If You Mean “Car,” Say “Car”

Here’s a simple thing that anyone can do to improve the prospects of sustainable transportation.  When you hear a phrase that makes sense only from behind the wheel of a car, notice it, point it out, and don’t get drawn into saying it yourself.

I could grab an example from anywhere, so here’s one from an unsigned piece from the New Urban Network, a web publication of the New Urban News:

New York’s Broadway, after giving up 3.5 miles of traffic lanes to pedestrians, bicyclists, and gathering spaces, is seeing its automotive traffic significantly decline.

Some say that Broadway should never have been allowed to cut its diagonal path across the Manhattan street grid to begin with. “The resulting three-way intersections can slow down cars and tie up the broader system,” The New York Times observed Sept. 6 in an article available here.

New Urban News is a New Urbanist publication, so I’m sure the author isn’t biased in favor of cars.  But still, the second paragraph is suggesting that the traffic problems caused by Broadway’s three-way intersections could be an intrinisic problem with the very shape of the street.  That’s true only if you’re behind the wheel of the car, or in the back seat of a taxi.  If you make Broadway a great pedestrian street, presto, no more nasty three-way traffic intersections.  Problem solved.  And any urbanist will tell you that diagonal interruptions in a regular grid can be important sources of visual delight.

The New York Times article cited, by Michael M. Grynbaum, is a bit more careful:

Traffic planners at the city’s Department of Transportation say that less automobile traffic on Broadway is, in fact, a symbol of success, noting that the street’s awkward three-way intersections with other avenues created gridlock. “The mayor asked us to take a look at what we could to untangle the Gordian knot of traffic in Midtown,” Ms. Sadik-Khan said. “We’re making the network work like it was supposed to.”

But even here,  a “streets are for cars” bias slips in via the phrase “the street’s awkward three-way intersections with other avenues created gridlock” — which is presented as a paraphrase of what the officials said.  If I’d been Grynbaum’s editor I’d have insisted on something more precise like: “Using Broadway for heavy car traffic required awkward three-way signals that caused cascading delays.”  Again, the problem isn’t the shape of Broadway, but the use of Broadway as a heavy car street.

Why pick on these New York examples when much more egregious cases can be found in any newspaper?  Because they show how easily a “streets are for cars” bias can hide in the language, even in the writing of people who hold the opposite view.  This, by the way, is yet another reason to hire literature students!  They’ll notice how unwanted attitudes hide inside our language, especially in phrases that we write quickly as journalists under deadlines do.

How to deal with this?  When I’m speaking or writing, I try to be aware of the dangers of quick and easy phrases that may contain values I don’t want to convey.  It’s hard to do as a journalist under a deadline, so let’s put it as a slogan that simple enough to remember even then:

If you mean “car,” say “car.”

If you’re describing a situation from the point of view of a car, say so explicitly.  Otherwise, you’re implying — whether you mean to or not — that the car’s point of view is so universal that it’s just how real people see the world.

14 Responses to If You Mean “Car,” Say “Car”

  1. ant6n September 28, 2010 at 7:00 pm #

    On the other hand this view shuts up the car lobby who are against pedestrianization of Broadway.

  2. Peterbilton September 28, 2010 at 7:24 pm #

    Surely you’ve read the City of West Palm Beach Transportation Language Policy? It’s brilliant.
    Also, I tend to use “motor vehicle” in place of car or automobile in my documents because it reminds me (and, hopefully, the audience) that the vehicles in question are not just cars being driven by the everyman on his way to work, but also trucks, taxis, and private and public buses that are different in terms of period of peak demand, required road geometry, and regulation.

  3. Alon Levy September 28, 2010 at 7:54 pm #

    If I’d been the editor I’d have nixed the comment that, “Some say that Broadway should never have been allowed to cut its diagonal path across the Manhattan street grid to begin with.” Then I’d tell the author that it’s a fairly standard historical fact that Broadway predates the grid, and an even more standard fact that the grid is much, much older than the car.

