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.