slippery word watch: commute

When journalists reach for a word meaning "transit riders" or "constituents of transit" they often seize on the word commuter.  

Definitions of to commute (in its transportation sense) vary a bit.  Webster says it means  "to travel back and forth regularly (as between a suburb and a city)."  Some other definitions (e.g. Google) suggest that commuting  is specifically about travel to work or (sometimes) school.  The core meaning seems to be a trip made repeatedly, day after day.

But in practice, this meaning tends to slip into two other meanings.  As with most slippery words, confusion between these meanings can exclude important possibilities from our thinking.    

One the one hand, the meaning is often narrowed to "travel back and forth during the peak period or 'rush hour.'"  This narrowing arises from the inevitable fact that most people engaged in policy conversations — especially in government, business, and some academia — have jobs that lead them to commute at these times.  What's more, many people who are happy to be motorists often care about transit only during the peak period, when it might help with the problem of congestion. Reducing the meaning of commute to "rush hour commute" narrows the transportation problem to match these people's experience of it. 

Of course, cities, and especially transit systems, are full of people traveling to and from work/school at other times, most obviously in the service sector (retail, restaurants) but also in complex lives that mix work, school, and other commitments.  But these trips, even if made regularly, are quietly and subconsciously excluded from the category of commutes, when the term is used to mean only "rush hour commuter."

There's nothing wrong with talking about rush hour commute trips, of course.  They're an important category that must be discussed, but I am always careful to call them peak commutes. The problem arises when commute can mean either the narrow category of peak trips or the larger category of all regularly repeated travel.   That's the essence of a slippery word, and the danger is higher because this slip is exclusionary.  When the word is used in a sense that is narrower than its definition, large numbers of people are being unconsciously excluded from the category it defines, and thus from our thinking about that category.

The word commute can also slip in the other direction, becoming broader than its literal meaning.  It's common to see the word commute used as a one-word marker meaning "movement within cities."  The excellent Atlantic Cities website, for example, uses "Commute" as the name of its section on urban movement in general.  This, presumably, is also what the New York Times means when it refers to San Francisco's BART system as a "commuter train."  BART runs frequently all day, all evening, and all weekend, serving many purposes other than the journey to work or school, so its effect on urban life is much broader than just its commuting role.  When a word's meaning slips to a broader one, it can falsely signal that the broad category is actually no bigger than the narrow one — in this case that all urban travel is just regular trips to work or school.  This takes our eye off the remarkable diversity of urban travel demands, and the much more complex ways that movement is imbedded in all aspects of urban life.

So commute – and the category word commuter — refers technically to a regularly repeated trip, usually for work or school.  But in journalism, and in the public conversation, it's constantly being either broadened to mean urban movement in general, or narrowed to mean "rush-hour commuter."

What can you do?  Be careful.  When you mean "regularly repeated trips," say commutes.  When you mean "regularly repeated trips at rush hour", say peak commutes or rush hour commutes.  When you mean "all travel at rush hour, regardless of purpose or regularity," say the peak or rush hour.  When you mean "all urban mobility or access," speak of urban access or mobility.

Any linguist will tell you that the slippage in word meanings — especially their tendency to slide to broader meanings or narrower ones — is a normal feature of the evolution of language.  I have no illusions that this process can be stopped.  But when we're having public conversations, slippery word usages are the most common way that strong claims to hegemony or exclusion can hide inside reasonable-sounding statements — often hiding even from the person speaking them.  Learn to recognize slippery words (see my category Words, Unhelpful) and look for them, especially in journalism. 

Yet another reason, by the way, to hire literature students! 

14 Responses to slippery word watch: commute

  1. Mike Hicks July 17, 2013 at 1:00 pm #

    Thanks for writing up this simple issue that has such broad repercussions. I remember being thoroughly confused when the Northstar commuter rail line was built in Minnesota partly because I had previously heard the phrase “commuter airline” in other contexts — something that really means “regional airline” or something similar. So when “commuter rail” came along, I had no idea that planners really absolutely meant peak-time trips.

