A reader writes with my favorite kind of question: one that contains its own answer. It's about 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.
As with many common phrases, there is some truth to it. Transit is designed for the community as a whole. It is built based on expectations of how large numbers of people will want to move around. By its very nature, it will never compete with the automobile in its ability to tailor itself to the wants and needs of the individual.
But if we are trying to convince people to become less dependent on the automobile and support transit, the phrase "mass transit" is unhelpful. People want to feel as though the service is catering to them as an individual. They want to feel like they count. And "mass transit" says to them clearly that they do not.
Private corporations are intensely aware of this basic human desire. They operate according to the same laws of large-scale industrial economics and its resulting uniformity. But they offer just enough variation to provide the illusion of a product that is customized to the individual. At Starbucks you can order a nonfat Vanilla Latte with a shot of hazelnut, and comfort yourself with the notion that it is "your" drink. I believe there are over 100,000 permutations of drink combinations you can order at Starbucks, most of which are essentially the same drink with minor variations. When you order a laptop, you can "customize" it to your specifications, despite the fact that your options are determined ahead of time and the manufacturing process is streamlined.
Large corporations are subject to the same limitations of industrial economics as public transit: to provide a good/service to large quantities of people at a reasonable price, the uniqueness of the product as tailored to the customer must be compromised. But the private sector recognizes this handicap, and goes to great lengths to mask it in their product presentation.
I don't know if transit should make the same effort to avoid the appearance of being indiscriminate. But it should certainly avoid emphasizing it. And to that end, the term "mass transit" is quite unhelpful.
I agree completely. Nobody wants to be part of the masses. For the record, Webster's definition of mass as an adjective is:
There may be political contexts in which you want to invoke "mass" in the sense of "democratic power" (e.g. mass demonstration, mass movement) by using mass transit, but to my ear mass transit is more likely to invoke mass as in "average" or "commonplace." You also risk invoking the sense of the noun mass as used in physics, which suggests heaviness, and thus leads to connotations of manual effort that come with that other unhelpful word, the verb to transfer.
Some engineers do use mass transit to mean "high capacity transit" as opposed to lower-ridership kinds of transit. I use high capacity transit or high-patronage transit when that's what I mean. Somehow, I seem to get by without using the term mass transit, and you might consider whether you can, too.
Of course, you can always say human transit!