Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Free Transit Attracts Riders and Helps Communities in More Ways Than One
Mountain Line
In January, Missoula, Montana’s transit agency, Mountain Line, began a three-year, “zero-fare” demonstration project on its fixed-route and door-to-door services, meaning boarding passengers no longer pay to use the bus.

Implementing a zero-fare system was part of a larger transit improvement package that includes late-night service on its four most popular routes, increased frequency on key routes, and more door-to-door service to help senior and disabled residents.

The demonstration project costs $460,000 per year to operate. The University of Missoula and the city are its biggest funders, annually contributing $205,000 and $100,000 respectively. The balance is made up of 12 other community partners, including Missoula County, the metropolitan planning organization, hospitals and medical centers, public schools, the department for aging, downtown and parking associations, a shopping mall, and an affordable-housing provider.

According to a 2012 Transportation Research Board (TRB) report, Missoula is one of more than 35 communities in the United States that have implemented fare-free public transit systems. Mountain Line cites its inspiration as Corvallis, Oregon, where the Corvallis Transit System ridership grew by 37.9 percent in its first year of fare-less operation.

Mountain Line is aiming a bit higher. It serves just under one million bus riders each year and hopes to grow its ridership by 45 percent within three years. This would be an annual ridership increase of 400,000 or 1.4 million riders by the end of three years.

According to Bill Pfeiffer, Mountain Line’s community outreach coordinator, “In June 2015, just our 6th month of zero-fare service, we gave 50 percent more rides than in June of 2014. Before this February, Mountain Line had never broken the 100,000 ride barrier. We’ve broken 100,000 rides every month since, setting ridership records in every month of 2015. As of July 31st, overall ridership has already increased 26 percent from the previous year, and for the first time ever, our ridership increased during the summer months.”
MountainLineRidershipMthly Graph
Overall, throughout the country, zero-fare systems have resulted in many benefits, including:

  • Lower administrative costs: The costs associated with charging and collecting fares, like acquiring fare boxes, issuing various tickets (transfer passes and monthly passes, for example) and enforcing the payment of fares.
  • Savings in travel time: With no fares to collect, passengers can board more quickly. Less time spent at the stops (known in planning lingo as “dwell time”), in turn, helps reduce travel time.
  • Fuller buses: As current customers ride more often, ridership in the off-peak hours increases.
  • Improved quality of life: Reductions in traffic yield less pollution and congestion, improving overall health and quality of life.
  • Enhanced community pride: More than just an amenity, having fare-free transit service is a source of community pride. It has even helped communities earn recognition, like state and national awards as “best places to live.” Missoula Mayor John Engen called the fare-free service “a feather in the community’s cap.”
  • Modal shift: Up to 30 percent of the additional trips generated from operating with no fares come from people switching from other motorized modes. This is really significant because in my experience, transportation planners seem to always be talking about attracting “choice riders,” that is, riders who can afford to drive but choose to use other modes like transit. Typical suggestions center around providing nicer buses or more amenities at transit stops, but I’ve never heard anyone suggest offering reduced fares, let alone free ones. Isn’t it ironic that the way to entice those who have money to use transit is to offer them free service?
  • Transit equity: By removing the fare requirement, transit service becomes accessible to everyoneregardless of income. I have heard of transit systems providing reduced fares for their low-income residents. To qualify, a person must submit documentation to prove their income falls below the stated threshold and must provide verification of income periodically to remain eligible for the subsidy. Just think about the bureaucracy this generates and the humiliation for the recipient. A fare-free system disposes of all of this.
  • Improved transit image: According to Mountain Line, “When zero-fare community bus services are properly funded and maintained, the image of the buses changes from being the clunky transportation choice of last resort to the service that connects all elements of the community and provides equal opportunity to access all that a community offers.”
  • Increased productivity of public investment: With zero-fare, the funding per passenger drops significantly and the effectiveness and productivity of public investments in transit are enhanced.
  • Increased support from bus operators: Bus operators are reportedly very supportive of zero-fare policies in almost all locations where such service exists. Not having to collect and enforce fares frees them to answer passengers’ questions and focus on safe bus operation.
So with all these benefits, why don’t all transit agencies operate fare free? According to the TRB, fare-free public transit makes the most sense for systems in which the percentage of fare-box revenue-to-operating expenses is low.
Free Bus
Charleston, South Carolina launched a free bus service in 2013
The TRB found that the three types of communities most likely to adopt a fare-free policy are:

  • rural and small urban
  • university dominated, and
  • resort communities.

