Transportation for the masses

October 7th, 2012

I’ve always been kind of offended by the term ‘mass transit’. I can’t think of the last time I felt personally identified with something I would call a mass. The application of the word ‘mass’ to a group of people is almost always belittling if not derogatory. In fact, here are the very first two quotes I found with the word ‘mass’:

Religion is the opiate of the masses” – Karl Marx

No one in this world has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.” – H. L. Mencken

These are not glowing descriptions of people.

I saw on SORTA’s site recently that Jill Dunne was recognized by Mass Transit Magazine as an outstanding person under forty making a difference in public transit. I was a little put off by the name of the magazine but read the article anyway because Jill is actually pretty darn cool. I’ll add to the article: she’s also responsible for pushing SORTA to publish their GTFS data, allowing me and others access to accurate and up to date geospatial and schedule information. Anyway!

Mass Transit Magazine

Jill Dunne recognized by Mass Transit Magazine

They don’t use the word once outside of their title! I suspect they founded the magazine years ago and now realize it’s outmoded, but can’t change the name. But seriously, what do we mean when we say “mass transit”?

Mass: 1. A quantity of matter cohering together so as to make one body, or an aggregation of particles or things which collectively make one body or quantity, usually of considerable size; as, a mass of ore, metal, sand, or water.

2. A large quantity; a sum

I had a debate with a streetcar supporter recently who insisted that his use of the term was correct by the second definition. I insisted that the first definition was primary, and that anyway, transit does not move masses here. It moves a fairly small minority; last I heard, SORTA was doing ~60,000 trips a day, thus likely transporting half that many people(two legs to any one trip). There are more than 2,000,000 people in the region, making that ~3% traveling by transit on a given day. Masses? Hardly. Cars are mass transit here by the second definition. Let’s look at the etymology:

In late Middle English (circa 1400) as masse in the sense of ‘lump, quantity of matter’….The sense of “a large number or quantity” arises circa 1580. The scientific sense is from 1704, due to Isaac Newton

When we assert that buses are “mass” transit, we imply that their passengers–ourselves, our friends, our neighbors–become indistinguishable  upon boarding. They become of a mass or lump. This is how car-people see bus people. This is how bike people see car-people(or at least how I do!). In car-people construction, cars, by being distinct from mass are for individuals, the bus for that lumpen proletariat. Is that any way to talk about people? Can anyone effectively advocate for better transportation for all people if one mode is for individuals and the other for masses? Would anyone identify as part of a mass, and thus see this as something for them?

I think you would be hard put to find another public agency that likes to refer to the people they serve as masses, unless you count the Mass Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County or the Cincinnati Metropolitan Mass Housing Authority. Never mind. Those don’t exist. No one in their right mind would use the word mass to describe their organization.

I’ll thank y’all to leave me my identity while I take the bus with the other humans ;-)

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