Useful New Term: Captive Driver

The insulting and generally inaccurate term captive rider — for someone who supposedly has no choice but to use transit — still shows up in transit studies now and then, but it seems to be receding.  I’ve certainly tried to do my part to drive the stake into it.

But sometimes the best way to undermine a misleading or prejudicial term is to promote an analogous term.  So I loved this exchange:


Yes, much of my life I’ve been a captive driver, in that I’ve been forced to live and work in landscapes where there are no reasonable choices for how to get around.

One of the worst things about being a captive driver is having to drive when you know you really shouldn’t. I’m careful with alcohol, but there are times when I’m just tired, or irritable, and there’s no choice but to drive.

I know several older people who are captive drivers. They know they probably should stop driving soon, but their happiness and even sanity may require them to stay in the house and garden that they’ve known for decades, even though that’s a place where transit isn’t viable. (And they often lack the smartphone skills to use Uber or Lyft, or have disabilities that those companies can’t handle.)

Captive drivers are everywhere. Will they rise up to shake off their chains?

For Reporters Disparaging Transit Projects, “Far” Isn’t Far

If you’ve ever wondered what well above and well below mean, as opposed to far above and far below, Dan Weikel and Ralph Vartebedian at the Los Angeles Times have quantified it for us, in an article about the California High Speed Rail project.

Rail officials also say the latest cost estimate for the entire 500-mile project has been reduced from $68 billion to $64 billion, well below the $98 billion projection from several years ago, but still far above initial estimates of less than $40 billion.

I’d always assumed that  far was further than well.  But no, by their math, well is $34 billion but far is as little as $24 billion.   Well is further than far.

So now, anytime someone uses far or its relatives to imply extremes — “the furthest corners of the earth” etc,, you can ask:  Sure, they may be the furthest, but are they the wellest?

Can Design Learn from the New Zealand Flag Debate?

If you care at all about visual communication — and if you aren't blind from birth, then you do — you should be following the remarkable debate about the New Zealand flag.  National flags are so enduring that it is hard to imagine a graphic design task with higher stakes.  Revising one triggers a profound argument about national identity, which ultimately comes down to a couple of questions:

  1.  One or many ideas?  Can the nation come together around one image or idea, or must there me a mash-up of several to satisfy different groups or points of view?
  2.  Fashionable or enduring?  Graphic design is so much about fashion and fun that identifying an image that will make sense for decades is harder than it sounds.  Yet that's what a flag must be – and the greatest company logos have mastered this challenge as well.

To review, the current New Zealand flag looks like this:


The Union Jack and the Southern Cross, the latter a distinctive constellation that is also on Australia's flag.   (With all due respect to defenders of this flag, both images are about New Zealand's tie to other countries, countries that the nation's identity has lately been separating from. I also understand the view that flags should never change on principle; that is a different debate.)

The New Zealand flag seems disconnected from the evolving palette of national identity.  National  imagery rarely uses the flag's colors.  Sometimes it uses blue-green colors that echo the textures of the landscape; you will find these in the customs hall at Auckland Airport for example.  Increasingly, though, the government uses black.  The association of black with New Zealand comes from another image that is so universal that some visitors probably think it's the flag already:


This image is most common in sports, as it's the logo of most national teams including the famous All Blacks of rugby, but it long ago spilled over into the general consciousness as an unofficial symbol of the country.  

If I may reveal botanical interests more suited to my other blog, this is not just any random leaf or frond.  It's based on the underside of the spectacular Silver Fern, Cyathea dealbata, one of the  tree ferns that define so many New Zealand rainforests (top on left, underside on right).


Sports and tree-hugging in one image!  This would seem to make the silver fern a winner across the cultural spectrum.  It might also remind you of another former British colony that tired of its Union Jack, and forged a new identity out of botany:


The Canadian flag was adopted in February 1965, so it just turned 50.  Like the Silver Fern in New Zealand, the maple leaf had been hanging around in Canadian imagery for a while.  So it's not surprising to see the fern so prominent in New Zealand flag ideas.

