In 1996, the City Administrator of West Palm Beach, Florida, Michael J. Wright, issued a directive to his staff on how to avoid biased language in the descriptions of transportation investments and policies. It’s four pages, sharply written, and may well be the smartest bureaucratic directive you’ll ever read. (Thanks to Peter Bilton at the Vorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers for pointing it out.)
It pulls no punches:
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.
Biased words, as identifed in the directive, include improvement, upgrade, enhancement, deterioration. The problem with these words is that they imply an idea of good or bad that may not be universally shared. So for example:
Upgrade is a term that is currently used to describe what happens when a local street is reconstructed as a collector, or when a two-lane street is expanded to four lanes. Upgrade implies a change for the better. Though this may be the case for one constituent, others may disagree. Again, using upgrade in this way indicates that the City has a bias that favors one group over other groups. Objective language includes expansion, reconstruction, widened, or changed.
And in the spirit of my last post:
Traffic is often used synonymously with motor vehicle traffic. However, there are several types of traffic in the City: pedestrian traffic, cycle traffic, and train traffic. To be objective, if you mean motor vehicle traffic, then say motor vehicle traffic. If you mean all the types of traffic, then say traffic.
The directive even nails the widespread misleading use of the word accident.
Accidents are events during which something harmful or unlucky happens unexpectedly or by chance. Accident implies no fault. It is well known that the vast majority of [vehicular traffic] accidents are preventable and that fault can be assigned. The use of accident also reduces the degree of responsibility and severity associated with the situation and invokes a inherent degree of sympathy for the person responsible. Objective language includes collision and crash.
(Yes, crash sounds emotive while accident sounds cool, so it’s easy to assume that accident is more objective or factual. But sometimes the facts are emotive, and only an emotive word will accurately describe them. The directive even notices that avoiding the emotive word can constitute an emotional bias in the other direction: “Sheila was in a car accident!” “Oh no, I hope she’s OK!” “Well, she killed three cyclists, so she’s pretty upset!” “How terrible! I’ll send her some flowers.”)
If you have seen either (a) a better explanation of these principles or (b) a coherent refutation of them by a transportation authority, please post a link. I’m aware of Todd Litman’s comments on this (here, page 5) and I know it’s come up in other academic literature. Still, the West Palm Beach document is important because it’s a directive. Many people in transport bureaucracies are not comfortable with academic thought — especially about linguistics, which is usually outside their training. But they are very accustomed to directives; they may find that the commanding tone of the West Palm Beach directive makes it easier for them to think about and react to.
Read this document, discuss it, and forward it! Yes, I know you’ve thought about this before, and maybe even written about it. But remember: language evolves only through relentless repeitition! Today, repetition is a matter of quoting, forwarding and linking. So quote, forward, and link!