I’ve been hearing the word “multi-modal” thrown around a bit carelessly lately. As in “Cincinnati needs a multi-modal transportation system” or “people want to be able to choose from multiple modes of transit”. I think this line of thinking has in many cases overshot it’s original intent and gone to a place that’s slightly harmful to a reasonable conception of the best way to supply transportation.

But first, what was the original intent? Multi-modal means that there is more than one “mode”. A mode here is meant to mean a vehicle type, such that a list of modes might read:

“Multi-modal” seems to have started1 as a critical term addressing car culture…”I think the airport needs to be accessible by multiple modes” would mean that it’s being accessible by only car is unacceptably limited.

It seems to have grown legs in some circles though. I’m not sure anyone would admit to holding the position I’m about to define, but I’m definitely sensing the word being used in this way by quite a few people locally and nationally: “Multi-modal” is starting to be applied to transit systems alone such that “Cincinnati needs a multi-modal transit system” means that Cincinnati should provide more choices than buses to people using the transit system. It means that subways should be provided and perhaps also streetcars so as to improve “choice” and “provide more options”.

The analogy between the first definition and the second is subtle but disturbing. Cars and buses are different in kind while buses and streetcars are different in degree. In the first case, the car “mode” is owned exclusively by and fully directed by the user, while the bus is not. Streetcars and buses though are merely variations on a theme: the concept of public transit.

Streetcars and buses may be apples and oranges, but buses and cars are apples and…cars. The first are both fruit, different though they may superficially be.

Cars and bicycles are a closer analogy. We might even include walking in there. In any case, the traveler owns and controls the means fully. It’s not a shared vehicle with a set path, but one that can go any which way the “driver” likes. It might be useful to say that if we can provide access to bicycles, it would be good also to provide access by car and by foot as well. Whatever we’re talking about is likely accessible to one if the other.

But to say that if we can provide access by bus then it would be better to provide access by bus and subway and streetcar doesn’t quite hold up as well in our case. I’m willing to say that this IS true in the case of intercity travel where travelling by plane can be a major but quick pain, travelling by train a deliciously slow luxury, and by bus a happy medium. In these cases, the differences between the vehicles are exaggerated by time and distance such that they become a difference of kind. A trip across the country by train is so different from a trip by plane that in the terms of subjective experience it can’t quite be compared. I’ve made many friends and even had a fling(!)2 on a train, but I almost never speak to people on a plane.

When we’re looking at local trips though the difference is not so great. If we’re trying to get from Downtown to Clifton Heights, the longest it could possibly take is 20 minutes including waiting time. At this scale our primary interest is speed rather than comfort. We’d barely get the seat warm on a five minute ride.

At the local scale, the position that vehicle choice is somehow choice itself seems to deny other much more important aspects of functional transit like

The nature of the vehicle itself (and really the difference is minor between a bus and a streetcar) is a consideration to be taken into account when the ability to make a trip to the place you want to go at a reasonable cost and at the time you want is already taken for granted. The consideration of comfort is secondary to functionality. I can prove this with the example of roller-coasters. They’re tremendously fun(comfort) but utterly useless as transit(practicality). A roller-coaster, move you though it might, is just not transit. To say that we need a multi-modal transit system, with multi-modality as a goal or objective itself, is to put the cart before the horse. It’s like saying we need to buy a whole bunch of kitchen equipment before we have any idea what we’ll be cooking.

One last analogy before I go to bed:

A coral reef is diverse, and that diversity makes it strong and resilient and even beautiful. But not a single one of the millions of parts of that system came about for those reasons. Each organism exists in it’s glorious eccentricity for the incredibly simple purpose of living. Whatever form each takes was the most contingent for it’s simple purpose. We need not set out to make clown fish, but merely trust that they will arise to surprise us if we pursue our simple purpose: effective transportation.


Show 2 footnotes

  1. at least in the context I’m concerned with here. I think it may have originated in freight transportation to refer to ships, planes, trains and trucks, particularly as they move shipping containers that are transferable easily between modes. Anyone care to check that for me?
  2. Could I claim to be a member of the “meter high club“? The trip between Chicago and St. Louis is never so memorable as when someone walks by in the lounge car, turns back to tell you you have beautiful eyes and you proceed to talk intimately for the next 7 hours because you’ll never see each other again…sigh….oh Matthew.
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