So how has the debate gone?  Well, the government's earnest committee canvassed the country and came up with these semi-finalists:


It's remarkable how much consensus there was on which images matter: the Southern Cross, a gesture toward the old flag, plus two main expressions of the fern: the frond and the spiral form called the koru.  (The latter, common in Maori imagery, is based on the shape of a frond as it just unfurls.)  

When you look at that field of contenders, does your eye go to the busier ones or the simpler ones?  Mine went to the simplest, the ones with a single idea, not a collision of several, and the ones that looked enduring by virtue of not trying to be sexy.  For that reason, the original silver-fern-on-black still looked right to me.  

But the people who chose the four finalists felt differently:


… at which point, all hell broke loose.  There are many complaints, including that three of the four are too similar to represent a choice, and that #2 is already selling plastic plates:

But the real problems are these:

  • #2 and #4 are both mash-ups, obviously collisions of multiple unresolved ideas.  A mash-up suggests that the country is too divided to revere any single image.  If Canada — a far more diverse country in terms of landscapes and identities — could avoid this mistake, New Zealand certainly can.  (British Columbia is another matter …)
  • Except for #3, they are all over-designed, with an attention to today's graphical fashions instead of any thought about what might stand the test of time.  This is equivalent to saying that they call attention to the designer.

What do you gain, designer of finalist #1, by flipping half of the silver fern image into negative, and making the frond leaflets more rounded so that they no longer resemble the plant?  How is this better than the simple silver fern on black?  Only that a graphic designer obviously designed it, in a way that is supposed to look cool.

But a flag is supposed to outlast its designer, and the design fashions of the moment.  Remember, the Canadian flag was designed in the 1960s.  If their design competition had been seeking something as "contemporary" and "designed" as New Zealand's final four, they might have found inspiration in one of these:




Fortunately, they didn't.  You can't tell, looking at the Canadian flag, that it's an artefact of the 1960s, and that's the whole point.  A flag has to have a sense of timelessness and simplicity, which is why you must reject  any design that calls attention to the cleverness of the designer or relies on design fashions of the moment.   The creativity it requires begins with the willingness to disappear as the creator.  None of the finalists displays this.  

How is this debate relevant to this blog's concerns in public transit?  If you really want to sell public transit, teach people to count on it.  Make it seem solid and enduring, not just sexy and ephemeral. Go for the simple, solid idea that will still make sense — practically and aesthetically — decades from now.  


And this principle extends even beyond graphic design, to debates about whether transit technologies should be chosen for "fun" or reliability.  

Do you notice how insecure companies change their logos and liveries more often than confident ones do?  Do you notice how they use flashy look-at-me images instead of clean and enduring ones?  

Flashiness, fun, and novelty may attract customers, but only simplicity and reliability retains them. Which message do you want to put forth about your transit system, or your country?

Major Think Tank Implies You Don’t Exist

Ums-2015-featureEvery year, the Texas Transportation Institute’s Urban Mobility Scorecard describes the nation’s most transit-intensive and walkable metro areas as having terrible “urban mobility”.  And every year, academic experts and smart journalists attack its indefensible methods and assumptions.  And yet, every year, careless journalists describe the report as though it were news about the state of "mobility" or “commuting” in America. 

But you don’t need to study the analysis to understand what’s wrong with TTI's claims.  All you need to do is look at their press release or summary, and notice that they want you to think of car congestion as equivalent to poor urban mobility

When you use words with different meanings as though they were interchangeable, you are denying the existence or relevance of people who are included in one meaning but not the other.  

Political rhetoric plays this trick all the time.  When scientific or academic rhetoric uses it, you should be suspicious.  It's one of several types of rhetorical annihilation.

In this case, the people being erased are anyone who moves about in cities (urban mobility) but does not experience congestion.  These include anyone who organized their lives so that they can walk to work, and of course anyone who cycles or uses public transit– at least those transit services that are protected from congestion such as most heavy rail, light rail, and busway services.   (And in fact, the report itself is interested only in the travel time of “auto commuters,” so all transit riders are excluded.) 

If you are one of these people, you do not count as part of your city when the TTI tallies your city’s “urban mobility."  Any subsequent commentary about the economic impact of “urban mobility” problems refers to an economy in which you do not exist.

