problem. As for route and line, my broad intention is to raise expectations of transit rather than lower them, so I generally use line. However, when I speak specifically of a service that doesn’t run very frequently, I use route.