Words, Unhelpful

“New Mobility”: Drowning in a Sea of Meaningless Words

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.


“Politics” Is Not a Political Actor

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.





What If We Called it “Decongestion Pricing”?

Seattle’s KUOW picked up my argument on this today:

Transit consultant Jarrett Walker said the problem is with the name – “congestion pricing.” It’s like the term “death tax,” which was drummed up to discredit the inheritance tax.

Nobody likes death or taxes. Put the two words together and you get a thing politicians have trouble supporting.

Similarly, nobody likes congestion or paying the price for it.

“I’ve suggested the word ‘decongestion pricing,’ because that is what the price buys,” said Walker. “The price buys less congested streets, with more room for all people of all modes to get through. ”

An older, longer, more rambling discussion of this is here.


Major Think Tank Implies You Don’t Exist

Ums-2015-featureEvery 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!)

How good are we at prediction?

Transportation planning is full of projections — a euphemism meaning predictions.  Generally, when we need a euphemism, it means we may be accommodating a bit of denial about something.

Predicting the future, at a time when so many things seem to be changing in nonlinear ways, is a pretty audacious thing to do.  There are  professions whose job it is to do this, and we pay them a lot to give us predictions that sound like facts.  I have the highest respect for them (all the more because what they do is nearly impossible) but only when they speak in ways that honor the limitations of their tools.

Good transportation planning does this.  at the very least, it talks about future scenarios rather than predictions, often carrying multiple scenarios of how the future could vary.  Scenarios are still predictions, though; they're just hedged predictions, where we place several bets in hope that one will be right. 

I will never forget the first time that I presented a proposed transit plan and was told:  "that's an interesting idea; we'll have to see how it performs."  The speaker didn't mean "let's implement it and see what happens."  He meant, "let's see what our predictive model says."  You know you're inside a silo when people talk about prediction algorithms as though they are the outcome, not just a prediction of the outcome that is only as good as the assumptions on which it's built.

What's more, we seem to be really bad at predicting curves, or even acknowledging them as they happen.


Something really important happened in the US around 2004, which experts call the "VMT Inflection."  Vehicle Miles Traveled in the US — the total volume of driving — departed from a linear growth path that it had followed for decades, and went flat.  Here's the same curve looking further back.  Around 2003, you could be forgiven for thinking that this steady slope was something we could count on. 

VMT rising

(At this point an ecologist or economist will point out that the VMT inflection shouldn't have been a surprise at all.  This graph looks like what a lot of systems do when their growth runs into a capacity or resource limit.  The VMT inflection is a crowdsourced signal that the single-occupant car is hitting a limit of that kind.)

So reality changed, but the Federal projections didn't.  Even as late as 2008, when the new horizontal path had been going for four years, Federal projections claimed that the growth in driving would immediately return to the previous fast-rising slope.  Again:


This isn't prediction or projection.  This is denial.  

All predictions rest on the assumption that the future is like the past.  Professional modelers assume their predictive algorithms are accurate if they accurately predict past or current events — a process called calibration.   This means that all such prediction rests on a bedrock idea that human behavior in the future, and the background conditions against which decisions are made, will all be pretty much unchanged, except for the variables that are under study.

In other words, as I like to say to Millennials:  the foundation of orthodox transportation planning is our certainty that when you're the same age as your parents are now, you'll behave exactly the way they do.

We describe historical periods as "dark" or "static" when that assumption is true.  Over the centuries of the European Middle Ages or Ancient Egypt, everyone acted like their parents did, so nothing ever seemed to change except accidents of war and the name of the king or pharaoh.  Our transportation modeling assumes that ours is such an age.

Historical progress arises from people making different choices than their parents did, and there seems to be a lot of this happening now.  

What we urgently need, in this business, are predictions that try to quantify how the future is not like the past; for example, by studying Millennial behavior and preferences and exploring what can reasonably be asserted about a world in which Millennials are in their 50s and are in the position to define what is normal, just as their parents and grandparents do today.

We already know that the future is curved.  (With rare exceptions like the growth of VMT from 1970 to 2004, the past has been curvy as well).   Millennials are not like their parents were at the same age.  There will be major unpredictable shocks.  There are many possible valid predictions for such a future.  The one that we can be sure is wrong is the straight line.  