This has been pointed out to TTI many times, including four years ago at a CNU conference workshop I attended.  Many of us said then that if TTI wanted to write reports about car congestion, an  appropriate name would be Urban Car Congestion Scorecard, not Urban Mobility Scorecard.  They have had ample opportunity to rename their report to describe what it really is, the, so we can only assume that the confusion they are sowing is intentional. 

Meanwhile, when you hear two different terms being used interchangeably, stop and ask: “Who is in one of these categories but not the other?”  Because those are the people the writer doesn’t want you to notice, even if you’re one of them. 

(Yet another reason to hire literature students!)

Rhetorical Annihilation in the Social Sciences

[This post is periodically updated as helpful comments roll in.]

Have you ever picked up an academic paper and read, right there in the abstract, that you don't exist?  

We're used to reading rhetoric that defines us as the enemy, which is different.  Rhetoric about the "war on cars" or "war on coal" posits an in-group of good people, including the author and presumed reader, and an out-group that is threatening to them.  This is exclusionary language in its obvious form, and it's hard to justify in academia.  

But academics can slide unconsciously into a more subtle kind of exclusionary rhetoric, especially in the social sciences — what I'll call (melodramatically perhaps) the rhetoric of annihilation.  Instead of defining a group of people as evil or threatening, this rhetoric just ignores their existence.   In this rhetoric, there is no talk of war, because only one side is visible.   The author's presumed expertise becomes a kind of campfire.  Gather around the author's assumptions and you will be warm, safe, and included; if you don't, we can't see you out there in the dark anyway, so you basically don't exist.

This is remarkably easy to do even in an academic paper.  Here are two vivid examples, one classically leftist, the other conservative.

From the left, a paper on "transit deserts".  You can go to the link, but I'm not naming the authors here because I have no desire to embarrass them by attracting searches on their names.  Their work has been peer-reviewed, which means that several arbiters of academic quality view it as an acceptable example of professional thinking today.  My point is about how pervasive and accepted this rhetoric is even as academic thought.

The abstract begins:

The term “transit desert” is a new concept that looks at the gap between level of transit service (supply) and needs of a particular population (demand).  These populations are often referred to as “transit dependent,” people that are too young, too old, or too poor or who are physically unable to drive. “Transit deserts” in this case are defined as areas that lack adequate public transit service given areas containing populations that are deemed transit-dependent. 

In just a few words, the authors have denied the existence of three very large groups of people.  These rhetorically annihilated groups are:

  • Anyone who analyzed the spatial relationship between transit service and needy populations before someone  invented the "new concept" of doing this.  This includes all professional transit planners over the age of 30, including past generations going back a century or more.  (Of course, the rhetorical annihilation of elders is such a routine part of being young — kids, we did it too at your age! — that it's hardly worth being offended by.)  
  • Anyone for whom demand does not mean mere need, but rather the meaning that is already routine in business and economics — something like a "buyer's willingness and ability to pay a price for a specific quantity of a good or service".  The paper's use of the word demand annihilates anyone coming from the perspectives of business or basic economics..  
  • Anyone who uses transit, wants transit to be useful to them, or wants the live in a city where even the rich ride transit, but who does not meet the specified qualifications to be called "transit dependent."  As made clear in the first sentence, these people's desire to use transit, or to build a city around transit, does not count to the authors as demand, because they do not meet the authors' standard for need.

A paper could make arguments against the point of view of these groups, but tbat's not done here.  Rather, the very possibility that such positions might exist is denied.

And of course, conservatives papers do this too.  Let's turn to a conservative-sounding paper, featured in Atlantic Citylab, for which you can also follow the link for the citation.  It's a little more careful but standard forms of annihilation appear soon enough.  The paper opens like this:

This article asks why public transportation’s political support in the United States is so much larger than its ridership.

Upon reading this, I scratched my head trying to imagine what it would be like to find this an interesting problem statement.  I don't mean to rhetorically annihilate the authors; I acknowledge their existence, but it it sounds like they don't talk with transit advocates or riders very much.   Those people would tell you that the answer is too obvious to need studying, as indeed it turns out to be:  

We … show that support for transit spending is correlated more with belief in its collective rather than private benefits—transit supporters are more likely to report broad concerns about traffic congestion and air pollution than to report wanting to use transit themselves.

