Avoiding Car-Centered Language: A Directive

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!

14 Responses to Avoiding Car-Centered Language: A Directive

  1. K September 29, 2010 at 4:46 pm #

    “Arterial” has always been a big one for me. It predisposes the need to move cars down a street at the expense of everything else as a matter of life and death.

  2. Robert Alder September 29, 2010 at 4:49 pm #

    I am really glad to hear someone express this point. I was just thinking about this on my way home from school, probably spurred by your previous post and a conversation overheard on the bus by some teenagers about driving and insurance. Particularly the bit about the euphemistic ‘Car Accident’.
    I’d like to add one point though, which I have never heard expressed anywhere. That is, regarding who bears the responsibility for a city’s motor vehicle caused fatalities.
    There is -some- recognition now regarding the responsibility of consumers who purchase a product for the conditions of the workers who make it (textiles, blood diamonds). But there doesn’t seem to be the same recognition that each time you turn on your car you are risking other people’s lives for your convenience.
    Basic probability shows (usually in the context of gambling) that the chance of an outcome multiplied by the (in this case) cost of that outcome is the cost of taking that risk. So for each motor vehicle trip taken in a city your responsibility is approximately (the number of motor vehicle fatalities in said city per time period)/(the number of motor vehicle trips in said city per time period).
    There is a real moral cost to driving, even without considering the degraded natural and social environments that driving cars contributes to.

  3. John September 30, 2010 at 4:01 am #

    Many people in transport bureaucracies are not comfortable with academic thought

    This sounds a bit biased to me.

  4. Peter Laws September 30, 2010 at 8:46 am #

    This directive is almost old enough to get a restricted driver’s permit in some Western states. How has it been implemented? Has it had an effect on transportation planning in WPB? There should be 14 years of experience by now.

  5. Erwin Desoto September 30, 2010 at 11:58 am #

    I think it goes both ways now. I’ve heard of people say adding bike lanes and pedestrian paths is a road “enhancement.” Also, a “road diet” is taking away motor vehicle lanes, and diet implies a good thing to improve health. Maybe it should be called a road multi-modalization. And to digress a little, a round-about sounds like you’re doing the old Chevy Chase in European Vacation, going around in circles all day. It should be called a round-through. And finally, why do you park in a driveway and drive on a parkway?

  6. Erwin Desoto September 30, 2010 at 12:08 pm #

    Oh and forgot. “Traffic calming” implies that slowing motor vehicles is a good thing and also implies that all traffic is motor vehicle in need of calming down. Should be “motor vehicle speed controlling”

  7. Reallynow September 30, 2010 at 3:40 pm #

    Bike advocacy needs way less pedantry, & more poetry.

  8. Teresa October 1, 2010 at 6:43 am #

    I didn’t see “jackass driving” anywhere in the directive. That is definitely an objective term.
    P.s. good post, Jarrett.

  9. Lily October 1, 2010 at 3:46 pm #

    In response to Erwin:
    traffic calming leads to a calmer experience for all road users, not just car drivers. It is a lot more pleasant to walk or cycle in a slow speed environment. And if its a good project the ‘improvements’ are nice to look at too.

  10. Eric October 1, 2010 at 9:15 pm #

    Great Post.
    I’m not sure that the commanding tone that makes a linguistic policy concrete would be much esteemed or philosophically appreciated in professional circles in my neck of the woods. It is far too confrontational, and here in Charlotte we’re prone to argue for a policy that simply makes the contextual choices concrete. For example specifying whose LOS you are talking about. Our “unconfrontational” approach befits our stakeholder-focused paradigms that focus more on the way the public process is structured. We focus on the decision-making process, e.g. how to stress wider transportation alternatives within a very explicit classification scheme and concrete design standards (which have been revamped to focus on modal choices and connectivity policy – see our new Urban Street Design Standards). The language of “Modal Choices” and “context-based trade-offs” are employed to their full extent instead.
    In other words, I think professionals here are academic enough to remove the auto-centric bias wholistically, not linguistically. Nobody would know what to do with an explicit directive on language policy here. It would be stultifying.
    Here, language policy, if it exists at all, is to avert from language that over-promises the public things. Charlotte is very Calvinistic that way. We do everything by committee, discussing things with a bit of demure politeness …Decrees by fiat are suspicious. Most of Middle America is that way. Which has its ups and downs…

