Language

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!

agora, em português!

Cabec3a7alho-blogue1

I wouldn't have expected this, but the first foreign language into which my work is being translated is Portuguese!  Not my book yet, but select passages from this blog will be showing up as a "column" of mine called "Transporte Humano" on Rua da
Constituição
, which contains a mix of articles mostly on health, economics, and transport policy.  The editor, Gustavo M.S. Martins Coelho, is a medical doctor himself.  He is based in Oporto and writes mostly for a Portuguese audience, but I hope my "columns" will get attention in Brazil, where the issues are so massive and consequential for the world.

 

“running transit like a business”: digging under the slogan

Now and then, the media (New York Times, Atlantic Cities) rediscovers Mark Aesch, the executive who turned around the performance of Rochester, New York's transit system, and even succeeded in lowering fares.  (Aesch now has his own firm promoting his consulting services, to the transit industry and beyond.)   Here's a sample of what Aesch did:

[The Rochester authority] has, for instance, reached agreements with the local public school district, colleges and private businesses to help subsidize its operations, warning in some cases that certain routes might be cut if ridership did not increase or a local business did not help cover the cost. In recent years, income from these agreements has equaled or exceeded the income from regular passenger fares.

On the one hand, bravo.   Aesch was ready to push back against the near-universal tendency of  government agencies to save money by dumping the costs of their own choices onto the transit authority.  

But at it's core, Aesch's work in Rochester expresses a value judgment that shouldn't be hidden behind puff-words like "creative" or wrapped in the mantra of "business":  Fundamentally, Aesch was willing to cut low-ridership services — or what I call coverage services.  And so, it seems, was his elected board.  

That's very unusual in North America, for democratic reasons.

Demands for coverage service — defined as service that is unjustifiable if ridership is the main goal — are powerful forces at most transit agencies.  Practically any American transit system could drastically improve its ridership by abandoning service to low-ridership areas and concentrating its service where ridership potential is high — which is what "running transit like a business" would mean.  Ridership goals also meet other goals important to many people, including maximum impact on reducing vehicle miles travelled, and maximum support (through high-intensity service) for the dense, walkable and attractive inner-urban redevelopment.

But coverage goals have powerful constituencies too, including outer-suburban areas that get little or no service when agencies pursue ridership goals, as well as people with severe needs — seniors, disabled, low-income, whose travel needs happen in places where high-ridership service is impossible.  

My approach to these issues as a consultant is never to brush aside coverage goals through a mantra like "run transit like a business," but rather to start by being clear exactly why most transit is not run like a business, and coverage goals, enforced by elected officials, are one major reason.  I then encourage communities and ultimately transit boards to form clear policies on how much of their budget they want to devote to coverage, so that the rest can be devoted to chasing ridership unequivocally.

Like many slogans, "running transit like a business" can sound like just good management, but it is actually a strongly ideological stance that values some transit outcomes (low subsidy, environmental benefits) over others (social service needs, equity for all parts of the region that pay taxes to it). 

If an elected board chooses that path, and understands what it's sacrificing, then fantastic: I'm ready to help "run transit like a business."  But if an elected board decides that transit needs to be pursuing goals other than ridership — as practically all of them in the US and Canada do — I'm equally ready to help with that.  Most of all, I recommend having a clear conversation about what goal the agency is pursuing with each part of its budget.  The key is to notice that these are different goals, that both reflect valid government purposes, and elected officials have to choose how to divide their resources, and staff effort, between these competing goals.  

(My professional approach to this issue is explained in Chapter 10 of my book Human Transit, and here).

Again, what's most impressive about Aesch is that even in a city where transit plays a minor role, he refused to let the transit agency be forced to subsidize the needs of other agencies without their financial participation.  Crucial, this required credibly threatening not to serve these agencies' needs.  Many transit agencies I've known in similar cities simply have not had the management culture — or elected board — that was ready to be that forceful. 

But simply cutting low-ridership services is a value judgment, not a technical decision.  It reflects a community's about the community's view about why it runs transit.  In an ideal democracy, making those decisions is not the task of managers or consultants.  It's what we pay elected officials for.  

