Unhelpful Word Watch: To Transfer

It is a fact of geometry that a great transit system, one that provides frequent service from everywhere to everywhere within a city, often requires people to get off one vehicle and onto another.  The transfer, in short, is an inconvenient but necessary part of the transit product, and is thus a particular challenge for transit planning and marketing.

But we make the problem worse with the word transfer itself.

Transit lingo is full of words imported from other discourses.  Transit experts who use a word all the time can easily forget that non-experts hear the word differently.  Because I’m a transit expert, the primary meaning of to transfer to me is the transit meaning: to get off one vehicle and onto another.  But for a non-expert, every word is colored by what it means in other contexts, especially the most common ones.

In transit contexts, to transfer is an intransitive verb.  We don’t transfer something, we just transfer.  But if you’re not a transit geek, you’ve probably heard to transfer mostly in contexts where it’s transitive: we transfer something to something else.  We transfer the title to a property.  We transfer funds between bank accounts.  An artist transfers her drawing from the sketchbook to the canvas.  Freight companies transfer containers from ships to trains.

I suspect that when the average person knows that we’re talking about transportation and hears the word transfer, the word carries subtle connotations that come from freight.  If, when you hear the word, you’re subconsciously visualizing a crane moving containers onto a ship, you will get two messages from that image that will contaminate your view of the act of getting off a bus and onto a train:  (a) the passenger is a thing, like any other cargo and (b) the act is hard work.

Again, I’m not talking about how the word transfer affects you, a person interested in transit.  I’m talking about how the word strikes the general public as either (a) possible transit passengers or (b) voters making a decision about a transit proposal. And I’m asking about how it operates on a subconscious level that we can’t always articulate.

Let’s compare some other words for the same thing.

In the UK, you’ll be asked to change: implicitly to change vehicles. When I first rode a train in the UK and was told to “change at Birmingham,” it sounded a bit existential, as though Brits were a philosophical people who like to remind themselves that life is constant change.  But the word pays off by providing the related noun interchange, for both the act of changing and the place where changing occurs.    A transit interchange invokes an accurate analogy to a freeway interchange:  An interchange is a place where there’s some inconvenience, where you have to slow down and pay attention, but it’s also a place where you can go any of many directions.  So contained inside interchange is a good deal of freedom and choice, quite the opposite of the burdensome effort conveyed by transfer.

The other thing to notice is that to change is implicitly to change vehicles while to transfer is implicitly to transfer yourself.  You, the traveler, are the natural subject of the verb to change, but you’re the natural object of to transfer.  American bus operators will sometimes talk about transferring their passengers from this bus to that one, but a British railman wouldn’t talk about changing his passengers from one train to another.  Inside the verb to transfer is the idea that the passenger is more like burdensome cargo than an active agent, while to change makes clear that the passenger is acting, using the transit system for her own purposes by her own free will.

This is not to say that to change is ideal.  If the connotations of to transfer are too unpleasantly specific, the connotations of to change are too vague; the word has too many uses to serve us well in the transit business.  What we really need is a verb that (a) makes sense as a description of the action and (b) imports assocations that are positive and empowering for the passenger.

I like to connect.  I’ve tried saying it,  e.g. I took the bus to Central station and connected to the Newcastle train, and everyone knows what I mean even if they wouldn’t use the word that way themselves.  The payoff is that instead of requiring transfers a transit agency is offering connections, and that’s the whole point: in a well-designed network, you get off one vehicle and can get onto any of several others going any of several ways that you might want to go.  The payoff for the hassle of getting out of your seat is the multitude of opportunities that you have at the interchange point.  If you’ve ever gazed at the departure board in an airport or station and thought “wow, look at all the other places that I could go right now,” you know the feeling.

So while to transfer invites associations with freight, such as laborious effort, to connect invites associations that are liberating and enabling — at least to my ear.  Our professional and social connections represent possibilities that enrich our lives: to be well-connected is to have more choices, more opportunities, more freedom.  The underlying image comes from electricity and communications: things that seem to move without weight or effort but whose effect is to enlighten or liberate.

