I’m in the World Bank’s generally excellent Transforming Transportation conference in Washington DC. The theme is “New Mobility.” In the first panel, I found myself agreeing with almost everything the panel said, to the extent that I could understand it.
The limit to my understanding was the use of meaningless words: new mobility, micromobility, sharing.
These words each have too many meanings, which is the same as having none. That is a good sign that they have arisen from the language of sales. Selling a product requires exaggerating its relevance. If a word makes people feel good, the marketer will try to figure out how to extend the word to cover her product.
All three of these words feel good: New mobility sounds cutting-edge. Micromobility sounds intimate, maybe even cute the way little things are. Sharing — well, we all think toddlers should learn to share.
But on this morning’s panel I heard all three words used with apparently conflicting meanings.
- Sharing was used sometime to mean “sharing of rides” (different people with different purposes riding in same vehicle at the same time, as in public transit), but also to mean “sharing the vehicle” as in bikeshare and carshare. (There’s also sharing of infrastructure: Motorists are expected to “share the road.”) These are different concepts with different uses and consequences. When the moderator polled us all on what words we associate “new mobility,” the top answer, of course, was “shared.” The more meanings a word has, the more popular it will be, which in turn means it will give more people that warm buzz that comes from being surrounded by people who (seem to) agree with them. That’s the mechanism by which words grow both popular and meaningless.
- Micromobility is often used to mean “person sized vehicles” — bikes, scooters, and other things that let someone move faster than they can walk without taking much more space than their body does. But when the Mayor of Quito was asked about it, his answer seemed to include microtransit, which is an utterly different thing. I suggest “person sized vehicles,” (PSV) It’s five syllables instead of six, and it actually says what it means.
- New mobility says nothing but that it’s mobility and its new. New things have absolutely nothing else in common, so why is this a meaningful category? Only if you want to appeal to the common prejudice that all new ideas are better than all old ideas, which we all know to be nonsense. After all, most innovations fail.
I’ll talk about this on a panel this afternoon. If we are going to think clearly, we have to use words that mean, not words that sell.
Meanwhile, if you hear one of these words, or any other word that seems to used in multiple ways, ask for a definition. You have a right to that. Only then are you actually thinking together.
Important: I’m thinking out loud here! The title is a question because I don’t have answers and am not proposing anything.
Now that we have scooters sharing bike lanes, I wonder if we’ll need to think more clearly about the different kinds of lane on a street and what their real defining features are. This could lead to different words.
We separate traffic types for two reasons:
- Speed, so that faster vehicles aren’t often stuck behind slower ones,
- Width, so that we use less space to serve the needs of narrower vehicles, thus using scarce space more efficiently overall.
Sarah Iannarone and I were chatting about this on the bus this morning, and after that she went straight to the whiteboard and drew this:
The idea here is that a street with a speed limit over 30 km/hr will need to separate these three kinds of traffic, because they differ in both speed and width. At lower speeds you can mix them more.
Where speed and width come apart, however, speed has to be the defining feature. You can’t ride a motorbike at 30 km/hr down a “bike” lane, even though it may be narrow enough. You have to ride it in the traffic lane, even though that’s a waste of space.
All this came up because I was trying to think of the correct new term for “bike lane” as we proliferate more vehicle types that run more or less at the speed and width of bicycles but are clearly not bicycles, such as electric scooters. The two logical terms seem to be narrow lane or midspeed lane. One way or another the two concepts will need to track with each other.
I wonder if this kind of language can make our sense of the role of these lanes more flexible, and thus less divisive.
There is a lot of room for individual choice here about which lane to use. Cyclists, for example, already choose between midspeed “bike” lanes and full-speed traffic lanes, depending on their preferred balance of speed and safety. Meanwhile, an 8-year-old learning to ride a bike should probably be on the sidewalk. Another reason that “cycle lane” may be a misnomer.
