Should I Call Myself a “Transit Rider”?

Is there anything wrong with calling a group of people “transit users” or “riders”?  Is there anything wrong with calling yourself such a thing?

Michael Druker at Psystenance has been thinking about how we should talk about “people who travel by a certain mode.”

The fundamental attribution error leads us to interpret the behavior of others as reflecting something inherent about those people, more than is warranted. However, the language we use plays a role in that judgment as well. Our labels often describe who people are instead of what they’re doing, e.g. pedestrians, cyclists, transit users, or drivers. Each one of those terms gives us a category to which those people belong, making it easier to attribute their actions as reflecting some property of members of that category. That, in turn, makes it more difficult to progress towards a multimodal and sustainable transportation system.

I propose a different and deliberate use of language to mitigate this:

  • Old: pedestrians. New: people on foot, or people walking.
  • Old: cyclists. New: people on bikes, or people cycling.
  • Old: transit users. New: people on transit.
  • Old: drivers or motorists. New: people in cars, or people driving.

Sometimes we’re in cars, sometimes we’re on transit, sometimes we’re on bikes, and sometimes we’re on foot. But we’re all people, and our perspectives are much more similar than the facile modal categories lead us to believe.

Some people reading that are going to be reminded of the term “people of color,” which rose in part from the ease with which, say, “black” as an adjective (“black people”) tended to deteriorate into “black” as a noun (“the blacks”).  “People of color” put the category term back where it belonged, in an adjective phrase, while also extending across all the non-white ethnicities.  Other “people who” and “people with” terms began to appear around the same time — “people with AIDS” for example — each addressing a situation where describing with a noun — “AIDS victims,” “AIDS sufferers,” — seemed to crush individuality and personhood.

Of course, these terms were always easy to ridicule as “politically correct,” partly because they were cumbersome.  The need for sheer brevity makes me doubt I will fully embrace “people cycling” as a fully satisfactory synonym for “cyclist,” though when speaking I do look for ways to keep the focus back on “people” rather than on the technology of transport they’re using.

Still, Michael is basically right.  Reducing mode choice categories to nouns — cyclists, motorists, riders, etc — is potentially divisive.  These categories seem to give us the clarity we need to do any thinking at all, but clinging to them can blind us of all the ways that two cyclists can be different, and all the ways that this cyclist and that motorist may agree on far more than two cyclists do.  Ultimately, the only way to combat this is to notice it and point out alternate ways of categorizing that can help open minds.  For example, you might think of “people who, in their ideal world, would like to get around on transit.”  Some, but not all, existing transit riders are in that group.  But so are some motorists.

It’s also worth noting that we don’t just apply these reductive categories when describing others, we may also apply them to ourselves.  (The comments on Michael’s post explore this in some detail.)  A “transit users group” may sound like a good political strategy, but if you identify yourself too much as a “transit user,” and build your understanding of politics around that identity, you risk excluding the views of current non-transit users; thus prematurely narrowing your potential community of interest.  (The San Francisco Transit Riders Union, for example, embraces “current and future riders.”)  Lots of people care about transit.  They want to be counted, too.


13 Responses to Should I Call Myself a “Transit Rider”?

  1. Tom West October 6, 2010 at 6:29 am #

    Talking abotu “motorists”, “cyclists” and “predestrains” makes it easy for people to use phrases like “motorists vs. cyclists”, which is just lazy.
    Also, this reminds me of a crucial point: at the start and end of every journey, we are all pedestrians.

  2. Aaron M. Renn October 6, 2010 at 6:35 am #

    I think there’s a long and proud tradition of transit riders calling themselves riders – LA’s Bus Riders Union or Chicago’s Transit Riders Authority come to mind. I think it’s a great way of reminding transit agencies who they are supposed to be serving and what their actual product is.

  3. Alurin October 6, 2010 at 6:53 am #

    Changing the terminology is not going to reduce the Fundamental Attribution Error. A person in a car is driving badly because he is a person in a car just as surely as because he’s a motorist.