Although a small number of public transit systems in larger urban areas experimented with offering some version of fare-free service over the years (from Denver, Colorado in 1979 to San Francisco, California in 2008), finding a source of funds to replace their substantial fare-box revenues proved too difficult. In fact, as of 2012, no public transit system in the United States with more than 100 buses offered fare-free service.

So fare-free transit systems clearly work in communities of the right size and type. Given the numerous benefits, it seems worthwhile for larger communities to explore or revisit the possibilities for going fare free in whole or at least in part.

So, for example, a city may find that going fare-free during the off-peak hours effectively attracts ridership during that time, increasing the productivity of the service and perhaps drawing riders to the peak hours as well.

Similarly, a community may want to experiment with fare-free service for a limited time – like a month – as a way to attract more riders in the long run. May is National Bike Month, so why can’t another month be National Transit Month? That could be a period to give fare-free a try.

Being from the Northeast, I would nominate one of the winter months, when people may not want to deal with the hassles of driving in the cold and snow.

In what ways do you think zero-fare systems would help or hurt public transportation’s overall good to society?

Photos and graphic courtesy of Mountain Line and North Charleston.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Does Chicago’s Elevated “L” Get the Fundamentals of Transit Right? 

Chicago L art
I was passing through Chicago en route to Missouri to attend my niece’s high-school graduation.

As I had a layover of several hours between my flight’s arrival in Chicago and my Amtrak train to Missouri, I thought I would take the “L” downtown to visit The Art Institute of Chicago, then walk over to the Amtrak station.
Chicago L

The “L” is Chicago’s downtown train system, so named because its first legs were “elevated” above the streets. Today, according to the Chicago Transit Authority, the “L’s” 224.1 miles of track run above ground, in subway tunnels and tubes, as well as at-grade or in-expressway medians.

My trip began at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Clear signage and a long series of moving sidewalks with colored neon lights and a huge mural made the walk from my plane to the “L” enjoyable.

Arriving at the “L” station, I easily found the transit-system map to orient myself. No worries there, as a transit officer was on hand freely offering assistance to riders. I double-checked with him that the Monroe Station was closest to the Art Institute. The fare machine was easy to use, just a two-step process – select your type of ticket or pass and then pay.

The 40-minute, 18-mile ride from the airport to the downtown Monroe station cost $5 (and curiously, just $3 for the return trip).

I found an “L” train on the platform clearly marked “blue line” and was able to confirm I was headed in the right direction as its terminus, Forest Park, was marked on the car. The car was clean, with sufficient seating, even as the train took on more passengers approaching downtown. A route map over the doorway clearly identified all the stops on the line so I could rest easy knowing where I was and how many more stations I had to go.

The automated announcements on the train were clear and informative. Announcements of the next stop, any transfer opportunities, and which doors of the train would open make it very easy for any English-speaking rider to know where to go next. Also I figured that the lack of inflection in the automated voice would be easy for a regular rider to tune out.

The “L” as Part of Downtown’s Transportation System

Chicago skylineChicago Divvy

The “L” is just one part of downtown Chicago’s transportation system. I cannot speak to the city’s bus system, but I can say that anyone looking to get around by bike will find ample opportunity. Divvy, Chicago’s Bike Share System has numerous stations downtown.

The city also offers a lot of bicycle parking distributed across the downtown. On the sunny day I walked around the city, almost all the racks were full.
Chicago bike lanes
Chicago also features two-way bike lanes with bike signals at intersections. I didn’t see much use of them. As so many bikes were parked, I figured I must have missed the bike-travel peak. I am skeptical about how adequately these lanes can meet bike travel demand. They looked awfully narrow to me.