  2. Kenny July 17, 2013 at 3:54 pm #

    I’ve actually also heard people use the word “commute” to refer only to peak hour travel to and from work on a specific mode. I think when I’ve heard this, it’s normally used to refer to the sort of regional heavy rail systems like Metrolink in LA or LIRR/NJTransit in NYC. But I think I’ve also heard it used specifically for people who take the subway to work. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone use the word “commute” to refer to mode when the mode is city bus or automobile, though maybe I have heard it with peak hour express buses.

  3. James Bunting July 17, 2013 at 9:41 pm #

    A commuter is the holder of a commutation ticket, originally introduced by railway companies to provide reduced price travel between home and place of work. Here in the UK we have always called it a season ticket, but have adopted the derivative term commuter. This is now broadly used to signify someone who undertakes a regular journey, regardless of the form of transport used. You will hear people talk of ‘my commute’ in this context to describe a regular journey, not necessarily between home and work. As with so many words the media will often use it out of context for journalistic effect.

  4. jack horner July 18, 2013 at 6:14 am #

    What Jarrett said.
    Using ‘commuters’ in a broad sense to refer to all public transport riders is bad, because the continuing association with ‘commute’ in the narrow sense (journey to work) may encourage people to assume that public transport is only about the journey to work.
    Let us encourage people, when they want to refer to all PT users, not only in relation to the journey to work, to say passengers or riders, not commuters.

  5. TR July 18, 2013 at 8:22 am #

    Journalists aren’t the only ones who make this mistake. Currently the Transportation Research Board has a standing committee for “Commuter Rail Transportation” which is distinct from “Rail Transit Systems”. The committee’s purview is generally understood to be regional-level passenger service running on standard gauge, FRA-regulated trackage that connects to the national rail network, but that’s a wholly separate issue from the service pattern–or at least it should be. It might seem like a little thing, but it ends up stifling research (eg promoting European S-bahn type operations in the US) that would be very helpful.

  6. Dave July 18, 2013 at 10:11 am #

    This, presumably, is also what the New York Times means when it refers to San Francisco’s BART system as a “commuter train.”
    I think NYT is simply designating BART as the “commuter train” for San Francisco to differentiate it from the Muni, which is the “subway” or “urban rail” for San Francisco. It’s still sloppy wording, but it’s the NYT trying to impose New York City modes onto other cities’ rail networks, so that New Yorkers can picture the distances and frequencies of service in their minds.
    Muni operates with stations closer spaced using shorter train sets as compared with BART, therefore Muni = NYC Subway and BART = LIRR, Metro North or NJT Rail. It’s just a quirk of their NYC-centric thinking/writing style.

  7. Frosty July 18, 2013 at 11:58 am #

    My regular commute is by car. So there! And in Seattle and Portland there are regular bicycle commuters. Clearly the nouns require adjectives to denote exactly what we’re speaking about.
    As for “literature students” I think any well-educated liberal arts student, who understands nuance, will do.

  8. EngineerScotty July 18, 2013 at 12:26 pm #

    Many anti-transit advocates use this equivocation as a basis for mischief. The local libertarian think-tank, for example, routinely suggests improved express bus service as a less-expensive replacement for true rapid transit, noting that it’s sometimes faster (and a limited-stop bus moving on a free-flowing freeway can indeed reach high average speeds). But anyone knowledgeable about the subject knows that the two products are not interchangeable in function, and such appeals are made to attract suburbanites who (by and large) mainly care only about peak trips to the city center in the morning, and back again in the evening.

  9. Robert Wightman July 20, 2013 at 8:06 am #

    The dictionary meaning from Miriam Webster is:
    Definition of COMMUTE
    transitive verb
    a : change, alter
    b : to give in exchange for another : exchange
    : to convert (as a payment) into another form
    : to change (a penalty) to another less severe
    : commutate
    intransitive verb
    : make up, compensate
    : to pay in gross
    : to travel back and forth regularly (as between a suburb and a city)
    : to yield the same mathematical result regardless of order —used of two elements undergoing an operation or of two operations on elements
    The original meaning seems to be “to change” in some form or another. In D. C. motors there is a commutator which reverses the direction of the current in rotor windings every half cycle. This seems to work for a commuter as the travel in and then reverse direction and travel out on a regular cycle. The problem, as has been stated, is that it tends to ignore off peak and counter flow travel which should be cheaper to provide as most of the infrastructure and equipment is paid for and all you need to recover is incremental costs.