This isn’t easy. The things that might go in a midspeed lane have very different acceleration and stopping characteristics, all of which will cause friction. When I raised this thought on Twitter, I got lots of responses expressing concern about different kinds of vehicles sharing a lane. But even with just the few lane types that we already have, it’s hard to make them all fit. We’ll never have a separate lane for every type of vehicle that needs a slightly different speed, acceleration, or stopping distance. So again, I’m asking a question, not answering it.
Finally, Sarah assigns transit to the full-speed, widest lanes, but of course that leaves open the question of transit priority within that territory. Where there’s demand and room for a bus lane, it should be automatic in my view. It doesn’t even need to be “constructed” necessarily. Just paint the lane red.
Anyone who believes in democracy should be appalled by the use of the word politics in this New York Times headline:
“Congestion Pricing Plan for Manhattan Ran Into Politics. Politics Won.”
Who is this “politics” that is capable of fighting battles, and winning or losing them?
Elected officials make decisions. People who make decisions should take responsibility for those decisions. This is why being an elected official is much less fun than it looks.
When we say that “politics” made a decision, we’re implying that the actual deciders aren’t responsible. Some elected officials like it when we talk this way, because it helps them avoid responsibility for their choices. But that’s not how a healthy democracy works, and if we accept that “politics” is a political actor, we are surrendering an important part of our right to democracy.
The insulting and generally inaccurate term captive rider — for someone who supposedly has no choice but to use transit — still shows up in transit studies now and then, but it seems to be receding. I’ve certainly tried to do my part to drive the stake into it.
But sometimes the best way to undermine a misleading or prejudicial term is to promote an analogous term. So I loved this exchange:
— John Halverson (@hanzjalverson) October 4, 2016
Yes, much of my life I’ve been a captive driver, in that I’ve been forced to live and work in landscapes where there are no reasonable choices for how to get around.
One of the worst things about being a captive driver is having to drive when you know you really shouldn’t. I’m careful with alcohol, but there are times when I’m just tired, or irritable, and there’s no choice but to drive.
I know several older people who are captive drivers. They know they probably should stop driving soon, but their happiness and even sanity may require them to stay in the house and garden that they’ve known for decades, even though that’s a place where transit isn’t viable. (And they often lack the smartphone skills to use Uber or Lyft, or have disabilities that those companies can’t handle.)
Captive drivers are everywhere. Will they rise up to shake off their chains?
If you’ve ever wondered what well above and well below mean, as opposed to far above and far below, Dan Weikel and Ralph Vartebedian at the Los Angeles Times have quantified it for us, in an article about the California High Speed Rail project.
Rail officials also say the latest cost estimate for the entire 500-mile project has been reduced from $68 billion to $64 billion, well below the $98 billion projection from several years ago, but still far above initial estimates of less than $40 billion.
I’d always assumed that far was further than well. But no, by their math, well is $34 billion but far is as little as $24 billion. Well is further than far.
So now, anytime someone uses far or its relatives to imply extremes — “the furthest corners of the earth” etc,, you can ask: Sure, they may be the furthest, but are they the wellest?
If you care at all about visual communication — and if you aren't blind from birth, then you do — you should be following the remarkable debate about the New Zealand flag. National flags are so enduring that it is hard to imagine a graphic design task with higher stakes. Revising one triggers a profound argument about national identity, which ultimately comes down to a couple of questions:
- One or many ideas? Can the nation come together around one image or idea, or must there me a mash-up of several to satisfy different groups or points of view?
- Fashionable or enduring? Graphic design is so much about fashion and fun that identifying an image that will make sense for decades is harder than it sounds. Yet that's what a flag must be – and the greatest company logos have mastered this challenge as well.
To review, the current New Zealand flag looks like this:
The Union Jack and the Southern Cross, the latter a distinctive constellation that is also on Australia's flag. (With all due respect to defenders of this flag, both images are about New Zealand's tie to other countries, countries that the nation's identity has lately been separating from. I also understand the view that flags should never change on principle; that is a different debate.)