I also wondered how easy they would be to navigate around downtown, especially when traveling against vehicular traffic.

Walking downtown is pleasurable for the most part, given its pedestrian-friendly scale, ample sidewalks, and safe crosswalks. One exception is by the waterfront when crossing Lakeshore Drive, a six to eight-lane highway which is part of US 41. Auto movement clearly dominates here and pedestrian crossings are limited. However, once on the waterfront, one can enjoy the 18-mile Lakefront Trail.

My Verdict

My transportation experience in downtown Chicago was positive. I was very satisfied with my trips on the “L,” in particular. While I can’t comment on the comprehensiveness of the network or the pricing, having traveled just one leg of the system, I can say that during my brief usage, the “L” provided:

  • Chicago artReliable service: I never had to wait for a train
  • Clear communication: good signage and maps, user-friendly fare machines, understandable announcements on trains, and courteous transit staff, and
  • Comfort for passengersclean stations and cars, and adequate seating.

These are key elements, fundamental to any transit system. No bells or whistles required.

I do have a couple of criticisms of downtown Chicago’s Transportation system though.

First, intermodal connections could be better. The “L” does not stop at the Amtrak station (Union Station). The closest one is Clinton Station, two blocks south. Considering passengers carrying luggage and inclement weather, two blocks can be a real inconvenience.

Second, I question the desirability of keeping the “L” elevated. It seems to me that putting the “L” underground, thus removing a massive and obtrusive infrastructure from the streetscape, would lead to a much more pleasurable pedestrian experience in downtown.

I noted during my visit that I avoided walking along the streets of the “L” tracks as they felt dark, closed in, and generally uninviting. And that was on a sunny day. I can only imagine how they feel on an overcast day.

I would venture to guess that undergrounding the “L” in its current location or nearby would be a boon to the businesses along its tracks. And what about using the “L” in bad weather? Wouldn’t it be preferable to be underground than exposed to wind, rain or snow?

Regular riders of the “L,” is this a fair assessment? What is your experience with the system? How do you feel about having elevated trains? Do you see it as integral to downtown Chicago?

Photos by Monique Wahba

Friday, May 8, 2015

London and Stockholm Boldly Reimagine Bicycle Commuting 

bY monique wahba for mobility lab - MAY 8, 2015

recently compared two approaches to accommodating bicyclists and pedestrians in cities: separation (through protected bike lanes) and integration (through the modern woonerf).

How are some of these approaches working in London, England and Stockholm, Sweden?

London’s Possibilities

I came across three different schemes either being considered or built to accommodate the growing number of cyclists in London (where bicyclists are said to account for 25 percent of all rush-hour traffic in the central city) and address bike safety concerns (particularly collisions with trucks). Interestingly, all proposals would remove the cyclist from the street.

The first concept is a floating bikeway along the Thames known as the “Thames Deckway” (pictured above), which would hug the southern bank of the river for nearly eight miles and reduce cross-city commuting time by 30 minutes.

At first I thought this was quite inventive and envisioned it becoming a tourist attraction. But as I thought more about it, I wondered how this bikeway would connect with the larger citywide street network. Then thinking of riding along a bikeway that rises and falls with the tide, I questioned whether I would actually enjoy the experience or feel a little seasick.

The next concept I came across, called the “London Underline,” would convert abandoned subway (“tube”) tunnels into bike and pedestrian paths lined with cafes, creating a subterranean street life. Further, each path would be surfaced with kinetic paving, which would use the impact of walking and the friction from bike tires to generate electricity.

Very out-of-the-box. I was definitely intrigued by this idea, even enthusiastic about it at first, but then questions came to mind. First, how would I get my bike underground? What would it be like to ride down there? I don’t like indoor malls, as they lack natural lighting and fresh air. Would I really want to ride in an underground bikeway? Then, how would I get above ground again and would the effort to submerge and re-emerge be worth it? From the conversation trail in one of my transportation groups on LinkedIn, I saw that my sentiments were shared by fellow bicyclists. They too enjoy being outdoors, noting that feeling the elements is definitely part of the cycling experience.

