From a chapter of my book called "Five Paths to Confusion," which discusses common errors in thinking about transit. I hope that somewhere out there is a logician or linguist or philosopher who can suggest a better term for "category error."
A category error occurs when you think about a spectrum as though it were a series of boxlike categories. If you and a friend disagree about whether something is blue or purple, you’re making this error together. Blue and purple are adjacent zones on a continuous spectrum of colors (technically wavelengths of light) and zones on a spectrum can only have fuzzy or arbitrary edges. So if you disagree about whether something is blue or purple, you can both be right, based on slightly different notions of where you mark the boundary in the fuzzy area where blue shades into purple. If one of you is right and the other wrong, it can only be because of some arbitrary standard about where blue ends and purple begins, a standard you’ve both agreed to respect.
Category errors are built into the very structure of our language. Our category words feel like boxes with hard edges: blue, purple, tall, wealthy. But like colors, most of them really refer to directions or zones on a continuous spectrum. There’s no objective basis for saying “Jim is tall,” unless we just mean “Jim is taller than most people.” “Tall” is not a box; it’s just a range or direction on a spectrum of possible heights. We all know that, and for simple ideas like height or color the category error rarely causes trouble.
But when we talk about emotive categories, such as wealth or success, we can easily lose sight of the spectrum, and as with blue and purple, this can cause pointless arguments. Consider a famous comment widely (if falsely) attributed to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: “A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.” Stated that way, “a failure” sounds like a box that you’re either in or out of. Associating buses with failure or poverty is a common attitude in some cities. If you think about failure or poverty as a box, this can be an easy way to decide that buses aren’t worth your attention, and that there’s no point in thinking about how buses and rail transit can work together as one network.
But even if it’s true that bus riders are poorer than rail riders on average, you can change your perspective by reminding yourself that the boundaries of “poor” and “middle class” and “wealthy” are as fuzzy or arbitrary as the boundary between blue and purple.
Some category errors are built into transportation planning jargon. For example, you may hear certain planners divide transit riders into two boxes. One box, called a discretionary or choice rider, contains people who have the option of driving, and who will use transit only if it out-competes their car. In the other box is the transit dependent or captive rider, who has no viable alternative and therefore has to use transit. Dividing up riders this way leads to the idea that transit must compete for choice riders, while captive riders can largely be taken for granted; they will ride no matter how poor the service gets.
These categories are imposed on reality, not derived from it. Transit dependence, like wealth itself, is a spectrum, with vast numbers of people in the grey areas between “choice” and “captive.” For example, many people with low incomes own a car out of necessity, but experience owning a car as a financial burden. Many low-income families feel they have no alternative but to own a car for every adult in the house. If we give these people credible alternatives to car ownership, they can experience the result as liberating, even though some transportation planners will now call them captives. Often they will find better things to spend that money on, such as education. Many people are in situations like these, and we can achieve both environmental and social goods by helping them choose to own fewer cars. The two-box model of society, where everyone is either choice or captive, prevents us from seeing those possibilities.
Very few of our category words describe things that are really boxlike categories. So whenever you hear someone divide people into two categories, it's worth asking, "are these really boxes, or just zones or directions on a spectrum?"