My work on Abundant Access – part of the emerging world of accessibility studies — is precisely about providing a different way to talk about transportation outcomes that people can believe in and care about.  It means carefully distinguishing facts from predictions, and valuing things that people have always cared about — like getting places on time and having the freedom to go many places — from human tastes that change more rapidly — such as preferences and attitudes about transit technologies. It's a Socratic process of gently challenging assumptions.  Ultimately, it's part of the emerging science of resilience thinking, extending that ecological metaphor to human societies.  It posits that while the future can't be predicted there are still ways of acting rightly in the face of the range of likely possibilities.  

Imagine planning without projections.  What would that look like?  How would we begin?

california topples a tyrant

Stalin_21748cIs "reduced congestion" a positive environmental impact in cities?  Is it good for the environment to have endless lanes of free-flowing traffic everywhere?

It's a bizarre claim when you look at how prosperous, sustainable, and livable high-congestion cities are.  (They tend to be places where you don't have to commute so far, by example, and their overall emissions tend to be  lower.)

Yet until now, all California transit infrastructure has had to conform to an analysis process that treats traffic congestion as a threat to the environment.  A metric called Level of Service — congestion experienced by motorists, basically — could not be made worse by an infrastructure project, even one whose purpose was to reduce the impact of congestion on the economy, by providing alternatives to driving. 

Thanks to a state bill nearing approval, this provision of the California Environmental Quality Act — which has caused years of delay and cost-escalation on transit and bicycle projects — will no longer apply to urban transportation projects or to much transit oriented development.  Eric Jaffe's long article today from the barricades of this revolution is a great read.  Key quote:

Level of service was a child of the Interstate Highway era. The LOS concept was introduced in the 1965 Highway Capacity Manual, at the very moment in American history when concrete ribbons were being tied across the country, and quickly accepted as the standard measure of roadway performance. LOS is expressed as a letter grade, A through F, based on how much delay vehicles experience; a slow intersection scores worse on LOS than one where traffic zips through. Planners and traffic engineers use the metric as a barometer of congestion all over the United States.

In California, LOS has an especially high-profile. As the primary arbiter of traffic impacts under CEQA—adopted in 1970 by Governor Ronald Reagan—the metric not only determines the fate of many transportation and development projects, but has the awkward role of promoting car use within a law designed to protect the environment. "We have one section of CEQA saying we've got to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," says transportation consultant Jeffrey Tumlin of Nelson\Nygaard, "and another section of CEQA saying we need to accommodate unlimited driving."

Level of Service is an example of rhetoric that we all have to learn to challenge: the effort to hide strong value judgments inside language that sounds objective or technical.   A key move is to rely on terms that sound vague, neutral, and boring ("Level of Service") to describe something that's actually expressing a strong ideology — in this case, asserting the superiority of some street users over others.    If the Level of Service Index had been called, say, the "Free Flow of Cars Index" it would have been much clearer who was being excluded by it, and how blatantly it contradicted many other widely-shared goals for California's cities.

Tip:  If a term sounds vague, neutral, and boring, demand a precise definition.  Confused words imprison our minds.   You'll be called a geek for caring about something as boring as "Level of Service," but in the end, you may help topple a tyrant. 

Photo: Children with toppled statue of Stalin.   The Times.

dangerous word watch: integrated, integration

Whenever someone in a planning or transport field tells you they work on "integration" or "integrated x", ask them:  "Integration of what with what, exactly?"

Integrated and integration carry a root meaning of things that are normally separate being combined or dealt with together.  Thus we speak of integrating transport and land use, integrating two adjacent transit networks, or integrating functions within an organization (as in the term vertical integration).  

Because we've all been taught to fear silos, which are areas of activity dealt with in isolation, we are supposed to love the word integrated, which implies somehow that this problem has been overcome.  

But communities have to choose between different integrations. 

For example, recently, I was dealing with a city that controls its own transit system, and that was wondering if its service should be integrated with its suburban transit agencies.  This would have required giving up city control of the agency to a regional authority.