Well, of course people vote for transit for reasons other than the narrowest kind of self-interest. People vote for transit because (a) it benefits people they care about, if not themselves, (b) it offers some solutions to real problems of urban mobility and (c) it helps foster cities that people want to live in, as demonstrated by the way land values are soaring in such places.  

But why is this a problem?  The authors conclude:

These findings suggest a collective action problem, since without riders transit cannot deliver collective benefits. But most transit spending supporters do not use transit, and demographics suggest they are unlikely to begin doing so; transit voters are wealthier and have more options than transit riders.

A collective action problem is a situation in which everyone would benefit if X were done, but nobody can justify doing X as a selfish cost/benefit calculation.  One fable explaining the problem imagines a group of mice who would all benefit if a marauding cat wore a bell, but none of whom finds it rational to the huge risks of climbing the cat's back to put the bell on.

What does it mean to assert that the transit ridership is a problem of this kind?  It implies …

  • … that transit users who do not vote do not exist.  The most explicit rhetorical annihilation in the paper is the assumption that the set of people who vote in the US (rarely more than 40% of the population and often less in local elections) largely contains the set of potential transit riders.  In reality, non-voters are so dominant in the population that their ridership may be a big contributor to transit's actual success, thus helping solve any "collective action problem".  Nor do they consider that many of these non-voters are friends or relatives or employees of voters, who may then understandably, even in a sense selfishly, vote in the interests of those people. 
  • ... that people who don't think they'll use transit are right about that.  In the biz, what people say they want to do, or would do, is called stated preference data, and it's known to be largely useless.  Humans are terrible at guessing what they'd do, or want to do, in a hypothetical future based on a situation, and set of options, that they can't imagine now.
  • ... that there is no gradual path to collective action, because demographic categories all have hard edges within which people are trapped.  This is the big one.  To posit a "collective action problem" the authors must assume that the level of wealth above which people are unlikely to use transit is rigid, even though it in reality it rises as transit grows more useful, and that it divides a population cleanly.   Everyone who is near the boundaries between demographic categories, or who chooses transit for reasons not predictable by their income, is annihilated here.

No argument appears in the paper for any of the assumptions above.  Limited discussion about ridership is based on what people tell the census about their commuting behavior; this casually annihilates all non-commute users of transit, including people who voted for it and love to use it on weekends, but have to drive to work because it's not useful for that purpose.

Finally, the collective action problem assumes that everyone is a bizarre character from classical economics known as homo economicus: someone who rationally computes and acts on self-interest that is defined only in the narrowest sense.  Among the many absurdities that follow from this are that in exactly the same circumstances, everyone would do the same thing, because we do not have diverse values, attractions, or personalities.

But in the real world, one mouse sometimes does put the bell on the cat.  Some of us will take ridiculous risks for the common good.  Some of us choose to be firefighters or police or soldiers or artists or social workers, all high-risk jobs that require courage but that enrich society if they succeed against all the odds.  Most of us don't take those risks, but we're all better off because some of us do.  Likewise, some fortunate people ride transit because they like it.  Some less fortunate ones prefer to spend their scarce income on a motorcycle.  

Everyone who acts in ways not predictable by their assigned demographic category is being annihilated here.  Human diversity, even human quirkiness is good for the collective, however hard it is for the social sciences to describe. 

What do these two papers have in common?  Between them, they annihilate almost everyone, including each other's in-groups.  

You could say that all this annihilation is an occupational hazard of the social sciences — or indeed that it's an inevitable feature of them.  The social sciences are in the business of talking about gigantic groups of people using reductive categories, and all categorization suppresses diversity.

But the hardness of category boundaries is one of the most fundamental and dangerous of human illusions, because it is coded deeply into common language and underlies all forms of prejudice.   So the social sciences are always playing with fire, always at risk of giving aid and comfort to polarizing, exclusionary styles of thought.  