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! 

help kill the term “congestion pricing” (and “congestion charge”)

I've argued before that congestion pricing (or charging) is a terrible term for anything that you want someone to support.  It literally implies "paying for congestion," so it belongs to that set of terms that suggest we should pay for something we hate, e.g death taxes and traffic fines.  

"Congestion pricing" also sounds punitive.  When the Sydney Morning Herald asked me to join a discussion of the topic a couple of years ago, they framed the question as: "Should motorists pay for the congestion the cause?"  This is a reasonable inference from the term congestion pricing, and yet a totally backward and schoolmarmish description of what congestion pricing buys. 

In short, congestion pricing (or charge) sounds like a term coined by its opposition.

I have argued before that the term should be decongestion pricing, because escape from congestion is what the price buys, from the user's point of view.  And it's the user who needs to be convinced that this is a purchase, not a tax.  Finally, it has to be framed in a way that doesn't imply that it's only for the rich.  People who like a class-conflict frame will never let go of the term "Lexus lanes," which is why I'd avoid vaguely upscale terms like "premium." 

In any case, over on Twitter, Eric Jaffe of the Atlantic Cities (@e_jaffe) is soliciting your suggestions.  (Or your votes for mine!)  Another idea that meets my goals — to describe this as a purchase rather than a tax or penalty, and to describe it from the user's point of view — is "road fares," by @larrylarry.  

 

driverless cars and the limitations of the “complete imagined future”

Note:  This old post is still useful whenever you see a "driverless cars will change everything" story, (this one, for example) and especially a "driverless cars will be the end of transit" story.  Abstract: The two fallacies to watch for in these stories are (a) the "complete imagined future" mode, which denies the problems associated with evolving the future condition instead of just jumping to it, and (b) the assumption, universal in techno-marketing but always untrue in the real world, that when the whizbang new thing appears, everything else will still be the same; i.e. that none if the whizbang thing's imagined competitors will also have transformed themselves.  This latter assumption can also be called the "everyone but me is a dinosaur" trope.

Richard Gilbert, co-author of a book that I've praised called Transport Revolutions, has a Globe and Mail series arguing for how driverless cars will change everything.  I will give this series a more thorough read, but just want to call out one key rhetorical move that needs to be noticed in all these discussions.  It's in the beginning of Part 4, "Why driverless cars will trump transit rivals."

With widespread use of driverless cars – mostly as autonomous taxicabs (ATs) – there could be more vehicles on the road because ATs will substitute for most, and perhaps eventually all, private automobile use as well as much use of buses and other conventional transit. 

This, and much of the discussion around driverless cars, is in the complete imagined future mode.  Gilbert describes a world in which the driverless cars are already the dominant mode, and where our cities, infrastructure, and cultural expectations have already been reorganized around their potential and needs.  

Some complete imagined futures are not necessarily achievable, because the future must be evolved.  In fact, the evolution of organisms is a fairly apt metaphor for how cities and infrastructure change.  As in evolution, each incremental state in the transformation to the new reality must itself be a viable system. We can think of lots of wonderful futures that would be internally consistent but for which there is no credible path from here to there.  

Driverless cars remind me a bit of the "wheeled animal" question in evolution.  No animals have evolved with wheels, despite the splendid advantages that wheels might confer on open ground.  That's because there's no credible intermediate state where some part of an animal has mutated something vaguely wheel-like that incrementally improves its locomotion to the point of conferring an advantage.  Wheels (and axles) have to exist completely before they are useful at all, which is why wheeled animals, if they existed, would be an argument for "intelligent design."

I will begin to take driverless cars seriously when I see credible narratives about all the intermediate states of their evolution, and how each will be an improvement that is both technically and culturally embraced.  How will driverless and conventional cars mix in roads where the needs of conventional cars still dominate the politics of road design?  How will they come to triumph in this situation?  How does the driverless taxi business model work before the taxis are abundant?  Some of the questions seem menial but really are profound: When a driverless car is at fault in the accident, to what human being does that fault attach?  The programmer?  What degree of perfection is needed for software that will be trusted to protect not just the passengers, but everyone on the street who is involuntarily in the presence of such a machine? 