The New Zealand flag seems disconnected from the evolving palette of national identity. National imagery rarely uses the flag's colors. Sometimes it uses blue-green colors that echo the textures of the landscape; you will find these in the customs hall at Auckland Airport for example. Increasingly, though, the government uses black. The association of black with New Zealand comes from another image that is so universal that some visitors probably think it's the flag already:
This image is most common in sports, as it's the logo of most national teams including the famous All Blacks of rugby, but it long ago spilled over into the general consciousness as an unofficial symbol of the country.
If I may reveal botanical interests more suited to my other blog, this is not just any random leaf or frond. It's based on the underside of the spectacular Silver Fern, Cyathea dealbata, one of the tree ferns that define so many New Zealand rainforests (top on left, underside on right).
Sports and tree-hugging in one image! This would seem to make the silver fern a winner across the cultural spectrum. It might also remind you of another former British colony that tired of its Union Jack, and forged a new identity out of botany:
The Canadian flag was adopted in February 1965, so it just turned 50. Like the Silver Fern in New Zealand, the maple leaf had been hanging around in Canadian imagery for a while. So it's not surprising to see the fern so prominent in New Zealand flag ideas.
So how has the debate gone? Well, the government's earnest committee canvassed the country and came up with these semi-finalists:
It's remarkable how much consensus there was on which images matter: the Southern Cross, a gesture toward the old flag, plus two main expressions of the fern: the frond and the spiral form called the koru. (The latter, common in Maori imagery, is based on the shape of a frond as it just unfurls.)
When you look at that field of contenders, does your eye go to the busier ones or the simpler ones? Mine went to the simplest, the ones with a single idea, not a collision of several, and the ones that looked enduring by virtue of not trying to be sexy. For that reason, the original silver-fern-on-black still looked right to me.
But the people who chose the four finalists felt differently:
… at which point, all hell broke loose. There are many complaints, including that three of the four are too similar to represent a choice, and that #2 is already selling plastic plates:
— Thomas Le Bas (@thomaslebas) September 1, 2015
But the real problems are these:
- #2 and #4 are both mash-ups, obviously collisions of multiple unresolved ideas. A mash-up suggests that the country is too divided to revere any single image. If Canada — a far more diverse country in terms of landscapes and identities — could avoid this mistake, New Zealand certainly can. (British Columbia is another matter …)
- Except for #3, they are all over-designed, with an attention to today's graphical fashions instead of any thought about what might stand the test of time. This is equivalent to saying that they call attention to the designer.
What do you gain, designer of finalist #1, by flipping half of the silver fern image into negative, and making the frond leaflets more rounded so that they no longer resemble the plant? How is this better than the simple silver fern on black? Only that a graphic designer obviously designed it, in a way that is supposed to look cool.
But a flag is supposed to outlast its designer, and the design fashions of the moment. Remember, the Canadian flag was designed in the 1960s. If their design competition had been seeking something as "contemporary" and "designed" as New Zealand's final four, they might have found inspiration in one of these:
Fortunately, they didn't. You can't tell, looking at the Canadian flag, that it's an artefact of the 1960s, and that's the whole point. A flag has to have a sense of timelessness and simplicity, which is why you must reject any design that calls attention to the cleverness of the designer or relies on design fashions of the moment. The creativity it requires begins with the willingness to disappear as the creator. None of the finalists displays this.
How is this debate relevant to this blog's concerns in public transit? If you really want to sell public transit, teach people to count on it. Make it seem solid and enduring, not just sexy and ephemeral. Go for the simple, solid idea that will still make sense — practically and aesthetically — decades from now.
And this principle extends even beyond graphic design, to debates about whether transit technologies should be chosen for "fun" or reliability.
Do you notice how insecure companies change their logos and liveries more often than confident ones do? Do you notice how they use flashy look-at-me images instead of clean and enduring ones?
Flashiness, fun, and novelty may attract customers, but only simplicity and reliability retains them. Which message do you want to put forth about your transit system, or your country?
