Language Matters

I had originally typed up a huge long post on why language matters and what kind of neurotic complex I have in correcting grammar and verbiage other people and I use. I would like to be a little more concise in this post and use it as a reference point. Below are a list of words or phrases people use to describe transportation activities. First I’ll list the word or phrase, then why we shouldn’t use it, and offer a suggestion in its place. This list will most assuredly expand as time goes on, but let’s start with a few basic suggestions. I’ve been developing this behavior for a while now and last week was tuned in to a similar research paper filed in New Zealand 2007.

Accident – In most instances people do not mean to crash their car or bike with intent to injure or kill people, or destroy property. However, history has told us that more than 30,000 people will die each year in motor vehicle collisions and (whether the police report acknowledges it or not) most are due to some sort of inattention or negligence. A couple weeks ago a news agency reported about an “accident” at 43rd Avenue and Indian School where two people died. It was later revealed the driver who caused the “accident” was drunk out of his mind. This is not an accident and should never be reported as such. Neither is it an accident when a driver is paying attention to her GPS while she runs over three people riding their bikes, it’s a failure to take the responsibility and safely operate heavy machinery. We cannot continue to casually dismiss such violent acts as the inevitable consequence of commerce and convenience. – Suggested replacements: Collision, crash, wreck, struck, collided with

“Fill in the blank by a car” – No matter how it’s phrased, whether someone “walking across the street was hit by car”, or if “the car ran a red light”, or anything else a moving car may have done, the car did not do that. The motor vehicle in question was being actively driven by someone 99.9% of the time. Removing the person and identifying the car removes responsibility; and while we’re not seeking vengeance or hatred when people make mistakes, de-humanizing the assailant creates a disconnect that allows for complacency behind the wheel. – Suggested replacements: “A woman driving a Toyota Camry struck a man crossing the street.”, “The man, driving a Toyota Camry, ran a red light resulting in the collision.”

Cyclist – Unfortunately, our society has identified a cyclist as a middle-aged man wearing lycra and being a scofflaw all over the place. What this does to our collective consciousness is it creates a subset of people who do something abnormal. We would like to see a society where all people are encouraged to utilize a bicycle as a means of transportation and it becomes completely normal in everyday life. Words like cyclist and pedestrian remove the person from the act and create subsets of people: cyclists, pedestrians, motorists, all at odds with one another. Instead, we identify that all motorists and cyclists are also pedestrians, and many cyclists and pedestrians are also motorists. – Suggested replacements: “A man riding a bike”, “the woman was cycling”, “the man was crossing the street.”

Advocate (noun; I have no issues with the verb usage of advocate) – Many of us see ourselves as advocates for cycling. It’s become part of our identity and is an important part of our lives. But many of the people who show up to city council meetings or neighborhood planning meetings and ask for bicycle infrastructure have no historical or future plans to push strongly for greater investment, they are simply acknowledging that having infrastructure dedicated to cycling would be beneficial to them and would make their streets safer. This is, again, a term that allows people to conveniently place others in groups. Groups are easier to disregard or oppose when they differ from one another. If Mary from Encanto is a concerned citizen who feels the neighborhood would be better served by improved cycling conditions, I’d much rather a councilmember hear from her than me, a nutbag cyclist advocate. How weird does it sound to call someone supporting the construction of South Mountain Freeway a motoring advocate? Crazy. – Suggested replacements: Citizen, person, man, woman, child.

Vulnerable Road User – This is a new one to me as of last week when I read the paper linked at the beginning of this post. Also falling within this realm is “alternate mode user.” Vulnerable road user gives the impression of a dangerous behavior or situation. While the risk and reward of cycling on city streets is another topic entirely (hint: the reward FAR outweighs the risk), riding a bike is seen as a dangerous behavior in and of itself (vulnerable road user) or as a secondary/abnormal mode choice (alternate mode user). This language only reinforces the idea that one cannot nor should not ride a bike for transportation. – Suggested replacements: Active mode user, non-motorized mode user

These are not hard and fast rules to use. Reporting something on Twitter might require one to use “driver hit cyclist” or something similar due to character limitations. Above all else, we need to be able to influence the people we talk to and the mainstream media so these horrific statistics don’t remain just statistics. So many people’s lives are affected by the dangerous automobile-centric landscape that has been developed over the past 50 years. By changing the way we talk about transportation, we can ease tensions between mode users and highlight responsible motor vehicle use now and in the future.


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