  4. Anon256 September 28, 2010 at 11:24 pm #

    @Alon: There were a number of roads in Manhattan above 14th street before the grid was instituted. Most of these were eliminated, but Bloomingdale Road (Broadway) was allowed to remain. One could try to claim that this was a mistake, as the three-way intersections no doubt created issues for carriage and streetcar traffic too (though the balance of costs and benefits would be different for those modes). There was also a point at which the decision was made to allow motorised traffic to use Broadway; it’s probably best to interpret the article as intending (through another layer of car-centric language) the plausible assertion that this decision was a mistake.

  5. Alon Levy September 29, 2010 at 1:26 am #

    @Anon256: first, Broadway was more important than those other preexisting roads. Second, this was long before streetcars, and long before carriage traffic was large. And third, even when cars were allowed on Broadway, it took decades for traffic to ramp up to levels where the three-way intersections became a problem.

  6. John September 29, 2010 at 7:44 am #

    I’m not following you. Which sentence are you complaining about in New Urban News? From what I see, they wrote:

    The resulting three-way intersections can slow down cars and tie up the broader system.

    ,which was itself a quote from the NYT. Plus, they did exactly what you suggested. The street pattern slows down cars, so they wrote “cars.”

  7. K. Rao September 29, 2010 at 10:26 am #

    Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute has written an excellent synopsis of language bias in transportation planning. Here’s an excerpt:

    Transportation planning practices are often unintentionally biased toward motorized travel. For example, projects that increase road or parking capacity are often called “improvements,” although from many perspectives they are harmful. Wider roads and larger parking facilities can degrade the local environment, and projects that increase vehicle traffic volumes and speeds can reduce the safety and mobility of nonmotorized travel. Calling such changes “improvements” indicates a bias in favor of one activity and group over others. Objective language uses more specific and neutral terms, such as “added capacity,” “additional lanes,” “modifications,” or “changes.”

    The full text can be found within this paper (see inset on p.5: http://www.vtpi.org/whoserd.pdf

  8. Bob Davis September 30, 2010 at 2:55 pm #

    In that next to last sentence, “….from the point of view of the car..” Does a car have a point of view? The driver does, but the car just does what he or she “tells” it to do, without any comment. Many people who advocate non-automotive transport decry the number of motor vehicles clogging their cities, but every one of those vehicles is there because it’s taking someone (or several someones) from point A to point B. Might their be a more efficient way to move people, especially individuals without heavy “stuff” to carry? Quite possibly! But every one of those drivers (with the possible exception of teenage “cruisers” on weekend nights) is out there in traffic because they decided to be there. It certainly isn’t for “fun” unless they are into masochism.

  9. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org September 30, 2010 at 3:04 pm #

    Bob.  You're right, I'd be fine if journalists consistently said "motorist" when they mean that. 

