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.