Here's a practical example:  In Part 3, Gilbert tells us that with narrower driverless cars, "three vehicles will fit across two lanes."  Presumably lanes will someday be restriped to match this reality, but when you do that, how do existing-width cars adapt?  If you could fit two driverless cars into one existing lane, you could imagine driverless cars fitting into existing lanes side by side, so that the street could gradually evolve from, say, two wide lanes to four narrow ones.  But converting two lanes to three narrow ones is much trickier.  I'd like to see how each stage in the evolution is supposed to work, both technically and culturally.

That's one reason that I seem unable to join the driverless car bandwagon just yet.  The other is that claims for driverless taxis replacing transit amount to imaging a completed new technology out-competing an existing unimproved technology — as though that would actually happen.  

Sure, driverless taxis might replace many lower-ridership bus lines, but wouldn't buses become driverless at the same time?  In such a future, wouldn't any fair pricing make these driverless buses much cheaper to use where volumes are high?  Wouldn't there be a future of shared vehicles of various sizes, many engaged in what we would recognize as public transit?  As with all things PRT, I notice a frequent slipperiness in explanations of it; I'm not sure, at each moment, whether we're talking about something that prevents you from having to ride with strangers (the core pitch of "Personal" rapid transit) as opposed to just a more efficient means of providing public transit, i.e. a service that welcomes the need to ride with strangers as the key to its efficient use of both money and space. 

quote of the week: governor brown on etymology

In Latin, Brown said, “eco” means house. As an example, “economy” means “rules of the house.”  “Logos” means “lord, god, or the deep principles or patterns of nature.” So “ecology is more fundamental than economics. Economics sits within ecology. Not the other way around." 

— from an interview with California Governor Jerry Brown
in the American Society for Landscape Architects blog, "The Dirt"

We need more elected officials conversant in etymology. If you don't know what's going on inside your words, you can't predict what they'll do behind your back.

dueling academics on cost-benefit of rail

Two new academic abstracts set up a striking debate, on the question of the cost-benefit analysis of rail projects.  From Peter Gordon and Paige Elise Kolesar:

Rail transit systems in modern American cities typically underperform. In light of high costs and low ridership, the cost-benefit results have been poor. But advocates often suggest that external (non-rider) benefits could soften these conclusions. In this paper we include recently published estimates of such non-rider benefits in the cost-benefit analysis. Adding these to recently published data for costs and ridership, we examine 34 post-World War II U.S. rail transit systems (8 commuter rail, 6 heavy rail and 20 light rail). The inclusion of the non-rider benefits does not change the negative assessment. In fact, sensitivity analyses that double the estimated non-rider benefits and/or double transit ridership also leave us with poor performance readings. Advocates who suggest that there are still other benefits that we have not included (always a possibility) have a high hurdle to clear.

Meanwhile, from Robert Cervero and Erick Guerra, both of UC Berkeley:

The debate over the costs and benefits of rail passenger transit is lively, deep, and often ideological. As with most polemical debates, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle of extreme views. Some rail systems have benefits that outweigh their costs, while others do not. Applying a commonly used transit-fare price elasticity to 24 of the largest light and heavy rail systems in the United States and Puerto Rico, assuming a linear demand curve, and accounting for a counterfactual scenario, we find that just over half of the systems have net social benefits. Although Los Angeles’ rail system does not “pass” our back-of-the-envelope cost—benefit analysis, as the network expands, it will begin to mimic the regional spatial coverage and connectivity of its chief competitor—the auto-freeway system—and approach the fare recovery rates of other large, dense American cities.

I don't have time to dig into the papers, but I think the difference in tone of the abstracts is interesting in itself.  The issue of network completeness identified by the second abstract is of course critical.  Discuss.

(Hat tip: Murray Henman.  Post composed via wifi on the Amtrak Cascades, which is excellent!)

 

 

permanent weather and the civic image

Rain in Seattle.  Sun in Los Angeles.  Fog in San Francisco.  Wind in Chicago.  The endless summer nights of Helsinki or Edinburgh.  How could we navigate without our stereotypes of the urban air and sky? 

