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Dan Johnson-Weinberger

Nice insight. I wrote about your language advice at www.MoreRiders.com.

Carol Perry

Language nuances can indeed influence behavior. I hadn’t thought of it before, but after trying out the exchange of transfer for connect, agree that the latter is much more psychologically appealing.


The French use the word correspondance. In New York, transit announcements make a distinction between free transfers (from one subway line to another, or from subway to MTA bus) and connections to other systems that require additional payment. For example, "This is 34th Street, Herald Square. Transfer is available to the B, D, F, V, Q and R trains. Connection is available to the PATH trains." But in everyday conversation, most people just seem to use change.

Peter Parker

Connecting sounds good, but it must be used with care. In my mind 'connecting' makes some warranties regarding scheduling and waiting time. This is a very useful distinction to maintain.

At the very least a genuine connection implies both repeatability (through headway harmonised timetables) and a waiting time appropriate for trip type (eg 28 minutes is too tight for flying, terrible for suburban transit but probably OK for between two Victorian RFR-style trains).

Apart from scheduling a connection there may also be an obligation to honour it, even if services are running late.
Such 'guaranteed connections' exist for lines that do not run into the city during off-peak times (eg Alamein & Williamstown).

Where neither level of connectivity is provided, and service is not frequent enought to render it meaningless, I don't agree that we should claim these services are 'connecting'.

Here in Melbourne we seem to use 'connecting service' in circumstances when 'intersecting services' might be more appropriate (ie a guarantee of physical access but no warranty regarding the transferred to service 'connecting' or even operating.

'Intesecting' sounds cold, clinical and like lines on a map. However we do need something to differentiate it from connecting, which should only refer to services with genuine timetable co-ordination and (possibly) even guaranteed connections where services are held back(*). This is where 'change' is good as I don't think it implies a scheduled connection as much.

(*) Though there needs to be limits for this as holding services has knock-on consequences, and passengers need to be advised the circumstances and limits for buses being held.


Interesting essay. My first experience of the word "transfer" referred to the slip of paper bus drivers used to give passengers who were getting another bus going in the same direction [as opposed to a return trip], for which they did not have to pay additional money. So, the oppressive connotation of to transfer that you write so eloquently of never occurred to me.

But now that you have.....




While I don't know a lot about the etymology of the word "transfer" (i.e., which came first, transfer as a noun or transfer as a verb) I'm pretty sure that both uses go back quite some time, at least in American transfer. I'm sure I've heard of transfers from the streetcar era (1940s and before) which generally referred to the slips of paper with time stamps which allowed riders to change from one vehicle to another. (Wikipedia has a bit of information on transfers; I can't find any good word history online.)

Probably the best example of an old-fashioned transfer that I know of is in San Francisco, where, upon paying your fare on a bus or surface streetcar, the conductor tears a strip of paper denoting the current time, allowing travel for a specified amount of time beyond that. Most systems have gone to magnetic or RFID cards, but Muni is a bit behind, it seems. Still, the amount of information which can be carried simply on a torn piece of paper is quite elegant in its simplicity (although perhaps not ecologically sound: slips of newsprint-weight transfer paper abound in San Francisco).

renaissance costumes

At the very least a genuine connection implies both repeatability (through headway harmonised timetables) and a waiting time appropriate for trip type (eg 28 minutes is too tight for flying, terrible for suburban transit but probably OK for between two Victorian RFR-style trains).

Steve O

Connection is what is used for air travel, and everyone gets it just fine. "I connected in New York for my trip to Paris." In fact, it would sound odd to use transfer in that context.


In LA Metro Rail has a series of maps at every subway and light rail station of the surrounding neighborhoods around the stations, which show nearby buildings, streets and bus routes. These are titled "Metro Connections."

Just to confuse things a little bit.


What a fascinating blog!

In Toronto we are currently squabbling about the recently dumped "Transit City" which was given several less-than-flattering nicknames, the most common of which was "Transfer City". And Transfer City it truly was - a system designed to maximize the laying of streetcar/LRV track on major streets for the convenience of the engineers and, I would presume, operators, but definitely not the passengers. It required numerous transfers - in the way you've defined transfer as waiting at that (in our case cold) transit shelter with no "connection" in sight. Defeating it was a major platform item for our new mayor, who was elected with an overwhelming turnout.

Lots to think about from this post; it would have been extremely difficult for the designers to have sold it as "Connection City" because at root the planners and operators of the current system, which is much complained about here, do indeed see their passengers as not just freight, but inconvenient freight at that. The concept of a "connection" just isn't anywhere in their thought processes (either is the concept of "rapid", but that's another story - we currently have the longest commutes in North America).

We used to have a 1st class transit system, but decades of funding cuts and ownership downloads have left their mark. Transit planning and public discussion have become frighteningly narrow and have been hijacked by ideological pro-streetcar advocates on the one side, and 'accountants' on the other. We are now, sadly, miles away from a "Human Transit" perspective.

We have a frequent commenter from Brisbane on a very popular Toronto transit blog (rabidly pro-streetcar) who frequently injects the almost sole voice of reason there. Is it something in the water that makes Aussie transit planners more reasonable and "human"? We need a LOT more of your type contributing up here.


Anne. My observation is that people who engage with overseas blogs are (a) curious and (b) open to cultural difference and (c) interested in thinking in the abstract. That makes them very different from their countrymen, no matter what country they're from.

Here in Australia, I often hear Aussies say that American visitors to Australia are much more friendly, reasonable, and open-minded than the ones they read about through news stories about US domestic politics. But of course, friendly, reasonable and open-minded people are more likely be motivated to travel and even live overseas, so they're the ones that Aussies meet.


How about "switch"? It implies something quick, easy, and decisive... like flipping a light switch, or in railroad switching yard, where the train just keeps rolling.

Certainly I could "take the 1 to Five Points and switch to the 55", switch to the train at Midtown, or switch between the Doraville and North Springs train on the same line. (Can you guess what city I'm in?) If I'm standing on the sidewalk you'll know I'm making a switch.

If a bus diver is heading back to the garage, he'll have to switch me to another bus - not apply force, but communicate succinctly what is going on, such that I choose a different alternative.

This word 'switch' respects my values and my volition in being a transit passenger. You can switch me to a bus, but if you abandon me and the bus doesn't show up, know that I'll be just as easily switching to foot, or to a car next time.


Interesting. I still seem to prefer transfer to any of the alternatives though. I grew up in San Francisco, and we've always said transfers. It has become such a fact of life to me that I can't imagine saying it any other way. These discussions on connotation are fascinating, and everybody perceives words differently.

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