  4. anonymouse October 6, 2010 at 8:38 am #

    Alurin, I think it’s really about something slightly different: the error here is assuming that being a “driver” or a “cyclist” is an aspect of identity rather than your current location behind a steering wheel or on a saddle. The assumption is that a person in a car is a person who only ever drives, and a person on a bike is a person who only ever bikes, which completely ignores case where, for example, I ride my bike to the local Zipcar location, put the bike in the back of the car, and drive somewhere. Am I a driver or a cyclist?

  5. Alurin October 6, 2010 at 10:01 am #

    anonymouse: Yes, I understand that point. I myself can be all of those things within the space of a day. But if you’re making decisions about, say, allocating resources to cars or bikes, you’re decision-making is not going to change by talking about people on bikes instead of bicyclists.

  6. anonymouse October 6, 2010 at 12:07 pm #

    Alurin: it might, if you’re a politician and thinking about your constituency. It matters whether you think about cyclists as people who always ride their bikes and build their lifestyle around it (always a pretty small minority) or just people who have bikes and occasionally ride them (a much larger group).

  7. Alon Levy October 6, 2010 at 8:23 pm #

    Sometimes it’s useful to think in terms of biases toward one mode of transport or living or another. The reason is that models of mode shift have shades of gray. They say something like, when transit is 30% slower than cars its mode share is 25%, and when it’s 30% faster, its mode share is 75%.
    It can be useful to categorize the people who take transit even when it’s much slower as having different priorities from the people who’d stick to driving. Maybe they tend to cluster in some areas – to shift mode share the most, you’d probably want to target areas whose residents’ mode choice is more on the fence. Maybe they’re affected by different aspects of travel, which is useful if you want to decide which amenities to spend money on and which can be left out.
    Obviously it’s not absolute. If one mode is twice as fast as the other, the split might be 90-10, not 75-25. But it’s still useful to try categorizing people as strong users, leaners, and swing users. It’s normal in election strategy and it could be powerful in mode share strategy.

  8. Ron October 6, 2010 at 9:25 pm #

    Hmm, in my experience 90% of the population probably says “I’m GOING to _______” without regard for the mode of transportation.
    Most people don’t analyse these things to death.

  9. Erwin Desoto October 7, 2010 at 9:30 am #

    The term cyclist and driver I believe come from the verb to cycle or drive, things people can do. Since one is not really actively doing anything on a bus or say airplane, there are no equivalent terms. One does not go busing or airplaning. One drives the bus or pilots the airplane or rides the bus or takes the airplane. Take boating for example. You’re a boater if you drive the boat but you’re a ship passenger if you go on a cruise.
    I don’t think the people walking or bicycling thing will catch on. We will never say, people cooking versus cook, people working versus worker, people writing versus writer, people blogging versus blogger. I would recommend the opposite, using a single word for people taking transit or airplanes or ships since they are actively engaging in an activity. Airlines use the term “frequent flyers” so people taking planes are flyers.

  10. Zoltán October 7, 2010 at 9:36 am #

    I hear very little talk of transit riders, but this is something that annoys me to death when I hear talk of “motorists”, spoken of as some class of people with a fixed identity of being encased in a huge metal shell.
    I’ve seen this a lot recently with the closure of the M4 bus lane in the UK, which is described as a feature of “Labour’s war on the motorist”. In the face of the fact that the bus lane annoys “motorists”, it’s a) ignored that the bus lane is very effective at moving people, and b) assumed that the “motorists” can never benefit from the fast buses, because they’re “motorists”.