When a third-rate bus or streetcar dumps me out on a barren street corner at the end of its line, and the driver tells me to go wait at that vandalized bus shelter on the freeway offramp, that’s transferring, and it’s hell.  But when I arrive in a lively urban place where trains/buses/ferries are leaving to any of a number of interesting destinations, a place that feels like the center of my city, a place that will provide many ways to use my waiting time if I have to wait, that’s what I call a connection.  And that’s what we should be offering.

13 Responses to Unhelpful Word Watch: To Transfer

  1. Dan Johnson-Weinberger April 26, 2009 at 4:21 pm #

    Nice insight. I wrote about your language advice at http://www.MoreRiders.com.

  2. Carol Perry April 27, 2009 at 6:17 pm #

    Language nuances can indeed influence behavior. I hadn’t thought of it before, but after trying out the exchange of transfer for connect, agree that the latter is much more psychologically appealing.

  3. grvsmth May 10, 2009 at 9:25 am #

    The French use the word correspondance. In New York, transit announcements make a distinction between free transfers (from one subway line to another, or from subway to MTA bus) and connections to other systems that require additional payment. For example, “This is 34th Street, Herald Square. Transfer is available to the B, D, F, V, Q and R trains. Connection is available to the PATH trains.” But in everyday conversation, most people just seem to use change.

  4. Peter Parker June 13, 2009 at 4:58 pm #

    Connecting sounds good, but it must be used with care. In my mind ‘connecting’ makes some warranties regarding scheduling and waiting time. This is a very useful distinction to maintain.
    At the very least a genuine connection implies both repeatability (through headway harmonised timetables) and a waiting time appropriate for trip type (eg 28 minutes is too tight for flying, terrible for suburban transit but probably OK for between two Victorian RFR-style trains).
    Apart from scheduling a connection there may also be an obligation to honour it, even if services are running late.
    Such ‘guaranteed connections’ exist for lines that do not run into the city during off-peak times (eg Alamein & Williamstown).
    Where neither level of connectivity is provided, and service is not frequent enought to render it meaningless, I don’t agree that we should claim these services are ‘connecting’.
    Here in Melbourne we seem to use ‘connecting service’ in circumstances when ‘intersecting services’ might be more appropriate (ie a guarantee of physical access but no warranty regarding the transferred to service ‘connecting’ or even operating.
    ‘Intesecting’ sounds cold, clinical and like lines on a map. However we do need something to differentiate it from connecting, which should only refer to services with genuine timetable co-ordination and (possibly) even guaranteed connections where services are held back(*). This is where ‘change’ is good as I don’t think it implies a scheduled connection as much.
    (*) Though there needs to be limits for this as holding services has knock-on consequences, and passengers need to be advised the circumstances and limits for buses being held.

  5. Teresa June 18, 2009 at 1:20 pm #

    Interesting essay. My first experience of the word “transfer” referred to the slip of paper bus drivers used to give passengers who were getting another bus going in the same direction [as opposed to a return trip], for which they did not have to pay additional money. So, the oppressive connotation of to transfer that you write so eloquently of never occurred to me.
    But now that you have…..

  6. Ari August 31, 2009 at 8:40 am #

    While I don’t know a lot about the etymology of the word “transfer” (i.e., which came first, transfer as a noun or transfer as a verb) I’m pretty sure that both uses go back quite some time, at least in American transfer. I’m sure I’ve heard of transfers from the streetcar era (1940s and before) which generally referred to the slips of paper with time stamps which allowed riders to change from one vehicle to another. (Wikipedia has a bit of information on transfers; I can’t find any good word history online.)
    Probably the best example of an old-fashioned transfer that I know of is in San Francisco, where, upon paying your fare on a bus or surface streetcar, the conductor tears a strip of paper denoting the current time, allowing travel for a specified amount of time beyond that. Most systems have gone to magnetic or RFID cards, but Muni is a bit behind, it seems. Still, the amount of information which can be carried simply on a torn piece of paper is quite elegant in its simplicity (although perhaps not ecologically sound: slips of newsprint-weight transfer paper abound in San Francisco).

