Unhelpful Word Watch: Convenient

A Transport Politic post on US high-speed rail today contains this quotation from Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman:

With high-speed rail, speed is not the issue.  Convenience and trip times are.

What does he mean by convenience?  For that matter, what do you mean by convenience?  I’ve been hearing this word in conversations about transit for more than 20 years, and in this context, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t mean anything.

Here’s the Webster definition:

1obsolete : suitableproper
2 a: suited to personal comfort or to easy performance <meeting at a convenient time> b: suited to a particular situation <a convenient excuse> c: affording accommodation or advantage <found it convenient to deal with both problems at the same time>
3: being near at hand : close <a location convenient to the train station>

Meaning #1 is obsolete and meaning #3 refers specifically to the phrase “convenient to,” which is something else.  When we say transit is convenient or not convenient, we’re using meaning #2, “suited” to personal comfort, or easy performance, or a situation.  (The Latin roots of the word convenience literally mean “come together,” suggesting that the convenient is something that is a good fit to us, like a glove to a hand.)

Now look at this conversation.

WELL-INTENTIONED TRANSIT AGENCY STAFFER, PERHAPS AS PART OF A SURVEY:  So tell me, what’s the main reason that you don’t use public transit?
CITIZEN:  Well, it’s just not convenient.

STAFFER:  How would the transit system need to be different for you to use it?
CITIZEN:  It would need to be more convenient.
Perhaps you’ve had this conversation.  It happens a lot because it makes both parties feel satisfied that they’ve completed a social transaction.  But zero information has been exchanged. Telling me that transit needs to be more convenient tells me nothing about how I should improve the service.  Using the Webster definition, you could unpack the second exchange above as:
STAFFER:  How would the transit system need to be different for you to use it?
CITIZEN:  It would need to be suited to me, or to my needs, or to my situation.
So, what are those needs? What’s your situation?  Until you tell me that, you haven’t told me anything.

When I’m developing transit surveys and questionnaires, I advocate a total ban on the word convenient.  When someone tells me transit needs to be more convenient, I always ask them what they mean.  Then, I get something useful, such as:
  • It’s just too far to walk to the stop/station.  (Access Distance)
  • It’s not running when I need it.   (Service Span)
  • It’s just too long to wait.  (Frequency)
  • I just can’t count on it coming on time.  (Reliability)
These are useful items of feedback, because they refer to specific measurable features of transit, as I’ve indicated in brackets.  When I’ve asked someone what they mean by convenience, all four of these answers are very common. To a transit planner, they’re four completely different things, requiring different kinds of effort to fix.

So what did the Amtrak CEO mean when he said that when it comes to high speed rail, what matters is not speed but “convenience”?  I have no idea.  Perhaps someone should ask him.

3 Responses to Unhelpful Word Watch: Convenient

  1. anonymouse June 27, 2009 at 10:25 am #

    I think he meant, the issue is not “does the train have a top speed in excess of 200 mph?” nor even the average speed of the train, but rather, whether the train gets people where they want to go fast enough that they would want to take it.

  2. Nathanael July 10, 2009 at 12:40 am #

    With regard to HSR, “convenient” means not having to go through airport security, largely. 😛

  3. Bob Davis October 10, 2016 at 6:58 pm #

    Some years ago, I wrote an essay on “Why the private motor vehicle took over local and regional transport for most Americans.” I commented that the automobile covers four less-than-admirable human characteristics: 1) Laziness–unless you live next to a train station or bus stop, there’s a walk involved in using transit. This is especially undesirable if you have to carry things. 2) Impatience–the mere fact that traditional railway stations have “waiting rooms” points up this drawback. Generally speaking, we Americans are a notoriously impatient lot. Any transit line with a base headway of more than 15 minutes is non-competitive. 3) Selfishness–when we’re in our own cars, we’re in control, going when and where we want to go, with no worries that the next transit stop will see the bus or train boarded by someone who belongs in a locked ward at the State Hospital. 4) Snob appeal–doesn’t apply to me, but many folks have bought into the “You are what you drive” propaganda of the motor industry, especially the European luxury car builders.