The third scheme is for an elevated bike path called “SkyCycle,” a 136-mile, three-story-high network of bike paths with 200 access points following existing rail lines. According to British architect Norman Foster, it is “a lateral approach to finding space in a congested city.”


Before casting this idea off as something too futuristic, take a look at the Hovenring in the Dutch city of Eindhoven. This is a cyclist roundabout which hovers over a major highway intersection. It’s been likened to a flying saucer and is credited as a new landmark for the city.


Pros and Cons of Separating Cyclists

Now, what do all these schemes have in common? They all propose completely separating the cyclist from other modes and from the street altogether. There are benefits to this approach. Surely, total segregation of cyclists removes the possibility of crashes with cars and trucks, not to mention crashes between cyclists and pedestrians, thus improving safety considerably.

Further, there is good reason to provide facilities for exclusive bike use, namely to push the limits of the bicycle trip. Let’s face it, a lot of bike trips are short not because people don’t want to ride farther but because a safe infrastructure isn’t in place to accommodate a longer trip. There’s some barrier like a large intersection or highway which defines the limits of the bicycle trip. Remove those barriers and longer trips are possible.

However, there are downsides. One for the cyclist is ease of accessibility. I think how convenient it is for me now to run errands on my bike whether dropping off books at the library (I can ride right up to the return slot) or stopping at a local convenience store. No hassles with parking. No guilt over gas wasted over stop-and-go trips.

Another disadvantage for the cyclist is being separated from the street life, no longer having spontaneous interactions with people or being able to notice changes in the community like new displays in store windows. The community loses as well, as cyclists add to the mix, which creates a vibrant street life.

The Latest in London

The latest bicycle-related news I read out of London was a plan to create four “Cycle Superhighways.” These will be continuous, wide, protected bikeways crossing nine boroughs, according to Transport for London, will “help cycling become an integral part of London’s transport network.” When completed, it will be the longest “urban cycle lane” in Europe, carrying cyclists through the heart of the city and to some of its most famous landmarks. In this plan, bicyclists are actually on the street but safely separated from cars by a curb.

Yes, London actually traded car space for bike space. This seems to offer both the mobility to make longer trips and the accessibility to reach desired destinations. The route is expected to open in 2016.

Going Car-Free in Stockholm

Contrast London’s separatist approach with Stockholm’s integrative one. As described in a recent CityLab article, Stockholm is moving to become a car-free city, motivated by the idea that removing cars will enhance the city’s livability. This takes the concept of Vision Zero, which originated in Sweden with a focus on reducing traffic deaths to zero, further, broadening its objective from safety to livability.

Stockholm is well suited for walking because of its large medieval downtown scaled to the pedestrian. These streets are free of cars. In 2004, the city wanted to make a street outside this core area car-free. It was reportedly very controversial with pushback from businesses, but city officials did it anyway. They simply closed the street to cars and found that more people came and shopped.

The Swedes feel that going car-free creates economic benefit, namely that the property market is driven by walkability. Even more importantly, they feel it creates an enhanced quality of life that is quieter, cleaner, and safer for people of all ages. In the below short from Streetfilms, a mother interviewed enjoys the fact that she feels comfortable allowing her kids to play in the car-free streets. A young woman comfortably bikes all around the city with her lap dog in her basket. A New Yorker notes that walking in Stockholm is “fun, social, and safe.” Another person comments that safety comes from an environment in which negotiation with others is the norm. He goes on to explain that such negotation can only occur at speeds under 18.6 miles per hour – “when people start to see each other as humans and have the time necessary to react to things.”

In 2010, Stockholm adopted a plan called The Walkable City (PDF), which “promotes sustainability, livability, and, above all, a more people-friendly place.” Consistent with that plan is the Slussen Project, set to be completed in 2021. Like London’s schemes, it is a big infrastructure project. The key difference is that instead of removing bikes from the street, the Slussen Project will remove cars and create more direct connections for bicyclists and pedestrians.


Two growing European capital cities, two very different approaches. Sure, there are cultural differences. But no doubt London’s greater population density (5,206 people per square kilometer versus Stockholm’s 4,600 people) and 1.25 percent faster population growth explain a lot.