(Yes, this is one of those personal and literary ruminations about urbanism, almost free of transit content, cross-posted from the personal blog Creature of the Shade.)

In his odd novel Voyage to Pagany, the great modernist poet (but not novelist) William Carlos Williams tells of a self-absorbed man riding through Europe by train.  At one point (adequate fragments here) he's delayed in the middle of the night in Genoa.

Genoa.  The name sounded hollow, depressing as the coldly sulphurous gallery through which he was passing, baggage in hand …

The placename is a sponge for first impressions, and never quite shakes them off.  For Williams's hero, "Genoa" means "night, don't know anybody, don't speak the language, poor me."  Or to reduce this (literally) benighted city to one sentence:

I will never see the sun in Genoa.

But here's what's odd.  When I read this chapter in graduate school, the only experience I'd ever had of Genoa was of passing through it at night on the train.  Today, that remains my only experience of Genoa, so even now, when someone says "Genoa" I imagine a city at night.  Northwest Italy isn't high on my list of urgent travel destinations, so it's quite likely that I too will never see the sun in Genoa, and hence never dissociate the city from this absurdly accidental recollection.

Professional thinkers-about-cities would never reduce their impression of a city to a story of something that happened to them there.  But everyone else does this quite naturally; when I ask a person on the street what she thinks of a city, she'll often mention some joyous or traumatic recollection, presenting that as her lasting definition of the place.  We urbanists are supposed to take pride in having a larger, grander view.  But I bet most of us carry these silly but useful attitudes, at least when we get far down our personal list of Cities We Want to Think About.

Right now, you see, I don't feel a specific need to expand my awareness of Genoa, except to the extent that I want to expand my awareness generally.  I wouldn't pass up an expense-paid visit to Genoa in the daytime, and would surrender my prejudice happily if I did.  But failing that, the prejudice is working for me.  It's painting a relatively unfamiliar part of Italy with a few touchstones of mood.  Thanks to these quick associations, my near-total ignorance of northwest Italy, while still near-total, is packaged and marked with a couple of personal baggage tags, so I can haul it around as a familiar without having to look inside.

The baggage tags are personal, but they're also authorized by the Greater Truth of Literature.  Anyone can pass through a city at night, but I passed through Genoa at night just as William Carlos Williams's hero did decades ago.  I have a similar tag stuck on Bologna, where I once had a scare of thinking I had missed a late night train connection and would be spending the night on a station bench.  I'd have forgotten the episode by now had Robert Dessaix's hero not had exactly the same experience, in his fine novel Night Letters.  Nonfiction lies all the time, but fiction makes no truth claims and therefore can never be disproven, so it can sell itself as a Gateway to Deeper Truth even when it's just the whining of a man stuck in a train station.  Williams and Dessaix tell me that I wasn't alone in my nocturnal and unwanted visits to Genoa and Bologna, that these experiences actually Resonate with the Human Experience.  So I remember them.

Thus authorized, it feels good, at least to me, to permanently associate cities with atmospheric conditions and their related moods.  Even dealing with cities I know well (Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles) I find a pleasure in wrapping each in the stereotypical weather condition (rain, fog, sun, respectively) and experiencing all variations from that as an engaging nuance.  For cities I don't know it's much easier: for me it's always night in Genoa.   These simplifications are silly but seem useful in maintaining a mental structure of reality on which more interesting and reality-based thoughts can sometimes sprout.

P1010366 Now and then I notice myself consciously choosing a new atmospheric prejudice.  I was in Chicago over Memorial Day weekend 2011, and have chosen, for now, to think of Chicago as a city where towers loom in ominous chilly fog and thunderstorms. 

On my stay there I had two days of that, followed by two days of hot sun.  The fog and storms, I decided, are the Chicago I want, because they allowed me to experience the downtown skyscrapers as overpowering, exactly as they were intended. Structures vanishing into the clouds are not just tall, but unknowably, maybe infinitely tall.

Chicago was built to turn a vast frontier into commodities and profit.  The many rail lines emanating from it look like force-lines of a blast, so to be at the center of the blast is, well, like the end of a science fiction film when we finally get inside the Center of Ominous Power.  I wanted it to be grand but in mysterious, overpowering, intimidating way.