  10. SpyOne October 2, 2010 at 8:58 am #

    Re: the second paragraph: the change you posit for Broadway would remove from it the definition of “street”. Apparently you don’t agree, but I would say that the words “street” and “roadway” define a space for vehicles, and “pedestrian street” is a bit like “flying boat” in that the first term makes it clear that the second is not being used to describe what one might expect (a flying boat being not much of a boat at all, but an airplane that lands on water, distinguished from a floatplane in that it does put the fuselage down as its flotation hull).
    If you turn Broadway into a sidewalk, yes that solves the intersection problems. So would filling it with buildings. Or making it a giant park. But so long as it remains a thoroughfare for vehicles, those intersections will be an issue. Even if Broadway were limited to just buses.
    There was, a couple of decades ago, a report of a study that an alarming percentage (I think it was 70%) of female college students had been raped. Closer inspection revealed the people running the study had expanded the definition of the word “rape” to include “having sex when you didn’t particularly feel like it.” My reaction, and that of most people I know, was that if you want to measure that, you need another word for it, because the word “rape” is taken, and means something else.
    I think you face a similar problem: you want to expand the definition of the word “street” to include every possible method of travel, and the problem you’re facing is that “street” already has a meaning, and that isn’t it. “Street” means the portion of a route designated for vehicles, while “sidewalk” or “walkway” means the part set aside for pedestrians, and “bike path” means a separate route for bikes, while “bike lane” means a path for bikes within that designated for vehicles, mostly as a way to call attention to the fact that vehicle types other than cars use that thoroughfare.
    Perhaps we need some overarching word that means “area of public passage, regardless of travel means”. But really the (developed, urban) world has very few of those: we generally recognize that pedestrian traffic needs to be kept away from larger vehicles, so a route is designated for one or the other. Cars keep off the sidewalks, and pedestrians stay out of the streets.
    What I do see the need for is a term for a route reserved for pedestrians and bicycles: “bike path” implies that the pedestrians are trespassers, while “sidewalk” implies that bicycles do not belong there. My city has several areas intended for both, ranging from extra-wide sidewalks to meandering landscaped paths parallel to a main road, but the cyclists need to be warned they might come across someone moving at walking speed, and the pedestrians need to be warned that someone might come up behind them at high speed and want to get by, and so both would benefit from a term that made it clear that both methods of travel are using the same path.
    (I should note that Dictionary.com does not entirely agree with me on the definition of “street”. The first definition it gives is that a street includes the sidewalk, if any. The second is that it might include the buildings on either side, and the third is that it might refer specifically to the roadway. I feel we agree on the substantive point, that a thoroughfare that excludes motor vehicles would be called something else.)

  11. John W October 2, 2010 at 4:02 pm #

    A bit of synchronicity – this was on the editorials page of today’s Guardian:
    When the transport secretary said ‘We will end the war on motorists’, the obvious question was: what war on motorists?

  12. Jarrett October 3, 2010 at 3:04 am #

    @SpyOne. No, I emphatically do not agree that “streets” implies motor vehicles, nor does a majority of the definitions here:
    A street is a public thoroughfare, typically lined with buildings. It can be devoted to any mix of vehicles, including peds, and still be a street.

  13. SpyOne October 4, 2010 at 9:39 am #

    Ah, the “We” in my comment that “we agree” was me and Dictionary.com.
    Google seems to mostly agree with me, too. It’s first entry is “a thoroughfare (usually including sidewalks) that is lined with buildings; “they walked the streets of the small town”; “he lives on Nassau Street”” The fact that sidewalks are included parenthetically distinctly implies that the term does not apply to a thoroughfare that is pedestrian only (consisting of just sidewalks). In fact, it seems to imply that they think “thoroughfare” means vehicles.
    They go on to say “street” may refer specifically to the part between the sidewalks, as in “crossing the street”, or that it may refer to the community (or that it might be a metaphor, but that’s beyond the scope of what we are saying).
    I think that bicycles are what really blurs the line here. People-powered vehicles like scooters and skateboards are generally welcome in pedestrian only areas. The exclusion is usually “no motor vehicles” (emphasis mine).
    What you and I agree on is that a street is for a “mix of vehicles”. Where we disagree is what to call a thoroughfare that bans motor vehicles. I cannot think of a single example of where one of these is called a “street” except the above-mentioned term “pedestrian street”: they are always a “boardwalk” or “bike path” or “walkway” or even just “path”.
    I believe that using the word “street” to describe these things is a metaphor, and it is unfair to criticize someone for not having included the metaphor in their use of the term.
    Perhaps I have been thinking of this in the wrong way: I accepted the notion that “street” implies it is for the use of motor vehicles. But if there is no sidewalk, pedestrians walk “in the street”. When pedestrians object to roller-skaters or skateboarders or bicyclists on the sidewalk, they always say such things belong “in the street”. Maybe what “street” means is a thoroughfare that is open to all traffic, possibly in segregated lanes but possibly not, and it is those routes that exclude some types of traffic that need another name.
    Although some things we all recognize as “streets” exclude trucks, so …

  14. Richard Ure October 5, 2010 at 8:42 pm #

    You could always use helicopters. The view from 1953 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article18445744