  7. renaissance costumes April 11, 2010 at 10:54 pm #

    At the very least a genuine connection implies both repeatability (through headway harmonised timetables) and a waiting time appropriate for trip type (eg 28 minutes is too tight for flying, terrible for suburban transit but probably OK for between two Victorian RFR-style trains).

  8. Steve O August 9, 2010 at 8:51 pm #

    Connection is what is used for air travel, and everyone gets it just fine. “I connected in New York for my trip to Paris.” In fact, it would sound odd to use transfer in that context.

  9. ScottMercer November 18, 2010 at 3:40 pm #

    In LA Metro Rail has a series of maps at every subway and light rail station of the surrounding neighborhoods around the stations, which show nearby buildings, streets and bus routes. These are titled “Metro Connections.”
    Just to confuse things a little bit.

  10. Anne February 5, 2011 at 8:26 am #

    What a fascinating blog!
    In Toronto we are currently squabbling about the recently dumped “Transit City” which was given several less-than-flattering nicknames, the most common of which was “Transfer City”. And Transfer City it truly was – a system designed to maximize the laying of streetcar/LRV track on major streets for the convenience of the engineers and, I would presume, operators, but definitely not the passengers. It required numerous transfers – in the way you’ve defined transfer as waiting at that (in our case cold) transit shelter with no “connection” in sight. Defeating it was a major platform item for our new mayor, who was elected with an overwhelming turnout.
    Lots to think about from this post; it would have been extremely difficult for the designers to have sold it as “Connection City” because at root the planners and operators of the current system, which is much complained about here, do indeed see their passengers as not just freight, but inconvenient freight at that. The concept of a “connection” just isn’t anywhere in their thought processes (either is the concept of “rapid”, but that’s another story – we currently have the longest commutes in North America).
    We used to have a 1st class transit system, but decades of funding cuts and ownership downloads have left their mark. Transit planning and public discussion have become frighteningly narrow and have been hijacked by ideological pro-streetcar advocates on the one side, and ‘accountants’ on the other. We are now, sadly, miles away from a “Human Transit” perspective.
    We have a frequent commenter from Brisbane on a very popular Toronto transit blog (rabidly pro-streetcar) who frequently injects the almost sole voice of reason there. Is it something in the water that makes Aussie transit planners more reasonable and “human”? We need a LOT more of your type contributing up here.

  11. Jarrett February 5, 2011 at 1:07 pm #

    Anne. My observation is that people who engage with overseas blogs are (a) curious and (b) open to cultural difference and (c) interested in thinking in the abstract. That makes them very different from their countrymen, no matter what country they’re from.
    Here in Australia, I often hear Aussies say that American visitors to Australia are much more friendly, reasonable, and open-minded than the ones they read about through news stories about US domestic politics. But of course, friendly, reasonable and open-minded people are more likely be motivated to travel and even live overseas, so they’re the ones that Aussies meet.

  12. Thewhitefolder.blogspot.com April 23, 2011 at 1:19 pm #

    How about “switch”? It implies something quick, easy, and decisive… like flipping a light switch, or in railroad switching yard, where the train just keeps rolling.
    Certainly I could “take the 1 to Five Points and switch to the 55”, switch to the train at Midtown, or switch between the Doraville and North Springs train on the same line. (Can you guess what city I’m in?) If I’m standing on the sidewalk you’ll know I’m making a switch.
    If a bus diver is heading back to the garage, he’ll have to switch me to another bus – not apply force, but communicate succinctly what is going on, such that I choose a different alternative.
    This word ‘switch’ respects my values and my volition in being a transit passenger. You can switch me to a bus, but if you abandon me and the bus doesn’t show up, know that I’ll be just as easily switching to foot, or to a car next time.

  13. Mike August 31, 2012 at 8:35 pm #

    Interesting. I still seem to prefer transfer to any of the alternatives though. I grew up in San Francisco, and we’ve always said transfers. It has become such a fact of life to me that I can’t imagine saying it any other way. These discussions on connotation are fascinating, and everybody perceives words differently.