What is most exciting, however, is the heightened attention to cyclists, and the willingness to tradeoff auto access, lanes, or parking to safely accommodate them at project scales otherwise unknown, at least in the United States.

- See more at: http://mobilitylab.org/2015/05/08/london-and-stockholm-boldly-reimagine-bicycle-commuting/#sthash.Ptf4N8Ko.dpuf

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Seemingly Little Things Make D.C. Transit Too Difficult

by Monique wahba for mobility lab - mARCH 24, 2015
Confused on Metro
I recently flew down to Washington D.C. to attend a friend’s wedding in Rockville, Maryland. With trains, planes, and automobiles involved, surely, I thought, there would be something to write about.
My flights were thankfully uneventful. With nothing more than a carry-on, electronic check-in at Albany International Airport was a breeze. The machines were easy to use and took no time at all. The line through security moved fairly quickly too, despite the now-familiar ritual of removing outerwear and shoes and passing through the body scanner.
Finding the Metro was easy once I landed in Washington, thanks to a helpful airport attendant who pointed me in the right direction and good signage that took me the rest of the way. Having googled the Metro map on the plane, I walked confidently toward the station figuring I needed to take the Red Line to my destination, Grosvenor. Plus, I thought, I’ve navigated subway systems before in New York City, Paris, London, and Montreal, how hard could it be?
I was therefore surprised by what I encountered at the Metro station. First, I couldn’t find a Metro map to confirm my route, so I inquired at the ticket window. The attendant – in quick, somewhat-garbled speech and an unfriendly tone – told me I needed to catch the Yellow Line then transfer to the Red, and added that the fare would be $6.55 – pointing at the fare machine.
Annoyed by his manner and puzzled by the transfer, which I had missed on my smartphone, I asked him to repeat his directions. This was partly to confirm I got the information right and partly out of a misguided belief that if he was asked to say it again, he would speak slowly, clearly, and courteously. Did I mention this was a misguided belief? Getting nowhere with the attendant, I headed to the fare machine.
Holy smokes! I couldn’t believe what I saw.
This was the mother of all fare machines. I had never seen anything so massive, complicated, and unfriendly. It contained so much information, I just stood there trying to absorb it all. The numbers on the machine implied that just three steps were required to purchase a ticket, but let me share with you how it actually worked:
Step 1: Select the kind of fare to purchase – pass, single-fare card, or multiple-fare card. Okay, easy enough.
Step 2: Enter your fare amount. But how do you know your fare?
Step 3: Find your stop from the list of 91 on the machine (at least they are in alphabetical order).
Step 4: Look in the appropriate column to the right of your station to determine whether you are traveling at peak or off-peak hours. But how do you know what peak hours are?
Step 5: Search for peak versus off-peak hours on the machine.
Step 6: Once you’ve found that, return to the list of stations, find yours, and identify the appropriate fare.
Step 7: With fare in mind, come to an electronic window that displays “$20.00″ and use the levers (left for dollars, right for cents) to manually adjust the price in the window to your fare. First, when have you ever seen levers on a machine? Second, when have you ever had to input the cost of your fare?
Step 8: Still with me? I was losing it at this point. I just stepped back and stared at the machine again, incredulous that there could possibly be more to do. The unfriendly ticket agent came over, breaking my daze, and pointed to the next step: Entering the method of payment. I used a credit card that was readily accepted (sure, they make taking the money easy) and my ticket was finally issued!
Contrast this vending machine with those of Portland, Oregon’s TriMet light rail.
Now I haven’t actually used this machine, but just look at it – the simplicity, the clear indication of the three steps involved reinforced by the color scheme. This at least looks user-friendly. (I would, however, not include the system map on the fare machine. I think it’s better to have transit riders consult the system map first, then purchase tickets once they know where they are going. This should help prevent holdups at the fare machine.)
Ticket in hand, I finally headed on my way and, of course, only after passing through the automatic gate to the tracks did I see a Metro map and could finally confirm the Yellow to Red Line connection.
If you think I am exaggerating in relating my experience, check out YouTube, where you’ll find clips of people either venting their frustrations with the fare machines or offering a friendly “how to” on navigating the D.C. Metro. Interestingly, in one “how to,” a woman first tries to explain the fare machine and only later introduces the system map. Go figure?
Here’s one example:
Over the course of the weekend, I used the Metro a couple more times – to return from the National Mall and to head back to the airport to catch my flight home. These experiences were good. I was very pleased that each train arrived in a matter of minutes, even on a Sunday, and that I always found a seat.
Still, the information provided on the trains themselves could have been better. The outside of each train is marked by its color and final or near-final destination, such as “Red – Grosvenor,” so you can feel confident you are getting on the right train. Inside the trains, there are electronic signs hanging from the ceiling by each set of doors. These simply give the color of the train, such as “Red.”
How much more helpful would it have been if, instead, these signs announced the approaching stop and, even better, with audio too. I suggest this because 1.) the conductor’s announcement of the stops is incomprehensible (this, by the way, is not a problem exclusive to D.C.), and 2.) all the stops on the Metro (to be fair, at least the ones I experienced on the Yellow and Red lines), all look alike. (Thankfully, the new advertising screens I noticed at some stops are adding variety.)
Frankly, as the transit agency of our nation’s capital – a city drawing millions of tourists each year – I expected much better from Metro.
First encounters matter. If we want people to choose options like trains and buses, we need to make using them easy and pleasant from start to finish. This starts with good maps, directional signage, user-friendly fare vending machines, and good communication during the course of the trip. And let’s not underestimate the human touch – the value of friendly and helpful transit staff in leaving the patron with a positive impression even when, despite the best planning, things fail.
Photo by Aaron Webb