But this idea would also disintegrate.  Specifically, it would prevent the integration of the city's transit thinking with the city's thinking about traffic, parking, and land use.  Whereas a city government can plan all these interdependent things together, they often find it easier to deliver great transit outcomes than a city that must rely on a regional transit agency can.  It is too easy, in a city's politics, for a regional transit agency to be seen as Other, not part of the city in a bureaucratic sense and thus prone to neglect or exclusion when the city sets its own priorities.  After all, we all prefer to think about things we control rather than things we don't.

I'm not expressing an abstract view about whether city control or regional agencies is the right way to organize transit.  The answer is different in different places.

But I am warning about the word integrated, when used without clear reference to which specific silo walls are being broken down.  If you're not clear about that, and you don't demand clarity from others who use the word, integration may not give you the specific integration that matters most to you.  

Even integration can be a silo.


quote of the week: ursula le guin on technical writing

In poetry, by and large, one syllable out of every two or three has a beat on it: Tum ta Tum ta ta Tum Tum ta, and so on. . . .

In narrative prose, that ratio goes down to one beat in two to four: ta Tum tatty Tum ta Tum tatatty, and so on. . . .

In discursive and technical writing the ratio of unstressed syllables goes higher; textbook prose tends to hobble along clogged by a superfluity of egregiously unnecessary and understressed polysyllables.

Ursula K. Le Guin,
"Rhythmic Pattern in The Lord of the Rings"
The Wave of the Mind  (Boston: Shambhala 2004)
[ellipses sic. paragraph breaks added]

Yet another reason to hire literature students!

“running transit like a business”: digging under the slogan

Now and then, the media (New York Times, Atlantic Cities) rediscovers Mark Aesch, the executive who turned around the performance of Rochester, New York's transit system, and even succeeded in lowering fares.  (Aesch now has his own firm promoting his consulting services, to the transit industry and beyond.)   Here's a sample of what Aesch did:

[The Rochester authority] has, for instance, reached agreements with the local public school district, colleges and private businesses to help subsidize its operations, warning in some cases that certain routes might be cut if ridership did not increase or a local business did not help cover the cost. In recent years, income from these agreements has equaled or exceeded the income from regular passenger fares.

On the one hand, bravo.   Aesch was ready to push back against the near-universal tendency of  government agencies to save money by dumping the costs of their own choices onto the transit authority.  

But at it's core, Aesch's work in Rochester expresses a value judgment that shouldn't be hidden behind puff-words like "creative" or wrapped in the mantra of "business":  Fundamentally, Aesch was willing to cut low-ridership services — or what I call coverage services.  And so, it seems, was his elected board.  

That's very unusual in North America, for democratic reasons.

Demands for coverage service — defined as service that is unjustifiable if ridership is the main goal — are powerful forces at most transit agencies.  Practically any American transit system could drastically improve its ridership by abandoning service to low-ridership areas and concentrating its service where ridership potential is high — which is what "running transit like a business" would mean.  Ridership goals also meet other goals important to many people, including maximum impact on reducing vehicle miles travelled, and maximum support (through high-intensity service) for the dense, walkable and attractive inner-urban redevelopment.

But coverage goals have powerful constituencies too, including outer-suburban areas that get little or no service when agencies pursue ridership goals, as well as people with severe needs — seniors, disabled, low-income, whose travel needs happen in places where high-ridership service is impossible.  

My approach to these issues as a consultant is never to brush aside coverage goals through a mantra like "run transit like a business," but rather to start by being clear exactly why most transit is not run like a business, and coverage goals, enforced by elected officials, are one major reason.  I then encourage communities and ultimately transit boards to form clear policies on how much of their budget they want to devote to coverage, so that the rest can be devoted to chasing ridership unequivocally.

Like many slogans, "running transit like a business" can sound like just good management, but it is actually a strongly ideological stance that values some transit outcomes (low subsidy, environmental benefits) over others (social service needs, equity for all parts of the region that pay taxes to it). 

If an elected board chooses that path, and understands what it's sacrificing, then fantastic: I'm ready to help "run transit like a business."  But if an elected board decides that transit needs to be pursuing goals other than ridership — as practically all of them in the US and Canada do — I'm equally ready to help with that.  Most of all, I recommend having a clear conversation about what goal the agency is pursuing with each part of its budget.  The key is to notice that these are different goals, that both reflect valid government purposes, and elected officials have to choose how to divide their resources, and staff effort, between these competing goals.  

