Michael Business Law
Professional Teacher
Traffic / transport

I've had quite a conceptual discussion with a Russian speaker recently about the distinction between two words. https://www.italki.com/question/394122

I can't think of a situation where "traffic" and "transport" are ever interchangeable but ultimately the student remains dissatisfied with my explanations and so I'd like to get some other opinions.

"Transport" has more than one sense, but the one which is hardest to distinguish from "traffic" can be seen in this sentence: 

“Several countries are continuing to build motorways and highways and new road systems to cater to the increasing volume of road transport, including tourist transport.”

This sense of the word always seems to come collocated with another word which expresses the means of transport, like "road", "rail", "air", etc. It doesn't sound natural to use the word "transport" alone, in this sense. 

"road transport" seems to refer in a general way to all the vehicles and their "carrying" activity;  you can't see "road transport" or easily identify its elements.

On the other hand, "road traffic", or just "traffic" seems to exist in a place and refers only to the collection of cars using a public highway or a group of, or all highways (and not their activity also).

The student referenced http://www.wordreference.com/definition/transport , which I think is a really poor definition.

I prefer the definition and example sentences here https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/transport

Ultimately, the meanings of these abstract words need to be felt in practice, and not just analysed conceptually.  However, I'd appreciate any ideas about how to explain the differences in meaning.  Thank you.

Apr 27, 2017 12:06 PM
Comments · 19

I agree that they're not interchangeable.

Some vague thoughts ...

The word 'transport' is abstract. It's a concept rather than a thing.  You can talk or read about transport as a notion, but you can't see or hear 'transport' any more than you can see or hear 'success' or 'hospitality'.  As to the meaning, the idea of 'transport' seems to be about solutions. The situation is that you need to get people and goods from A to B, and the solution is transport of one kind or another.  It explains why a fleet of fifty trucks is on a particular road at a particular time, but it doesn't refer to the trucks themselves. Likewise, 'air transport' or 'rail transport' doesn't refer to the physical trains or planes or rails - it refers to the intangible concept, system or service.

Traffic, by contrast, is a concrete noun. You can see and hear traffic. You can photograph it and measure it.  It's a physical thing - a collection of vehicles in a particular place moving in a particular direction. The fleet of trucks is the traffic. (And it's often the problem, rather than a solution).

Would that help your Russian student?

April 27, 2017

Konstantin, synonyms are not per se interchangeable, and some synonyms are only interchangeable in very limited cases.  

Native English-speakers (including the contributors to this discussion) do not regard "traffic" and "transport" as generally interchangeable. I challenge you to find one that does.

I recommend that you read the points here in detail, including Dan's helpful list of sentences.   

April 28, 2017

Please don't confuse the issue, Igor :) 

We all know that the word 'traffic' has various different meanings.

Here we are talking only about the commonest usage of the word - vehicles moving along public highways - and how it relates to the word 'transport'. We're not talking about terms used in  telecommunications (or smuggling).

April 27, 2017

According to Oxford dictionaries, the word ‘traffic’ dates back to early 16th century and had, therefore, existed long before automobiles were invented, denoting commercial transportation of merchandise or passengers. Traffic in the sense 'vehicles' dates from the early 19th century.

Synonyms of traffic in English:

1 ‘the bridge is not open to traffic’
vehicles, cars, lorries, trucks

2 ‘they might be stuck in traffic’
congestion, traffic jam, jam, tailback, hold-up, bottleneck, gridlock, queue, stoppage, obstruction
informal snarl-up

3 ‘he owned teams of horses for goods traffic’
transport, transportation, movement of goods, movement of people, freight, shipping, conveyancing

Please, pay attention to the 3rd paragraph. 'Transport' and 'transportation' are listed here as synonyms of 'traffic'.
And this is the case where they are interchangeable.

April 28, 2017

I'm just going to refer to what's in my U.S. native-speaking brain without checking authorities.

To me they are different. They are not synonyms. The area of overlap in meaning, if any, is small. I am hard-put to think of examples where they could be interchanged. They are no more related than "lake" and "liquidity," or "bishop" and "overseer," or "verdant" and "arable."

"Transport" refers to a capability, "traffic" refers to rate or activity or amount.

I'm going to try an experiment. I'm going to look up the first five Google News hits on "transport" and then on the word "traffic," and see how many of them make with the other word substituted.

"Video: Maryland transport fatalities on the rise" -- possible, but awkward and unnatural.

"TRANSPORT: Liberty Bridge, inbound tunnel closed this weekend" -- no.

"Transport shift on ramps from Allegheny and Ridge avenues to Fort Duquesne Bridge (southbound I-279) through May 5." -- no.

"3 New Bridges Rise in New York, With Looks That Could Stop Transport" -- no.

"Man Fined $500 for Criticizing Transport Cameras With Math--Talking About How Transport Light Timing Works Will Get You Fined ..." -- no.

"US lawmakers push Yucca nuclear dump facing traffic crunch"--No (it concerns criticism of the safety of transporting nuclear waste over public highways)

"Congressman Calls for Probe into Private Prisoner Traffic"--absolutely not, sounds like smuggling prisoners

"Oslo, London, Amsterdam lead push for 'greener' traffic"--no

"Transmission Gully motorway is on time and on budget, Traffic Minister says"--no, there's no such thing as a "traffic minister."

April 27, 2017
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