  11. SpyOne October 7, 2010 at 1:22 pm #

    My own thoughts on these words, offered not as a rebuttal to your thoughts on them so much as a perspective on my own bias:
    Pedestrians – I do not think of this as a class of people. All people walk sometimes, and few people walk always. To me, “pedestrian” is synonymous with “people who are currently walking”.
    Motorist or Driver – again, I do not really think of this as a class of people, which reveals an interesting bias: I tend to think of driving as something everybody does, even though I don’t do it myself.
    Transit Rider/User – again, I don’t see this as a class really, though I acknowledge it is a class much more than the above two, because this is something that not everybody does. There are those who sometimes do, and those who never do (with “sometimes” embracing those for whom “frequently” is more accurate, and “never” including “almost never”, I suppose).
    But “Cyclist” is special, and a bit like “Runner”: it is a class, and there are lots of people who participate in the activity who never consider themselves part of that class.
    I mean, most people run on occasion. Any time you are on foot and pressed for time, running is an option. I think most people probably run several times a month. But Runners are those other people, those who run long distances and/or on a regular basis. Runners are people for who running has become a hobby, not just an activity. Some may even do it professionally.
    Lots of people ride a bicycle on occasion. Many children ride a bicycle daily, yet we wouldn’t call most of them “cyclists”. “Cyclists” are the guys who … are WAY more into riding a bike than that. In high school, I was an avid bicycler, using my 10-speed to get around town (until I got a driver’s license). My brothers, in contrast, were Cyclists: they knew (and cared) who won the Tour de France, they knew the names of famous bicycle racers, they did some amateur racing themselves, and they went on camping trips by bicycle. They got catalogs of special lightweight camping gear designed to pack on a bicycle, and they worried about wind resistance and titanium parts.
    I prefer to use the term “bicycle commuter” to describe myself because I feel it distinguishes me from “them”, and discourages assumptions that I am some anti-motorvehicle crusader (I prefer the stance that I would like to increase freedom by making it easier for people to stop driving if they so choose, rather than limiting freedom by forcing people out of their cars). Or that I like to ride for fun: riding can be fun, but I do it to get from one place to another. An excellent bike path that forms a loop in a park interests me not at all, but a bike path that runs to a shopping center interests me a great deal.
    In fact, I worry a bit about the cycling jerseys I wear: I bought them because they are functional to my needs: they absorb sweat and wick it away from my body, helping me stay cool on really hot days, and to prevent me becoming wet (and therefore cold) on cold days, when the fact I am exercising makes me sweat. But I always have the worry that my spandex attire will cause others to perceive me as one of “them”, which bothers me mostly because I think a lot of “them” (and usually the most visible ones) are jerks.
    In the quest for a less cumbersome term, let me offer this one: stop abbreviating the word and call them “bicyclists”. That is clearly something different from what “cyclists” has come to mean, and has the advantage of being a single word, properly used.
    And back to my mental bias (to Ron): If I say “I’m going to (blank)”, I mean I am walking or driving or bicycling. If I am riding transit, I am more likely to use the phrase “get myself over to (blank)”. As in “I have to go to the bank tomorrow” vs “I have to get to the bank tomorrow”. The latter almost certainly means I expect to ride transit. I wonder why that is?

  12. Lidwien Rahman October 7, 2010 at 2:24 pm #

    As pedestrian advocates, the Board of the Willamette Pedestrian Coalition in Portland Oregon has struggled with what to call “pedestrians”, because the word is so, well, pedestrian. This seems to be so in part because everyone walks some of the time, and the act of walking is not a lifestyle choice as it can be for cyclists (I like the suggestion by Spyone above to distinguish between bicyclists and cyclists.)
    The problem with “walkers”, “people who walk”, or “people on foot”, is that is does not cover those who rely on mobility devices such as wheelchairs. We experimented with “people who walk or roll” but that seems cumbersome. We have used “people who walk” or “walkers” and defined it to include those who use low-speed mobility devices. Suggestions are welcome!

  13. Zoltán October 7, 2010 at 2:58 pm #

    “Cyclists are annoying” “I hate cyclists”
    “People on bikes are annoying” “I hate people on bikes”
    It might be just me, but the latter seems much harder to justify or to meet with sympathy.