(My professional approach to this issue is explained in Chapter 10 of my book Human Transit, and here).

Again, what's most impressive about Aesch is that even in a city where transit plays a minor role, he refused to let the transit agency be forced to subsidize the needs of other agencies without their financial participation.  Crucial, this required credibly threatening not to serve these agencies' needs.  Many transit agencies I've known in similar cities simply have not had the management culture — or elected board — that was ready to be that forceful. 

But simply cutting low-ridership services is a value judgment, not a technical decision.  It reflects a community's about the community's view about why it runs transit.  In an ideal democracy, making those decisions is not the task of managers or consultants.  It's what we pay elected officials for.  

slippery word watch: commute

When journalists reach for a word meaning "transit riders" or "constituents of transit" they often seize on the word commuter.  

Definitions of to commute (in its transportation sense) vary a bit.  Webster says it means  "to travel back and forth regularly (as between a suburb and a city)."  Some other definitions (e.g. Google) suggest that commuting  is specifically about travel to work or (sometimes) school.  The core meaning seems to be a trip made repeatedly, day after day.

But in practice, this meaning tends to slip into two other meanings.  As with most slippery words, confusion between these meanings can exclude important possibilities from our thinking.    

One the one hand, the meaning is often narrowed to "travel back and forth during the peak period or 'rush hour.'"  This narrowing arises from the inevitable fact that most people engaged in policy conversations — especially in government, business, and some academia — have jobs that lead them to commute at these times.  What's more, many people who are happy to be motorists often care about transit only during the peak period, when it might help with the problem of congestion. Reducing the meaning of commute to "rush hour commute" narrows the transportation problem to match these people's experience of it. 

Of course, cities, and especially transit systems, are full of people traveling to and from work/school at other times, most obviously in the service sector (retail, restaurants) but also in complex lives that mix work, school, and other commitments.  But these trips, even if made regularly, are quietly and subconsciously excluded from the category of commutes, when the term is used to mean only "rush hour commuter."

There's nothing wrong with talking about rush hour commute trips, of course.  They're an important category that must be discussed, but I am always careful to call them peak commutes. The problem arises when commute can mean either the narrow category of peak trips or the larger category of all regularly repeated travel.   That's the essence of a slippery word, and the danger is higher because this slip is exclusionary.  When the word is used in a sense that is narrower than its definition, large numbers of people are being unconsciously excluded from the category it defines, and thus from our thinking about that category.

The word commute can also slip in the other direction, becoming broader than its literal meaning.  It's common to see the word commute used as a one-word marker meaning "movement within cities."  The excellent Atlantic Cities website, for example, uses "Commute" as the name of its section on urban movement in general.  This, presumably, is also what the New York Times means when it refers to San Francisco's BART system as a "commuter train."  BART runs frequently all day, all evening, and all weekend, serving many purposes other than the journey to work or school, so its effect on urban life is much broader than just its commuting role.  When a word's meaning slips to a broader one, it can falsely signal that the broad category is actually no bigger than the narrow one — in this case that all urban travel is just regular trips to work or school.  This takes our eye off the remarkable diversity of urban travel demands, and the much more complex ways that movement is imbedded in all aspects of urban life.

So commute – and the category word commuter — refers technically to a regularly repeated trip, usually for work or school.  But in journalism, and in the public conversation, it's constantly being either broadened to mean urban movement in general, or narrowed to mean "rush-hour commuter."

What can you do?  Be careful.  When you mean "regularly repeated trips," say commutes.  When you mean "regularly repeated trips at rush hour", say peak commutes or rush hour commutes.  When you mean "all travel at rush hour, regardless of purpose or regularity," say the peak or rush hour.  When you mean "all urban mobility or access," speak of urban access or mobility.

Any linguist will tell you that the slippage in word meanings — especially their tendency to slide to broader meanings or narrower ones — is a normal feature of the evolution of language.  I have no illusions that this process can be stopped.  But when we're having public conversations, slippery word usages are the most common way that strong claims to hegemony or exclusion can hide inside reasonable-sounding statements — often hiding even from the person speaking them.  Learn to recognize slippery words (see my category Words, Unhelpful) and look for them, especially in journalism. 

Yet another reason, by the way, to hire literature students!