Friday, March 6, 2015

We Need to Ask More Questions About How We Move Through Places

by Monique wahba for mobility lab - MARCH 6, 2015
Pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars regularly cohabitate on the economically lively Commercial Street in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
There appears to be two lines of thinking about bicyclists and pedestrians in the modal mix.
On the one hand, there is a growing movement for separated bicycle facilities – not just bike lanes but ones with a physical barrier offering true separation from automobile traffic.
On the other hand, there is the idea of the “woonerf,” which has been around for a while now but keeps coming up again, taking slightly different form. In its most recent iteration, the woonerf would get rid of all barriers amongst modes, pedestrians included. Yes, in this scheme, even curbs would be eliminated.
So which is it – are our multiple modes better off separated or together?
Clearly, the answer isn’t so simple, as we must consider two different kinds of spaces – travel corridors and activity nodes.
In the former, the emphasis is on movement. In New York City, advocacy for separated bikeways touts their potential to increase the speed of both cars and bicyclists while ensuring the safety of both.
Contrast that against activity nodes in which the emphasis is on interaction. There’s a lot to absorb in places with pedestrians, sidewalk cafes, attractive store windows, the corner guitarist, and the smell of a nearby bakery. Bicyclists and autos are part of the mix. The theory behind the woonerf is that eliminating all guidance (signage would be removed) and barriers (like curbs) forces everyone to be on a heightened state of vigilance, resulting in the environment being more safe.
Woonerf in Vistoria, British Columbia
A good example of a “woonerf” in Victoria, British Columbia.
Okay, now it’s time for me to weigh in. As a cyclist, I really like the idea of separated bikeways. For one thing, I think higher volume roadways are safer when boundaries are clearly delineated between modes. In an era of distractions, from car radios to smart phones, and a delusional belief in our ability to “multitask,” I like predictability of separated facilities – every mode in its place. In addition, the ability to move faster helps give cycling a competitive edge against driving and thus makes it an even more viable and attractive mode. The car may still get you there faster, but with the bicycle, you don’t have the hassle or expense of parking.
As for the woonerf treatment, thinking of Commercial Street in Provincetown, Massachusetts (not some quiet residential street), I am uncomfortable removing all barriers.
If the aim is to slow cars to a pedestrian speed, why not eliminate them entirely and create an auto-free zone?
I think it’s risky enough traveling in busy centers with signage and curbs. As a pedestrian, I feel safe walking along the sidewalks but more anxious when it’s time to cross the street.
With all the activity going on, will cars stop at traffic lights?
Will they yield at unsignalized pedestrian crossings?
At the same time, it’s stressful being a motorist, or even a cyclist in places like these.
Will someone dart out midblock?
Will I manage to get through the congestion safely?
Our urban spaces aren’t all created equal and therefore needed tailored strategies to create a safe environment for everyone. What strategies we select will depend on the right-of-way available and the tradeoffs we are willing to make. If the right-of-way can accommodate wide sidewalks, separated bikeways, and vehicular traffic, then we can achieve both separation and safety. If, on the other hand, it cannot, which is the more common scenario, then tradeoffs need to be made.
Give up on-street parking for protected bike lanes?
Or eliminate cyclists from the roadway altogether and move them to a parallel street?
Good questions to spur community dialogue.
Photos by Dylan Passmore and Joe Shlabotnik