This rhetoric of annihilation can lead to publication and approval, so long as an adequate ecosystem of reviewers and advisors has reasons (ideological or material) for sharing an assumption or at least not challenging it.  But once past that bar, these assumptions become "the literature," bounced around in the echo chamber of "expert" discourse.  Through the turning of generations, some of these assumptions do get overturned, if only as part of the inevitable process of the young annihilating their elders.  But much harm is done in the meantime.

Great academic work also requires thinking about all of the forces that determine the situation being studied, not just the one's academic discipline or in-group values, and honoring  descriptions of the issue from those points of view.   If they intend to influence policy, they make sure they understand the diverse experience of practitioners in the field, not just academics.  This is especially true if a paper intends to influence policy, rather than just participate in a discipline's private conversation. 

But meanwhile: Do you see a new academic paper, thick with footnotes and citations, as an immediate signifier of authority and wisdom?  Be careful.  To be welcomed around the campfire, you may have to consent to annihilation.

If a carpenter can’t be a hammer opponent, then I can’t be a streetcar opponent

I’ll be leery of Toronto Star interviews in the future, because I explained my view carefully and that’s not how it came out:

Jarrett Walker and Rob Ford (see Rob Ford’s policard) don’t have much in common. One is an Oregon-based transit consultant, the other Toronto’s chief magistrate. One blogs avidly, the other disdains the media. Whereas Ford rails against the “war on the car,” Walker touts the virtues of buses.

But on one issue, at least, the policy wonk and the conservative politician agree: streetcars are overrated. Walker is decisively on one side of a new debate in the U.S., over whether the trendy form of rail transport springing up in American cities makes practical sense.

My actual view is too long for a soundbite but should not have been too long for an article.  My view is that streetcars mixed with private car traffic are overrated. I was very clear with the reporter that all of my critiques of the US streetcar revival movement are about streetcars in mixed traffic.  In the Toronto context, I specifically distinguished between the old downtown Toronto mixed traffic streetcars, which are nearly inoperable due to traffic impacts, and Toronto’s exclusive-lane light rail segments such as Spadina and St. Clair.  None of my concerns about streetcars apply to the latter.

Here’s the bottom line.  Streetcars are just a tool.  They can be used in smart ways and in stupid ways.  Asking a transit planner for an opinion about a transit technology is like asking a carpenter what his favorite tool is.  A good carpenter sees his tools as tools and chooses the right one for the task at hand.  He doesn’t use his screwdriver to pound nails just because he is a “screwdriver advocate” or “hammer opponent”.  Yet the Toronto Star  assumes that nobody involved in transit debates is as smart as your average competent carpenter.

To call me a streetcar advocate or opponent, you are imposing on me your own assumption that the bus-rail debate is the most important conversation about transit.  This is the Toronto Star’s assumption, but it’s not mine.  In fact, my work is about blowing up that assumption, and suggesting that instead of falling in love with vehicles, wires, and propulsion systems, we might consider falling in love with the freedom to get where you’re going.

california topples a tyrant

Stalin_21748cIs "reduced congestion" a positive environmental impact in cities?  Is it good for the environment to have endless lanes of free-flowing traffic everywhere?

It's a bizarre claim when you look at how prosperous, sustainable, and livable high-congestion cities are.  (They tend to be places where you don't have to commute so far, by example, and their overall emissions tend to be  lower.)

Yet until now, all California transit infrastructure has had to conform to an analysis process that treats traffic congestion as a threat to the environment.  A metric called Level of Service — congestion experienced by motorists, basically — could not be made worse by an infrastructure project, even one whose purpose was to reduce the impact of congestion on the economy, by providing alternatives to driving. 

Thanks to a state bill nearing approval, this provision of the California Environmental Quality Act — which has caused years of delay and cost-escalation on transit and bicycle projects — will no longer apply to urban transportation projects or to much transit oriented development.  Eric Jaffe's long article today from the barricades of this revolution is a great read.  Key quote:

Level of service was a child of the Interstate Highway era. The LOS concept was introduced in the 1965 Highway Capacity Manual, at the very moment in American history when concrete ribbons were being tied across the country, and quickly accepted as the standard measure of roadway performance. LOS is expressed as a letter grade, A through F, based on how much delay vehicles experience; a slow intersection scores worse on LOS than one where traffic zips through. Planners and traffic engineers use the metric as a barometer of congestion all over the United States.