Every year, the Texas Transportation Institute’s Urban Mobility Scorecard describes the nation’s most transit-intensive and walkable metro areas as having terrible “urban mobility”. And every year, academic experts and smart journalists attack its indefensible methods and assumptions. And yet, every year, careless journalists describe the report as though it were news about the state of "mobility" or “commuting” in America.
But you don’t need to study the analysis to understand what’s wrong with TTI's claims. All you need to do is look at their press release or summary, and notice that they want you to think of car congestion as equivalent to poor urban mobility.
When you use words with different meanings as though they were interchangeable, you are denying the existence or relevance of people who are included in one meaning but not the other.
Political rhetoric plays this trick all the time. When scientific or academic rhetoric uses it, you should be suspicious. It's one of several types of rhetorical annihilation.
In this case, the people being erased are anyone who moves about in cities (urban mobility) but does not experience congestion. These include anyone who organized their lives so that they can walk to work, and of course anyone who cycles or uses public transit– at least those transit services that are protected from congestion such as most heavy rail, light rail, and busway services. (And in fact, the report itself is interested only in the travel time of “auto commuters,” so all transit riders are excluded.)
If you are one of these people, you do not count as part of your city when the TTI tallies your city’s “urban mobility." Any subsequent commentary about the economic impact of “urban mobility” problems refers to an economy in which you do not exist.
This has been pointed out to TTI many times, including four years ago at a CNU conference workshop I attended. Many of us said then that if TTI wanted to write reports about car congestion, an appropriate name would be Urban Car Congestion Scorecard, not Urban Mobility Scorecard. They have had ample opportunity to rename their report to describe what it really is, the, so we can only assume that the confusion they are sowing is intentional.
Meanwhile, when you hear two different terms being used interchangeably, stop and ask: “Who is in one of these categories but not the other?” Because those are the people the writer doesn’t want you to notice, even if you’re one of them.
(Yet another reason to hire literature students!)
[This post is periodically updated as helpful comments roll in.]
Have you ever picked up an academic paper and read, right there in the abstract, that you don't exist?
We're used to reading rhetoric that defines us as the enemy, which is different. Rhetoric about the "war on cars" or "war on coal" posits an in-group of good people, including the author and presumed reader, and an out-group that is threatening to them. This is exclusionary language in its obvious form, and it's hard to justify in academia.
But academics can slide unconsciously into a more subtle kind of exclusionary rhetoric, especially in the social sciences — what I'll call (melodramatically perhaps) the rhetoric of annihilation. Instead of defining a group of people as evil or threatening, this rhetoric just ignores their existence. In this rhetoric, there is no talk of war, because only one side is visible. The author's presumed expertise becomes a kind of campfire. Gather around the author's assumptions and you will be warm, safe, and included; if you don't, we can't see you out there in the dark anyway, so you basically don't exist.
This is remarkably easy to do even in an academic paper. Here are two vivid examples, one classically leftist, the other conservative.
From the left, a paper on "transit deserts". You can go to the link, but I'm not naming the authors here because I have no desire to embarrass them by attracting searches on their names. Their work has been peer-reviewed, which means that several arbiters of academic quality view it as an acceptable example of professional thinking today. My point is about how pervasive and accepted this rhetoric is even as academic thought.
The abstract begins:
The term “transit desert” is a new concept that looks at the gap between level of transit service (supply) and needs of a particular population (demand). These populations are often referred to as “transit dependent,” people that are too young, too old, or too poor or who are physically unable to drive. “Transit deserts” in this case are defined as areas that lack adequate public transit service given areas containing populations that are deemed transit-dependent.
In just a few words, the authors have denied the existence of three very large groups of people. These rhetorically annihilated groups are:
- Anyone who analyzed the spatial relationship between transit service and needy populations before someone invented the "new concept" of doing this. This includes all professional transit planners over the age of 30, including past generations going back a century or more. (Of course, the rhetorical annihilation of elders is such a routine part of being young — kids, we did it too at your age! — that it's hardly worth being offended by.)
