I have previously touched on the issue of language and transportation in the context of describing what it is that RIDE Solutions does. There, I challenged the use of the phrase “alternative transportation” to describe what it is that Transportation Demand Management programs promote, arguing that the formation defaults to granting the automobile as the primary mode and relegates everything else to alternatives.
The issue of language and transportation has cropped up again in a big way the last week or so, with Streetsblog.net and some folks on Facebook capturing three separate discussions where language, advocacy, and planning overlap. They are interesting examples of efforts to persuade by changing the words we use in the discussion, rather than (or, in addition to) the arguments we make. I think some of these explorations have more value than others.
First is this post from Steve Magas, an Ohio lawyer. He offers an interesting criticism of “Share the Road” signage, like the kind you can see running alongside the Peters Creek Road extension in Roanoke:
The whole point of the “SHARED lane” marking is to indicate to motorists that they ought to “share THEIR lane” with cyclists. This entire line of thought has always baffled me, frankly, because it implies that motorists OWN the lane and must be told, or just asked, to “share” a bit of it with cyclists….No law says that the motorist owns the road and the cyclist may borrow it sometimes, IF the motorist feels like sharing.
Mr. Magas offers a remarkably sophisticated analysis of the problem of “sharing” from a legal perspective. It’s not unlike my original issue with the phrase “alternative transportation.” In both formulations, the default mode is assumed to be the automobile, and drivers are warned to make accommodations for other kinds of vehicles. Magas then reframes the argument as the “right to travel,” which belongs to a person and not a vehicle, making the special exhortation to “share” with cyclists a bit silly – after all, if we concentrate on the person rather than vehicle, there’s an underlying assumption that travelers are already making allowances for other kinds of vehicles – just as, I suppose, the driver of a sedan makes allowances for larger trucks, and those trucks make allowances for larger delivery vans, and those delivery vans take into account Mini Coopers, and so on.
The next is this short piece challenging the categories of “cyclist,” “pedestrian” and others in describing modal choice. Instead, the author argues, we should use a formation of “people who….” “People who bicycle,” “people who walk,” “people who carpool,” and so forth, concentrating our attention on the category of people and modifying it by the mode. This, he says, will avoid breaking people out into categories that sometimes conflict, since the reality is that a person’s modal choice can often be fluid and change from trip to trip.
And finally we have this highlighting of a document from 1996, a directive from the Mayor of West Palm Beach, Florida to alter the language used in transportation planning and engineering:
Much of the current transportation language was developed in the 1950’s and 1960’s. This was the golden age of automobiles and accommodating them was a major priority in society. Times have changed, especially in urban areas where creating a balanced, equitable, and sustainable transportation system is the new priority. The transportation language has not evolved at the same pace as the changing priorities; much of it still carries a pro-automobile bias. Continued use of biased language is not in keeping with the goal of addressing transportation issues in an objective way in the City.
It’s really a fascinating document from a time that was really in the early stages of New Urbanist planning throughout most of the country. Working, as I do, for a regional planning agency and being surrounded by planners (though not being one myself), I can see the inherent bias of the default language – referring, as the document highlights, to lane widenings, higher speed limits, and other road work as an enhancements or upgrades. In reality, these descriptions are only true for the automobile traffic on the road; for a pedestrian or cyclist, a widening that results in less shoulder or a loss of a bike lane, or vehicle speeds that make pedestrian travel more dangerous, are clearly downgrades. The West Palm Beach document directs the use of more neutral language such as, simply, widening.
So, what to we make of these arguments?
