Is there anything wrong with calling a group of people “transit users” or “riders”? Is there anything wrong with calling yourself such a thing?
The fundamental attribution error leads us to interpret the behavior of others as reflecting something inherent about those people, more than is warranted. However, the language we use plays a role in that judgment as well. Our labels often describe who people are instead of what they’re doing, e.g. pedestrians, cyclists, transit users, or drivers. Each one of those terms gives us a category to which those people belong, making it easier to attribute their actions as reflecting some property of members of that category. That, in turn, makes it more difficult to progress towards a multimodal and sustainable transportation system.
I propose a different and deliberate use of language to mitigate this:
- Old: pedestrians. New: people on foot, or people walking.
- Old: cyclists. New: people on bikes, or people cycling.
- Old: transit users. New: people on transit.
- Old: drivers or motorists. New: people in cars, or people driving.
Sometimes we’re in cars, sometimes we’re on transit, sometimes we’re on bikes, and sometimes we’re on foot. But we’re all people, and our perspectives are much more similar than the facile modal categories lead us to believe.
Some people reading that are going to be reminded of the term “people of color,” which rose in part from the ease with which, say, “black” as an adjective (“black people”) tended to deteriorate into “black” as a noun (“the blacks”). “People of color” put the category term back where it belonged, in an adjective phrase, while also extending across all the non-white ethnicities. Other “people who” and “people with” terms began to appear around the same time — “people with AIDS” for example — each addressing a situation where describing with a noun — “AIDS victims,” “AIDS sufferers,” — seemed to crush individuality and personhood.
Of course, these terms were always easy to ridicule as “politically correct,” partly because they were cumbersome. The need for sheer brevity makes me doubt I will fully embrace “people cycling” as a fully satisfactory synonym for “cyclist,” though when speaking I do look for ways to keep the focus back on “people” rather than on the technology of transport they’re using.
Still, Michael is basically right. Reducing mode choice categories to nouns — cyclists, motorists, riders, etc — is potentially divisive. These categories seem to give us the clarity we need to do any thinking at all, but clinging to them can blind us of all the ways that two cyclists can be different, and all the ways that this cyclist and that motorist may agree on far more than two cyclists do. Ultimately, the only way to combat this is to notice it and point out alternate ways of categorizing that can help open minds. For example, you might think of “people who, in their ideal world, would like to get around on transit.” Some, but not all, existing transit riders are in that group. But so are some motorists.
It’s also worth noting that we don’t just apply these reductive categories when describing others, we may also apply them to ourselves. (The comments on Michael’s post explore this in some detail.) A “transit users group” may sound like a good political strategy, but if you identify yourself too much as a “transit user,” and build your understanding of politics around that identity, you risk excluding the views of current non-transit users; thus prematurely narrowing your potential community of interest. (The San Francisco Transit Riders Union, for example, embraces “current and future riders.”) Lots of people care about transit. They want to be counted, too.