- Anyone for whom demand does not mean mere need, but rather the meaning that is already routine in business and economics — something like a "buyer's willingness and ability to pay a price for a specific quantity of a good or service". The paper's use of the word demand annihilates anyone coming from the perspectives of business or basic economics..
- Anyone who uses transit, wants transit to be useful to them, or wants the live in a city where even the rich ride transit, but who does not meet the specified qualifications to be called "transit dependent." As made clear in the first sentence, these people's desire to use transit, or to build a city around transit, does not count to the authors as demand, because they do not meet the authors' standard for need.
A paper could make arguments against the point of view of these groups, but tbat's not done here. Rather, the very possibility that such positions might exist is denied.
And of course, conservatives papers do this too. Let's turn to a conservative-sounding paper, featured in Atlantic Citylab, for which you can also follow the link for the citation. It's a little more careful but standard forms of annihilation appear soon enough. The paper opens like this:
This article asks why public transportation’s political support in the United States is so much larger than its ridership.
Upon reading this, I scratched my head trying to imagine what it would be like to find this an interesting problem statement. I don't mean to rhetorically annihilate the authors; I acknowledge their existence, but it it sounds like they don't talk with transit advocates or riders very much. Those people would tell you that the answer is too obvious to need studying, as indeed it turns out to be:
We … show that support for transit spending is correlated more with belief in its collective rather than private benefits—transit supporters are more likely to report broad concerns about traffic congestion and air pollution than to report wanting to use transit themselves.
Well, of course people vote for transit for reasons other than the narrowest kind of self-interest. People vote for transit because (a) it benefits people they care about, if not themselves, (b) it offers some solutions to real problems of urban mobility and (c) it helps foster cities that people want to live in, as demonstrated by the way land values are soaring in such places.
But why is this a problem? The authors conclude:
These findings suggest a collective action problem, since without riders transit cannot deliver collective benefits. But most transit spending supporters do not use transit, and demographics suggest they are unlikely to begin doing so; transit voters are wealthier and have more options than transit riders.
A collective action problem is a situation in which everyone would benefit if X were done, but nobody can justify doing X as a selfish cost/benefit calculation. One fable explaining the problem imagines a group of mice who would all benefit if a marauding cat wore a bell, but none of whom finds it rational to the huge risks of climbing the cat's back to put the bell on.
What does it mean to assert that the transit ridership is a problem of this kind? It implies …
- … that transit users who do not vote do not exist. The most explicit rhetorical annihilation in the paper is the assumption that the set of people who vote in the US (rarely more than 40% of the population and often less in local elections) largely contains the set of potential transit riders. In reality, non-voters are so dominant in the population that their ridership may be a big contributor to transit's actual success, thus helping solve any "collective action problem". Nor do they consider that many of these non-voters are friends or relatives or employees of voters, who may then understandably, even in a sense selfishly, vote in the interests of those people.
- ... that people who don't think they'll use transit are right about that. In the biz, what people say they want to do, or would do, is called stated preference data, and it's known to be largely useless. Humans are terrible at guessing what they'd do, or want to do, in a hypothetical future based on a situation, and set of options, that they can't imagine now.
- ... that there is no gradual path to collective action, because demographic categories all have hard edges within which people are trapped. This is the big one. To posit a "collective action problem" the authors must assume that the level of wealth above which people are unlikely to use transit is rigid, even though it in reality it rises as transit grows more useful, and that it divides a population cleanly. Everyone who is near the boundaries between demographic categories, or who chooses transit for reasons not predictable by their income, is annihilated here.
No argument appears in the paper for any of the assumptions above. Limited discussion about ridership is based on what people tell the census about their commuting behavior; this casually annihilates all non-commute users of transit, including people who voted for it and love to use it on weekends, but have to drive to work because it's not useful for that purpose.
Finally, the collective action problem assumes that everyone is a bizarre character from classical economics known as homo economicus: someone who rationally computes and acts on self-interest that is defined only in the narrowest sense. Among the many absurdities that follow from this are that in exactly the same circumstances, everyone would do the same thing, because we do not have diverse values, attractions, or personalities.