Of the three, the first two are interesting on an academic and, perhaps, legal level, but in general I don’t see them as being very helpful in communicating with the public in general. Steve Magas’ argument against “Share the Road,” for example, is an interesting one with some validity, but the main problem I see with the argument is that the Share the Road sign isn’t making a political statement. The reality is that the road was probably engineered and built specifically to the size and speed of a motor vehicle, and therefore contains all kinds of assumptions about driver behavior and the physics of the objects traveling along the thoroughfare. In addition, most drivers receive an education that involves learning how to react around other vehicles largely the same size and generally traveling at the same speed (one can argue that this is a failure of driver’s education, and I would agree, but that’s a different story). In these cases, the Share the Road sign is, I believe, a perfectly valid warning to a driver that a vehicle of a radically different size and speed is going to be on the road, and to be aware of its presence. I’m not convinced that an automobile driver sees the same implication in the word that Magas does.
Maybe there’s a different word or phrase that could be used, but I’m not sure what it would be – the sign’s function, like any road sign, is to offer a split second of education/information for a motor vehicle driver traveling at a certain speed. At this point in time, I think the cause of encouraging more cycling and making drivers aware of the growing presence of cyclists on the road is better served by working within the scope of the language that drivers are already familiar with rather than challenging the language.
That said, I would be interested to see this argument made within a court of law and see how it plays out in a purely legal sense (and this is clearly Magas’ realm of expertise, not mine). Streetsblog.net has been following the recent Texas case of a bicyclist who was struck by an automobile, and was then himself charged with reckless driving because he didn’t get out of the car’s way. The judge’s assumption here is exactly what Magas is getting out with his anti-“Share” argument: clearly, the road belonged to the automobile, and it was the cyclist’s fault for being somewhere he didn’t belong.
The argument against categorizing people by mode is also valid, but here I think the other is fighting against the common usage of language, and that is almost never a winning battle. It is not uncommon for individuals or interest groups to try to influence the debate by changing its language or modifying the definition of words already being used, but I fear this runs the risk of some of the ridiculous “political correctness” we have seen in the past. The fact is that language does what it wants to, and change is slow but inevitable. Artificial attempts to change its course almost always appear just that – artificial. Worse, I think you run the risk of “jargonizing” the debate – that is, redefining words or phrases in such a way that those on the inside of the debate understand and use them, but those outside the discussion are kept away by their artifice. Further, I think the argument still runs the risk of categorizing people rather than choice. I tend to carpool or take the trolley to work, and walk or ride my bike for social and shopping trips. Am I a person who carpools, a person who bicycles, or a person who rides transit? None, of course – I take transit trips, carpool trips, bike trips, and drive alone trips.
In general, I don’t see that much is gained by challenging the way people think about a subject by trying to transform they way they talk about it. Language does what it wants to do and its best to work within its strictures. Let’s concentrate, then, on using the language to our advantage. For example, people like to talk about the “freedom” of automobile ownership. Go ahead and use that word – describe bicycle commuting as freedom from high has prices, the freedom to choose commute routes where cars can’t go (like the Greenways), the freedom from congestion, and so forth. Describe the freedom of cyclists, and pedestrians, and transit riders, who are free to use their time doing other things and free to spend more money on things they want. Challenge the freedom of automobile ownership by highlighting the shackles of insurance payments and massive depreciation, the prison of congestion, the free time wasted stuck behind the wheel when you could be reading a book, playing catch with your kids, whatever emotional response you want to go after.
The exception, I think, is the third post. This one has the most value and chance of success. For one, its audience – planners and engineers, primarily, though civil staff in general – is a relatively small one, and one used to being continuously educated on new technologies and methods of planning, design, and communication. Changing the vocabulary of the trade, while not exactly easy, is something that can certainly be accomplished with time, particularly if the themes of this directive are applied to planning and engineering at the classroom level, and newly minted graduates come out using language that treated all modes with parity.
Second, these are largely technical – rather than popular or vernacular – terms, and have very specific meanings aside from their emotional connotations. If the trade decides that the language change more accurately describes the activity, then adoption is less a matter of persuasion and more a matter of education. In this regard, I think the language change is both a function of and contributor to an overall shift in thinking about urban planning and city design. In other words, it simply reinforces a change in attitude that’s already happening and, I hope, accelerates it.