Friday, October 01, 2010

Language that doesn't favor cars over transit or people: excellent memo on objective language

Language matters. It shapes how we approach politics and governance.

And to reduce our dangerous reliance ("addiction", as President George W. Bush put it) on foreign oil, our country needs to burn less gasoline by driving and flying less.

That means we need more trains and buses, from local transit to high speed rail, for our transportation network.

And that means our transportation officials need language that doesn't favor the automobile. We need to use objective language.

Jarrett Walker on his blog Human Transit found an excellent example of a memo from the City Administrator of West Palm Beach, Florida to all Department Heads directing them to use objective language to describe transportation choices. He accurately notes that most of our transportation language is biased in favor of ever-more investments in automobile traffic, which distorts the public will.

A few paraphrased examples:

Instead of referring to a car accident, refer to a car crash or car collision. After all, almost all car crashes are preventable with policies that create slower speeds or with better choices from the person at fault. The term accident suggests that nothing could be done to prevent the random occurence and lessens the drive to prevent future collisions in the future.

Instead of referring to an alternative to car traffic (which implies that non-car traffic is outside the mainstream), refer to non-motorized modes of transportation or be specific to refer to walking, biking or transit.

Instead of referring to an upgrade or improvement to a road, which implies that every investment in road capacity is a good thing, refer to the project objectively as a lane addition or a change in the road.

We still over-invest in roads and under-invest in trains in our country. Our 1950s-era language to describe road investments is a part of the reason why our policy hasn't caught up to our economic, national security and environmental objectives to spend more on transit and less on roads.

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