But in the real world, one mouse sometimes does put the bell on the cat. Some of us will take ridiculous risks for the common good. Some of us choose to be firefighters or police or soldiers or artists or social workers, all high-risk jobs that require courage but that enrich society if they succeed against all the odds. Most of us don't take those risks, but we're all better off because some of us do. Likewise, some fortunate people ride transit because they like it. Some less fortunate ones prefer to spend their scarce income on a motorcycle.
Everyone who acts in ways not predictable by their assigned demographic category is being annihilated here. Human diversity, even human quirkiness is good for the collective, however hard it is for the social sciences to describe.
What do these two papers have in common? Between them, they annihilate almost everyone, including each other's in-groups.
You could say that all this annihilation is an occupational hazard of the social sciences — or indeed that it's an inevitable feature of them. The social sciences are in the business of talking about gigantic groups of people using reductive categories, and all categorization suppresses diversity.
But the hardness of category boundaries is one of the most fundamental and dangerous of human illusions, because it is coded deeply into common language and underlies all forms of prejudice. So the social sciences are always playing with fire, always at risk of giving aid and comfort to polarizing, exclusionary styles of thought.
This rhetoric of annihilation can lead to publication and approval, so long as an adequate ecosystem of reviewers and advisors has reasons (ideological or material) for sharing an assumption or at least not challenging it. But once past that bar, these assumptions become "the literature," bounced around in the echo chamber of "expert" discourse. Through the turning of generations, some of these assumptions do get overturned, if only as part of the inevitable process of the young annihilating their elders. But much harm is done in the meantime.
Great academic work also requires thinking about all of the forces that determine the situation being studied, not just the one's academic discipline or in-group values, and honoring descriptions of the issue from those points of view. If they intend to influence policy, they make sure they understand the diverse experience of practitioners in the field, not just academics. This is especially true if a paper intends to influence policy, rather than just participate in a discipline's private conversation.
But meanwhile: Do you see a new academic paper, thick with footnotes and citations, as an immediate signifier of authority and wisdom? Be careful. To be welcomed around the campfire, you may have to consent to annihilation.
I’ll be leery of Toronto Star interviews in the future, because I explained my view carefully and that’s not how it came out:
Jarrett Walker and Rob Ford (see Rob Ford’s policard) don’t have much in common. One is an Oregon-based transit consultant, the other Toronto’s chief magistrate. One blogs avidly, the other disdains the media. Whereas Ford rails against the “war on the car,” Walker touts the virtues of buses.
But on one issue, at least, the policy wonk and the conservative politician agree: streetcars are overrated. Walker is decisively on one side of a new debate in the U.S., over whether the trendy form of rail transport springing up in American cities makes practical sense.
My actual view is too long for a soundbite but should not have been too long for an article. My view is that streetcars mixed with private car traffic are overrated. I was very clear with the reporter that all of my critiques of the US streetcar revival movement are about streetcars in mixed traffic. In the Toronto context, I specifically distinguished between the old downtown Toronto mixed traffic streetcars, which are nearly inoperable due to traffic impacts, and Toronto’s exclusive-lane light rail segments such as Spadina and St. Clair. None of my concerns about streetcars apply to the latter.
Here’s the bottom line. Streetcars are just a tool. They can be used in smart ways and in stupid ways. Asking a transit planner for an opinion about a transit technology is like asking a carpenter what his favorite tool is. A good carpenter sees his tools as tools and chooses the right one for the task at hand. He doesn’t use his screwdriver to pound nails just because he is a “screwdriver advocate” or “hammer opponent”. Yet the Toronto Star assumes that nobody involved in transit debates is as smart as your average competent carpenter.
To call me a streetcar advocate or opponent, you are imposing on me your own assumption that the bus-rail debate is the most important conversation about transit. This is the Toronto Star’s assumption, but it’s not mine. In fact, my work is about blowing up that assumption, and suggesting that instead of falling in love with vehicles, wires, and propulsion systems, we might consider falling in love with the freedom to get where you’re going.