My ideal Chicago, in short, is a meteorological projection of a conventional story about what makes Chicago unique.  So I feel briefly wise, though actually just prejudiced, when I look at my images of Chicago in such conditions, as though the city is telling me a story I want to hear …

P1010364

P1010390

P1010381

In such a perfectly symbolic city, a photo that might otherwise be a joke, "Christ the Steakhouse," isn't funny at all.
P1010369

Nor can "Time" be just the name of a media corporation.

P1010371

Then the sun came out, and it was all flatter, more like a city anywhere in the midwest.  On a long hike north from the loop, Michigan Avenue looked like Singapore's Orchard Road, Lincoln Park looked like a number of great midwestern city parks, the Clark Road business districts looked nice or not-nice in familiar ways, and the only glorious uniqueness was that my hike ended at a well-known religous site for green urbanists: Wrigley Field, a Major League Baseball Stadium with Practically No Parking.

By then, it was too dark to photograph, so as I sorted photographs in an about-to-close Starbucks in what would have been the shadow of the stadium walls, I thought "this is nice, Wrigley Field at night," which is perilously close to "Wrigley Field is night."   And indeed, not being much of a baseball fan, It's quite possible I'll never see the sun there.

 

bus signage: a literary view

3 JACKSON Market Sansome A great exterior sign on a transit vehicle conveys empowering information with just a few words.  In the last post, I suggested we could learn a lot from the way San Francisco does it. 

Among the many excellent comments, Matt Johnson shared an example of a Prince George's County (Maryland) sign that's typical of what many other transit agencies do.  To me, it overflows the bounds of wayfinding and can only really be appreciated as poetry, so on a rainy Saturday morning, I'm going to let myself riff on it a bit.  The text:

17 MOUNT
RAINIER/IKEA
(NORTHBOUND)
HAVE A
NICE DAY
DRIVE SAFELY
(repeats)

That's six pages of one-line text.  Matt says each line displays for 10 seconds.  That would mean it takes a minute to see the whole sign, which must be an exaggeration.  Matt probably means "each line displays for what feels like forever," and usually 2-3 seconds are enough to create that effect. 

Obviously this is a limited sign, apparently not able to hold more than 12 characters, but as we all know, formal constraints like length limits are often liberating.  Much of the joy of art lies in watching creativity press against some kind of limitation.  If you didn't learn this from reading sonnets or writing haiku, you've probably learned it from Twitter.

In the literature world, it's common to see great poetry published with some kind of annotation that helps pry the piece open for the reader.  So just for fun, I thought I'd do one on this.  As literary critics like to say, there's a lot here.

17 MOUNT

The poem begins with a burst of masculine energy, ambitious, thrusting upward, perhaps with a tinge of hope?

RAINIER/IKEA

In one line, the poem explodes into many dimensions of significance.  Indeed, we could say that this is the line where the sign reveals itself as a poem.

First of all, the artificial separation of "Mount Rainier" into two lines, technically called enjambment, recalls some of the great suspenseful line-breaks of modernist poetry.  William Carlos Williams, say:

So much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

In "RAINIER/IKEA" the slash (/) could be a meta-poetic reference.  When we quote poems in the middle of a paragraph, we use the slash to indicate the line breaks ("So much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow …")  So the slash used mid-line in poetry signals a winking inversion of that convention.  As in many arts, postmodern consumers know they're looking at an artifice, so the artwork gains credibility by saying "I know I'm just a poem," or whatever.  The mid-line slash could be a clever way of doing that.

Has any punctuation mark become as meaningless as the slash?  In signage it can mean 'or' (as when it separates two alternative destinations served by branches), or it can separate two descriptions of the same thing, or it can mean "between" as in "from one of these to the other."  Here, the poem doesn't let on what it means.   Only patient contextual research has established that the relevant meaning here is "between."  This bus runs from Mount Rainier to Ikea, or from Ikea to Mount Rainier.

