Another fine mass

One of Jarrett Walker’s readers objects to the term “mass transit”:

When I hear the word “mass” the first phrase that comes to mind is “mass marketing”. Other, worse examples: mass demonstrations, mass murder, mass destruction! In each case, the connotation of the word is of something that is indiscriminate. Something big in which the individual is lost and meaningless.

It doesn’t help that “mass” also reminds me of the “masses”, Karl Marx’s vaguely derogatory term for the proletariat who should silently accept the uniformity imposed by a communist state. [JW: I disagree with this reading of Marx, but it doesn't affect the reader's point.] The implications of that are even more unfortunate for transit.

Walker’s blog, it should be noted, is titled Human Transit.

Me, I’m thinking we could just call it “transit”; pretty much everyone already, I suspect, thinks of the term as meaning Something Other Than Cars. Subgroups already have their descriptors: rail transit, bus rapid transit, and so forth. However, I’m open to suggestion.



  1. Steve B »

    19 October 2009 · 3:17 pm

    Most buses don’t seem to run that full, most of the time, so they aren’t really carrying “masses” of people. But they are carrying the “masses”, so it’s really more of a proletariat kind of thing. They should call it prole transit, or something.

  2. fillyjonk »

    19 October 2009 · 3:23 pm

    If they called it that, then probably only self-conscious hipsters and Marxist academics would use it.

  3. Jarrett at »

    19 October 2009 · 4:10 pm

    Thanks for the trackback.

    Steve B. Transit ridership depends entirely on density. If you live in a low-density area, your buses are probably empty most of the time. But it’s certainly hard to find an empty bus in Manhattan, nor do most of the people riding them think of themselves as either proles or masses.

    We can use the word “transit” alone when the context is clear, and I suspect that as transit becomes more important the language will converge on that word. Unfortunately the word has other meanings in UK-derived cultures. For example, until recently, “Transit New Zealand” was the name of NZ’s road-building agency. (There’s also the astronomical meaning, e.g. “transit of Venus”.)

  4. McGehee »

    19 October 2009 · 5:55 pm

    I could have sworn the phrase “mass transit” had been dropped long ago, unless I’ve just been tuning it out in recent years.

    The replacement I seem to hear most is “public transit.” And since private-sector intra-city bus lines and passenger rail are pretty much history, the dividing line between public and private applies almost 1:1 to that between personal transportation and the macro-carpool model that used to be called “mass” transit.

  5. CGHill »

    19 October 2009 · 5:59 pm

    Passenger rail is actually on the rise hereabouts — there’s a daily run from OKC to Fort Worth and back — though I have my doubts that a proposed high(er)-speed line to Tulsa will ever come to fruition.

  6. Terry »

    20 October 2009 · 12:16 am

    What’s wrong with Public Transportation? That’s why I hear the most frequently.

  7. CGHill »

    20 October 2009 · 6:54 am

    Nothing wrong, except maybe that multiplicity of syllables.

    Perhaps this is one of those terms that has grown into regional variations (cf. submarine sandwich/hoagie/grinder/whatever).

  8. McGehee »

    20 October 2009 · 9:37 am

    Passenger rail is actually on the rise hereabouts

    Public, right?

    Private-sector passenger rail — other than for tourists — seems to have gone the way of the passenger pigeon.

  9. CGHill »

    20 October 2009 · 9:43 am

    It’s an Amtrak route, yes. After the formation of Amtrak, only half a dozen or so independent carriers were left, and they all were eventually assimilated into the, um, public option.

  10. McGehee »

    20 October 2009 · 7:22 pm

    they all were eventually assimilated into the, um, public option.

    That seems to happen a lot, I’ve noticed, where the government gets into an industry.

    But God forbid anyone suggest a cause-and-effect relationship.

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