  11. SpyOne October 2, 2010 at 9:52 am #

    I also had encountered people resistant to the euphemistic “accident”. I recall one bike advocacy group, probably quoted in Bicycling magazine, saying that “we prefer the term crash, because accident implies that it was unpreventable”.
    Mr Adler, I may be able to shed some light on why people don’t recognize the cost in lives of driving.
    There are some neural mechanisms that, whether through Pavlovian conditioning or other means, work both ways. For instance, if you grab a dog and force his tail to wag, it will make him happy: his tail wagging and his being happy are so intimately tied that you can’t have one without the other.
    Well humans are wired to prevent us from undertaking dangerous activities daily, and as a result it seems we are unable to think of an activity as dangerous if we do it every day. What probably evolved as a way to get us to think “there has got to be a better way to get fruit than crossing that raging rapid every day” has turned into a blissful feeling of safety behind the wheel.
    This is also why you often hear of someone who really should know better stupidly shooting themselves (or others): the very fact that they handle guns every day has eroded their feeling of the dangers involved, until eventually they decided to demonstrate that the gun isn’t loaded by pulling the trigger, and don’t think to point it somewhere safe just in case.
    This relates to my feelings about “road rage”: If someone jeopardizes your life, it usually will make you angry. If they did so through negligence or carelessness, you may become righteously furious. And yet, if somebody cuts me off on the interstate and I get pissed off about that, I’m the one with a problem?
    I once yelled, very briefly (“Nice once!”) at a little old lady who was pulling out of a parking lot and nearly hit me on my bicycle (it was accompanied by stopping and glaring at her). The driver behind her came to her vocal defense, and when I yelled back at him he got out of his vehicle to confront me physically. When he said, “You got a problem?”, I responded with “Yeah, I got a problem: little old lady just tried to kill me!“. Which calmed him down a bit.
    So we face an uphill battle getting people to properly appreciate the risks and costs behind the wheel, as they are wired to deny them.
    One other point: there is a flaw in your gambling metaphor, because driving is a game of skill. If it were purely a game of chance, then if a person is killed for every thousand miles driven then I am spending 2 lives to drive the length of Route 66. But because it is a game of skill, there is truth behind the idea that some drivers are more likely to kill than others, and therefore the cost in lives of driving a mile is lower for some than for others.
    Which, of course, leaves more room for unjustified denial, too. Something in our brains convinces us that if the rocket will blow up and kill someone 1 in 100 times it is launched, that only launching it 50 times means we’re safe.
    The thing to remember is that, while skill is a factor, the other “players” have to potential to impact your performance. Another driver may present you with a situation where you have only bad choices, and all your skill can do is reduce the number of people killed.
    A mantra I have tried to take to heart, one I shared with all my friends when we were 16 and starting to drive: Sure, you were in the right, but will that really make you feel better about having killed someone?
    Erwin: roundabout is a British-english thing (although apparently Australian too, as their English has drifted less than that of North America). When I was a kid, they were called a “rotary”, and usually there was a sign in advance warning you about them because they were so rare. I remember asking my dad about them, and he said they’d been removed almost everywhere because they caused accidents. 😉

  12. Richard Masoner October 6, 2010 at 12:52 pm #

    @SpyOne: British English has ‘drifted’ more (in some ways) from the early 18th Century than American English. Besides the important pronunciation changes that have occurred in British English since the 1700s (non-rhotic speech, dropping long ‘A’, etc), Americans have retained many early Modern English words that are now considered Americanisms!
    In any event, the first use of ’roundabout’ as such was in 1927, long after American and Australian colonization. Our transportation terms diverge because the language developed independently with the advent of the motor vehicle.

  13. Alon Levy October 6, 2010 at 8:28 pm #

    @Richard: I know it’s off-topic, but it’s not completely true that British English has drifted more than American English. It was true around 1900, but since then American English has come up with its own innovations, which include the cot-caught merger, the blurring of the distinction between the perfect tenses and the simple past, and several emerging vowel shifts. In general, any urban region where a language is spoken continuously will drift over time, while a frontier would have more conservative speech. But nowadays even very rural US areas like the Appalachians have had enough time to diverge significantly from Early Modern English; it’s a myth that there are towns anywhere in the US that speak Elizabethan English.

  14. NJD October 7, 2010 at 6:00 pm #

    Looking back at this older post I have had issues with the American use of “alternative transportation.” This term really bugs me for some reason. Maybe it’s because roads/streets/highways and walking/biking/train riding all predate automobiles, yet these forms of transportation and pathways are considered “alternatives” to cars.