Still, the ambivalence invites us to imagine other possible relationships between Rainier and Ikea. For example, we can notice the strangeness of conjoining a permanent-sounding placename with the name of a business.  What would happen to this sign, and this route, if the Ikea moved or merged?  Mountains don't move, we note, which is why we name neighborhoods after them. 

As if that all weren't enough, "RAINIER" in all caps can't signal that it's a proper name, as "Rainier" would do.  Is the bus promising to take us somewhere where it rains more than it does here?

(NORTHBOUND)

Parentheses are unusual on electric bus signs, and they're not too common in poetry either.  Literally, parentheses mean "this might be interesting but don't let it distract you."  So to use a parenthesis on an entire line of text, which forces itself on your attention for a few seconds, contradicts the basic meaning of a parenthesis.  As always, that's how we know to look beyond the basic meaning, to look at the sign as a poem.

Yet the visual look of parentheses also suggests a kind of protective enclosure, like two hands cupping a fragile little idea.  Is this bus insecure about being northbound?  Is it afraid that "northbound" is not what everyone wants to hear? 

Compass directions are tricky, of course, because not everyone knows them.  I'm told that on the North American prairies, where all roads are north-south or east-west, some people develop such a compass-based sense of space that they'll refer to the southeast burner on their stove.  This bus isn't in such a place, though; suburban Maryland has lots of diagonal and curving roads at various angles, so perhaps the parentheses are apologetic in the sense of "we're actually going north, but if you can't think about that, it's ok.  We're not trying to seem that we're smarter than you.  Like Mister Rogers, we like you just the way you are."

All this nuance and richness would have been lost if the sign had tried to tell people what the bus does.  In that case, it would say either MOUNT RAINIER or IKEA, but not both, depending on which way it's going.  That would be Zen in its transparency, but this poet has already signaled that Zen is not his genre. 

HAVE A

A what?  Again, the line break creates suspense.  Am I going to like this?  Should I be hopeful or scared?

NICE DAY

Comforting, unpretentious closure to the suspense.  Yet even here, we can wonder.  "NICE DAY" displays all by itself for a few seconds, so if you see the sign then, it seems to say "It's a nice day!"  If the bus says "NICE DAY" as it comes at you through a blizzard, you might get a deeply spiritual message: "Whatever's happening, this is a nice day, because it's the present and that's the only thing we have."  (The saccharine level in this sentiment is easily turned up or down to suit your taste; that's the liberating quality of the simple "NICE DAY.")   

DRIVE SAFELY

Here we thought the sign was just for us transit customers!  In fact, it's talking to motorists!  Poems often take dramatic turns by suddenly enlarging or shifting the audience.  It's as though we thought we were in an intimate space walled with warm curtains, listening to a poetry reading, when suddenly the curtains drop and we're in the middle of a stadium.  T. S. Eliot was a master at keeping us wondering where we are and who's watching, and playing with our desire to be sure about that.  Who is the audience, really?  How big and diverse is it?  For that matter, is anyone paying attention?  Great postmodern questions, all, and in the poem's climactic moment, we finally confront them.

The sentiment is finely tuned.  Like "HAVE A / NICE DAY," "DRIVE SAFELY" is strategically commonplace, as though the bus company is trying to assure us that it shares our values.  Still, "DRIVE SAFELY" refers to the possibility of danger.  You can read it as plaintive ("Please don't run into us or our customers!") or as confident, maybe even with the necessary toughness of the policeman ("We've looked danger and tragedy in the eye, and we're trying to protect you from it, so don't mess with us.") 

This, of course, is the basic ambivalence of every bus's stance in the modern city, especially the noisy diesel bus.  As a bus operator, you know that your mass, noise, and vibration aren't entirely welcome on most streets, yet you're trying to perform an essential service.  Firefighters are in that situation too, but you can't command the deference that fire trucks do, because it's your job to be routine and predictable even though that almost implies being unappreciated.  How can you get some appreciation?  Say what people on the street want to hear.  "HAVE A / NICE DAY / DRIVE SAFELY."  Who can argue with that? 

And who cares if, while that message is playing, nobody can tell which bus this is?  That's how you know this is poetry.