  10. Oemissions August 10, 2013 at 5:04 am #

    Here on SS Island,BC we have a population of 10,000 with 9863 registered vehicles and over 10,000 vehicles on the main road through town each day.
    The CRD, which reports on traffic, has a statistic that:” the average household here makes 6.5 trips a day.”
    Trips is used instead of commutes.
    We do have peak commute times but it is not much more than all the regular commuting done during the day.
    The NOISE and STINK is horrendous now, especially so for those living beside or near the main road.

  11. Chris Bradshaw August 11, 2013 at 7:01 pm #

    I see “commute” as referring to the daily round-trip to work or study within the daily cycle. Yes, transit authorities tend to limit it only to mean peak-hour (as you pointed out), and in the dominant to downtown in the a.m., reverse in p.m. (as Robert pointed out), or is of a long-enough distance to warrant specialized routes. Most who commute shorter distances use regular all-day/all-week routes.
    The combination of longer distances, peak-hour, and the daily cycle translates into distances of about 10-15 km each way (much shorter than non-commute trips), and this usually necessitates that it be “rapid.” Rapid means that the vehicles travel faster, are on rights-of-way separate them from the rest of traffic (so as to avoid ‘congestion’ from cars and trucks and ‘conflicts’ from human-powered travelers), and have stations/stops 2-3 times as distant from each other.
    The reference to commuter subscription services — the monthly pass, usually — refers to the favouritism provided the peak-hour commuter covering these longer distances. They typically pay a fee equal to about 75% of what they would pay in individual fares if they didn’t buy the pass.
    And this brings up another matter of “commuters”: commuters rarely use the transit system for trips other than commuting; they own cars that are used for all other travel (even for short in-neighbourhood trips, according to stats). If many ‘commuters’ used it at other times (which is effectively discouraged by having to walk twice as far, wait twice as long for the off-peak buses), they would not need to provide any contribution to the additional costs.
    The ‘commuter’ is the “choice” patron, thanks to owning a car; the rest are “captive” (transit-biz terms) for NOT having a car. The senior is such a user, no longer needing to commute and therefore not able to reliably PREDICT at the beginning of any one month whether their use will exceed the accumulated singe-fares they would expend to justify buying a monthly pass.

  12. Alan Howes August 12, 2013 at 1:54 am #

    Well I must say that, working in an international context, I regularly use the term “Commuter Rail” to refer to suburban Heavy Rail systems like METRA and S-Bahn. I suppose it could also be used for what was, in the UK, Southern Electric – or at least its suburban component, although the UK is a little different in that there is more of a continuum between suburban rail, regional rail and inter-city rail (on the passenger side).
    But in other anglophone countries terminology is different again. In (arguably anglophone) India, the term “commuters” is regularly used to describe the body of travellers by public transport – at least in published media, I’m not sure what the professionals say. I once picked someone up on their use of the term, but it seems its accepted terminology there.

  13. Riccardo August 18, 2013 at 3:12 pm #

    I believe the term originated in Australia, and was drawn from the same root as ‘commuting’ prison sentences or hanging!
    The nineteenth cnntury gentleman, using the train to the same place every day and paying a lot in fares (probably closer to air fare levels of today) would in his best Victorian English write a letter to the railway boss, usually a commissioner here, asking for pity over the cost,noting the benefit to the railway of his frequent custom, and ‘praying’ the honorable commissioner would ‘commute’ the fare, being ‘your very obediant servant etc etc etc’. In the fullness of time, he would receive a letter telling him his fare was commuted. He would then take the letter to the ticket office at the station and pay a lower fare.

  14. damien haas September 11, 2013 at 10:22 pm #

    The Australian Bureau of Statitics only counts ‘trips taken to work’ in its figures for public transport usage. this fails to include university students, school children, people not traveling on public transport outside the peak hours, people traveling to sporting events or the elderly.

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