In California, LOS has an especially high-profile. As the primary arbiter of traffic impacts under CEQA—adopted in 1970 by Governor Ronald Reagan—the metric not only determines the fate of many transportation and development projects, but has the awkward role of promoting car use within a law designed to protect the environment. "We have one section of CEQA saying we've got to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," says transportation consultant Jeffrey Tumlin of Nelson\Nygaard, "and another section of CEQA saying we need to accommodate unlimited driving."

Level of Service is an example of rhetoric that we all have to learn to challenge: the effort to hide strong value judgments inside language that sounds objective or technical.   A key move is to rely on terms that sound vague, neutral, and boring ("Level of Service") to describe something that's actually expressing a strong ideology — in this case, asserting the superiority of some street users over others.    If the Level of Service Index had been called, say, the "Free Flow of Cars Index" it would have been much clearer who was being excluded by it, and how blatantly it contradicted many other widely-shared goals for California's cities.

Tip:  If a term sounds vague, neutral, and boring, demand a precise definition.  Confused words imprison our minds.   You'll be called a geek for caring about something as boring as "Level of Service," but in the end, you may help topple a tyrant. 

Photo: Children with toppled statue of Stalin.   The Times.

the dangers of travel time comparisons

Revised in response to early comments. 

Are you sure you know which of your transportation options is fastest?  It depends on how you think about travel time.

A recent Boston Magazine article about the private bus service Bridj featured  typical "race" between two transit modes: the MBTA subway and Bridj, which provices luxury buses on fixed routes and schedules running only at times of peak commute demand.   The newspaper sent someone by each path at the same time.   The outcome of the race is supposed to be decisive:



Why is this not a fair race?  Well, it depends on when you start.  From the article:

The MBTA passenger arrived last, [sic] even though she had a head start and boarded the train six minutes prior to Bridj’s departure.

Why a six minute headstart?  Why not 10 or 20?  What headstart would be appropriate?  The headstart is your cue that there's something wrong with this methodology.  

What's really happening here is that a service that is available all the time — the subway — is being compared to one that's only available at a few special times — Bridj's specialized commuter buses.  Any "travel time race," with any headstart, is going to miss the real point of this comparison.

The notion of travel time seems so self-explanatory that most people miss how deeply misleading it is in discussing transit.   The imagined user is someone who happens to be going at the ideal moment for the preferred mode to succeed.  We talk about travel time this way because it's how motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians experience it: as something that begins at the moment you want to go.  

But that's not how transit travel time works, so the comparision implied by the term "transit travel time" is often a false one.  

When I teach transit planning and rhetoric, I encourage people to think of a weighted sense of travel time that includes average wait time, or more generally the difference between when you wanted to go and when you went.  A bus that's 10 minutes faster is of no use if gets you somewhere 30 minutes before you needed to be there [an 8:00 AM class or meeting, for example] because that's the only time it ran.  

Purveyors of low-frequency transit services, such as classical North American commuter rail, do this as well, bragging about how fast you can get from A to B without mentioning that this travel time is available only once a day.  

Unless you are sure that you will absolutely always travel at the same time each day, transit travel time figures have to be viewed with skepticism.  Whenever you hear about travel time, ask about frequency! 

word wars: urbanism, urban

The Atlantic Cities staff have done a nice year-end piece on Ten Urbanist Buzzwords to Rethink in 2014.  In the next few days I'll do quick posts on them all.  

Amusingly, the Atlantic's title for its  Ten Urbanist Buzzwords to Rethink in 2014 uses one of the ten words it's questioning, a good sign of how hard buzzwords are to unwind.  But they took on that problem as #1:

Urbanism: At first glance, this word might seem utilitarian: urban is a perfectly fine word, and-ism, meaning a "distinctive practice, system, or philosophy, typically a political ideology or an artistic movement," a frequently helpful English language suffix. But this particular combination never fails to makes me cringe when I hear it spoken aloud. Not only does it imply that there exists some universally accepted ideology of the best way to construct, organize, and manage any given urban area, it's frequently misapplied as a term for the study of urban issues (shouldn't that be urbanology?) or the basic interaction of people and things within an urban environment. Deploying this word should be undertaken with extreme caution, and always with the understanding that it almost never carries real meaning.  -Sommer Mathis

Like the Atlantic Cities crowd, I use urbanist routinely to mean "people who care about sustainable cities and the livability of dense cities in particular. "   I haven't found another good word for this, and on reflection, I think urbanism deserves a vigorous defense.   

