Long before getting involved in all this transport advocacy business I wasted the golden years of my youth studying for an arts degree. Useless as it has proven to be, I learned many fascinating tidbits of knowledge along the way. One of the most captivating -but unavailing- tidbits was the study of semantics and semiotics. As a quick introduction, semantics is the study of the meaningful information included in words and images, while semiotics is about the meaning we derive from symbols.(bear with me here, there is a transport related point to this).
The distinction between the two is tricky to grasp but actually quite important. Semantics convey new information inherent in the thing itself, while semiotics is about symbols that recall some information we already new. This is best illustrated with an example, let’s take McDonalds. I bet there is hardly a soul on earth that doesn’t know about McDonalds, or wouldn’t immediately recognise those Golden Arches. But the word “McDonalds” itself doesn’t actually mean “fast food restaurant”, it’s just a Scottish surname. And looking at the Golden Arches logo, there is no picture there of hamburgers or fries, just an M shaped abstraction in yellow and red. It’s purely semiotic, purely symbolic. In both cases the word and the image are just symbols that unlock knowledge we already know, knowledge that those symbols mean nasty but ubiquitous junk food.
On the other hand, a sign saying “Char Grilled Burgers” is the opposite, purely semantic. We can read the words and know that the place sells burgers done on the grill, even if we have never seen the sign before. In fact, we could take in that information even if we’d never seen those words in that combination before.
So what does this have to do with transport I hear you ask? Well, what I’m getting at is the word transport itself, or more specifically the words “public transport”. While it’s a pair of words I must utter dozens of times a day, I hate them. Useless. They’re too damned semiotic, and for all the wrong reasons.
Let’s look at those words independently. Public…Transport. What does that really mean, and is it actually an appropriate turn of phrase?
Public is an ancient Latin word meaning “of or concerning the people”. What exactly is public transport. Transport of the people? Transport that is accessible by people? Perhaps it is transport paid for by the people, for the benefit of the people? There really isn’t much actual information in the word public except some vague concept of ‘peopleness’.
So what’s the problem there? Well it’s just not very useful. I suppose all these meanings are true for public transport, but they are also true of most other kind of transport too. Arguably the footpath is the most public form of transport, but we wouldn’t call it public transport. Our roads and motorways are ‘of the people’ and ‘for the people’ not to mention paid for out of the public purse, but we don’t call them public transport. Our taxis exist solely for public hire, but are they public transport? I wouldn’t say so.
So the public bit tells us almost nothing, and I think the transport bit is even less informative. The word transport really is synonymous with movement; any kind, shape or form. The word covers everything from crawling on your belly, to cruise ships, to rockets to Mars. Not much information there either.
If we get down to the nitty gritty of it, the phrase public transport is semiotic. It is a set of words which only have a symbolic association with the concept they represent. It is only through a sort of mutual consensus that those words mean buses and trains and ferries and all those things that get us so excited on this blog.
It is only by prior understanding that the words have any meaning at all, and therein lies the rub. To many people, too many people, the words public transport have the wrong connotation. They carry meanings like ‘slow’, ‘awkward’, ‘difficult’, ‘uncomfortable’, ‘subisdised’, ‘socialist’, ‘failure’ and ‘last resort’. Here in Auckland we are on the verge of a public transport revolution that will change the face of our city for the better, but those symbolic words are tarnished by decades of neglect. We need to change the symbol as we change the meaning.
To that end I propose a new set of words for the concept. Instead of public transport, I think we should use passenger transit. Why passenger transit? Well for a start it’s not public transport, so we do away with all the negative connotations that term carries, but I think it is also a better term on its own.
The word passenger is semantic, it conveys meaning, it tells us quite clearly that you are a passenger. You’re not a driver who has to worry about driving, but a passive actor who is being driven, a guest or customer. The word passenger tells you immediately that you’re not required to do anything except sit there. That is perhaps the most valuable aspect of catching PT. Instead of having to focus on the road ahead and not kill yourself or someone else, you can simply sit back, read the paper or listen to your iPod . You can pull out your laptop to write inane blog posts, or even do some work while travelling to work (tell that to the boffins calculating value of time in the Ministry of Transport). On public transport the old connotation is you are cattle, part of the rabble. On passenger transit you are a valuable human being, one who has better things to do with their time than operate the conveyance that moves them about the place.
So why transit then? Well at the semantic level the words transit and transport are the same, they both just mean moving things. But at a semiotic level I think the word transit carries a lot more value. In our part of the world transit means ‘mass transit’, it means ‘metro transit’, it means all those amazing useful systems that we try overseas but could never have here… until now that is. Using the word transit to describe our system immediately associates our buses and trains with the great metros of the world. In the context of a new connective network with high frequency services running all-day every-day, I think that association is perfectly appropriate.
I imagine there might be some resistance to using the word transit because it is an Americanism, but quite frankly I don’t care. While most of our language harks back to British roots, I have no problem doing away with a failed old term and borrowing a better one from across the pond.
So what do people think, am I barking up the wrong tree? Or shall we leave public transport in the 20th century and take passenger transit instead?