Friday, February 20, 2015

5 Ways Our Transportation Vocabulary Makes Absolutely No Sense

by monique wahba for mobility lab - FEBRUARY 20, 2015
Crazy words
Planners (myself included) love to bemoan our society’s over-reliance on the automobile.
We attribute it to misguided-land use policies that promote sprawl, and funding biases that direct more money toward paving roads than expanding transit service. We even acknowledge that we are up against a “car culture” or “America’s love affair with the automobile” which elevates the car as the preferred form of transportation through advertising and other media.
But our cultural relationship with transportation goes deeper than that. Our very language is not only car-centric but, at best, uninspired toward other modes, and at worst, demeaning.
  1. Take for example, the word “drive.” Consulting the dictionary, aside from operating a vehicle, as a verb it can mean, “to frighten or prod into moving into a desired direction,” as in “drivingcattle;” “to carry on energetically,” as in “driving a hard bargain;” and “to compel to undergo a change in emotional state,” as in “drivingsomeone crazy.” As a noun, the word is equally powerful. It can describe a strong and sustained effort or move, from a fundraising drive, to an offensive drive in football, to a full-blown military attack. And let’s not forget sexual. No explanation needed there. The noun can also be used to describe people, and in terms just as strong. If someone has drive, he or she has determination, ambition or motivation or displays initiative. Who wouldn’t want to associate themselves with that word?
  2. All that power in the word “drive” and yet how much energy does it take to depress an accelerator pedal? Contrast that with the effort needed to bicycle. Yet we say we “ride” a bicycle. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Aren’t we riding cars anddriving bicycles? The word “bicycle” itself does little to embolden this form of transportation. Thankfully “bike” has some bite. I bet you didn’t know that definitions of “bike” include “a nest of wild bees, wasps or hornets” or “a crowd or swarm of people?” Mass, energy, communication … now we’re getting somewhere.
  3. Turning to “transit,” we find it defined first as “passage,” “change,” or “transition,” and second as the “conveyance of persons or things.” But doesn’t transit do more than “convey?” Doesn’t it provide the opportunity to “connect” – on one level from place to place, but on another, with one’s fellow passengers? Isn’t the lack of connection what prompted the development of Facebook and similar social-network sites? In that case, shouldn’t we have Facebus? It seems we’d rather connect over the internet than truly “face-to-face.”
  4. Of course, this transportation lexicon would not be complete without one term. It describes us all as individuals. Yet despite our numbers, it is not only the weakest of all the words, it is downright demeaning. How can we be expected to walk about proudly as “pedestrians” when its first definitions are “commonplace” and “unimaginative?” “Walker” isn’t much better. I thought it only took on a negative connotation when preceded by “street,” but just learned that another definition of “walker” is “a temporary male escort of socially prominent women.” So the term really doesn’t serve either sex. The only other synonyms to “walk” I know of are “perambulate” or “ambulate.” However, they are so close to “ambulatory,” typically used to describe whether someone can even walk, that it’s clearly an unacceptable substitute.
  5. Maybe we should just call ourselves “automobiles.” After all, the term is just a compounding of “aut” (self) with “mobile” (move). Now wouldn’t that be something?
Photo by Thomas Hawk