Here are three questions to ask about a word, if you're suspicious of it:

  • Is it trying too hard to please me?  (Or: Is it trying to sell me something?)  
  • Does it say what it means? 
  • Is it easily misunderstood?  (Ask especially, "what opposites does it suggest?")

Sometimes we have no choice but to use a word that fails on some of these points, but if we want to help people think, we should resist those that fail on most or all (see "Smart Growth".)  

As Mathis concedes, Urbanism seems to approximate its meaning fairly well, and it seems to be referring more than selling or flattering us.  What's more, it's a word worth fighting for because urban is a word with fighting for, and the fight is on between two definitions of that word:

  1. As including the suburbs, i.e. "the opposite of rural."  This meaning shows up in the term urban area and in numerous social-science and statistical categories.  It's also implied by the term urban sprawl.    This meaning, I will suggest, is not helpful and a source of confusion.  It could even be called hegemonic or imperialist in a sense I'll outline below.
  2. As distinct from suburban, as well as from rural.  This sense of urban refers to the generally pre-war dense and walkable parts of cities.  Urbanism, to the extent it's about both promoting those places and fostering similar new places, tracks this meaning, and needs to insist on this meaning.1  The history of the word suburban — whose Latin roots imply separation from the urban — is also on the side of this meaning.

Why be  dogmatic on this point?  Does a dull bureaucratic term like urban area really constitute  threat to the thriving walkable inner cities?  Yes, for this reason:  It prevents people who care about dense, gridded, walkable, usually pre-war parts of big cities from saying what they mean.  It prevents me, in many reports, from saying urban and forces me to find ways to say "dense, gridded, walkable, usually pre-war parts of big cities" over and over.  

This is not a two-way street.  Insisting on the second meaning does not make it impossible to discuss the first, "urban area" meaning.  There is still a perfectly good word for that:  metropolitan, metro area, etc..  Talk about metro areas, metro area mobility, and there's no problem.  

As anyone who's explored the language dimension of civil rights history can tell you, dominant cultures routinely co-opt and corrupt the words that the minority needs to think about itself and its situation.   

 Not suprisingly, the Texas Transportation Institute, whose "Urban Mobility Report" is a study of inconvenience to motorists, uses urban in the first, imperialist sense: as referring to an entire metro area and denying us the language to talk about dense and walkable areas as something different from suburbs.  But again, if we concede that meaning, what word is left to mean "dense, gridded, walkable, usually pre-war parts of cities"? 

City, as you've noticed, experiences similar tension, as any patch of development, at any density, can decide to call itself a city.  Ultimately, it's the same battle, because in practical language urban has become the adjectival form of the noun city.  So it is the same struggle.

That's why I like urbanist.  It's not just saying what it means, it's helping to fight for the word urban, without which people who care about walkable cities simply can't talk about them, and be understood.

1African-American uses of the word urban, as in "urban music" and "National Urban League," also deserve credit for holding this original sense of urban.  There are likely other threads I'm not thinking of.


quote of the week: ursula le guin on technical writing

In poetry, by and large, one syllable out of every two or three has a beat on it: Tum ta Tum ta ta Tum Tum ta, and so on. . . .

In narrative prose, that ratio goes down to one beat in two to four: ta Tum tatty Tum ta Tum tatatty, and so on. . . .

In discursive and technical writing the ratio of unstressed syllables goes higher; textbook prose tends to hobble along clogged by a superfluity of egregiously unnecessary and understressed polysyllables.

Ursula K. Le Guin,
"Rhythmic Pattern in The Lord of the Rings"
The Wave of the Mind  (Boston: Shambhala 2004)
[ellipses sic. paragraph breaks added]

Yet another reason to hire literature students!