Unbiased, “Plain English” Transportation Terminology

By Dom Nozzi

Ian Lockwood, a transportation engineer, prepared a report for West Palm Beach Florida in the 1990s that identified biases inherent in some of the transportation language commonly used today for transportation projects.  The report recommended more objective language be used for all correspondences, resolutions, ordinances, plans, language at meetings, etc. and when updating past work.

The following is based on that report.

Background. Much of the current transportation language was developed several decades ago at a time when the car was the major priority in cities. However, an important contemporary objective for many cities is creating a balanced, equitable, and sustainable transportation system characterized by freedom of travel choice. Unfortunately, transportation language has not evolved to comply with this objective, and much of it still carries a pro-car bias. Continued use of biased language is not in keeping with the objective of a balanced, equitable, sustainable, “smart” transportation system.blackboard

Language Changes. There are several biased words and phrases that are still commonly used, and which should be phased out as a way to achieve this objective.

The word “improvements” is often used when referring to the addition of through lanes, turn lanes, channelization, or other means of increasing motor vehicle capacity, speeds or both. Though these changes may indeed be “improvements” from the perspective of those driving a car, they would not be considered improvements by those using a more sustainable form of travel. For example, a resident may not think that adding more lanes in front of the resident’s house is an “improvement.” A parent may not think that a channelized right turn lane is an “improvement” on their child’s pedestrian route to school. When the transportation staff of a community refers to these changes as “improvements,” it indicates that the community is biased in favor of one group at the expense of others. Suggested objective language includes being descriptive (e.g., use through lanes, turn lanes, etc.) or using language such as “modifications” or “changes.”


The following street improvements are recommended.

The intersection improvement will cost $5,000.

The motor vehicle capacity will be improved.


The following street modifications are recommended.

The right turn channel will cost $5,000.

The motor vehicle capacity will be changed.

Like “improved” and “improvement,” there are similarly biased words such as “enhance,” “enhancement,” and “deteriorate.” Suggested objective language is shown in the examples below.


The level of service was enhanced.

The level of service deteriorated.

The capacity enhancements will cost $40,000.


The level of service for cars was changed.

The level of service for cars was decreased.

The level of service for cars was increased.

The increases to car capacity will cost $40,000.

“Upgrade” is a term that is commonly 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 community has a bias that favors one group over other groups. Objective language includes “expansion,” “reconstruction,” “widened,” or “changed.”


Upgrading the street will require a wider right of way.

The upgrades will lengthen sight distances.


Widening the street will require a wider right of way.

The changes will lengthen sight distances.

Promoting “alternative modes of transportation” is generally considered a good thing at the City. However, the word “alternative” begs the question “alternative to what?” The assumption is alternative to cars. “Alternative” also implies that these alternative modes are nontraditional or nonconventional, which is not (or should not be) the case with the pedestrian, bicycle, nor transit forms of travel. In addition, the term “alternative” disparagingly implies that it is a form of travel only used by undesirable, strange, or weird people, and will therefore never be a form of mainstream transportation used by us “normal” people.

If we are discussing “alternative modes of transportation” in the City, direct and objective language or modifiers such as “non-automobile” or “sustainable” forms of transportation should be used.


Alternative modes of transportation are important to downtown.


Non-automobile forms of transportation are important to the downtown.

Non-motorized forms of transportation are important to the downtown.

Sustainable forms of transportation are important to the downtown.

“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 “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.”


Motor vehicle accidents kill 200 people every year in the County.

He had an accident with a light pole.

Here is the accident report.


Motor vehicle collisions kill 200 people every year in the County.

He crashed into a light pole.

Here is the collision report.

Everyone at the City should strive to make the transportation systems operate as efficiently as possible. However, we must be careful how we use “efficient” because that word is frequently confused with the word “faster.” Typically, efficiency issues are raised when dealing with motor vehicles operating at slow speeds. The assumption is that if changes were made that increase the speeds of the motor vehicles, then “efficiency” rises.

However, this assumption is highly debatable.

For example, high motor vehicle speeds lead to suburban sprawl, motor vehicle dependence, and high resource use (land, metal, rubber, etc.) –which reduces efficiency. Motor vehicles use the least fuel at about 30 miles per hour, and the capacity of a street to carry cars is maximized at this modest speed; speeds above this result in inefficiencies. In urban areas, accelerating and decelerating from stopped conditions to high speeds results in inefficiencies when compared to slow and steady speeds. There are also efficiency debates about people’s travel time and other issues as well. Therefore, it is important that if the intent is “faster,” the term “faster” should be used. “Faster” is not necessarily more “efficient.” Similarly, if “slower” is meant, the term “slower” should be used.


The traffic signal timings were adjusted to increase motor vehicle efficiency.

Let us widen the street so that cars operate more efficiently.


The traffic signal timings were adjusted to increase motor vehicle speeds.

Let us widen the street so that it cars operate faster.


Biased Terms —- Objective Terms

Improve —- change, modify

Enhance, deteriorate —- change, increase, decrease

Upgrade —- change, redesignate, expand, widen, replace

Alternative —- [bus, bicycle, and walking] sustainable, non-car

level of service —- level of service for …

Traffic —- motor vehicles

Accident —- collision, crash

Efficient —- Fast

Simplifying Complex, Bureaucratic Jargon

Too often, bureaucrats use terminology in their presentations and reports that are unnecessarily confusing or hard to understand. The result is that many undesirable government actions face less public opposition because citizens are unable to understand the implications of the proposal. Many believe that this lack of using “Plain English” is a deliberate form of obfuscation, as it gives bureaucrats more power (citizens must rely on the bureaucrat to explain the communication), or protects the bureaucrat from criticism (because citizens are unaware of the implications of the proposal). In a democracy, government must be as transparent as possible, which means that communications from government must strive to use as much plain, simple language as possible. The following provides examples.

Undesirable —- Better

a majority of —- Most

a sufficient amount of —- Enough

according to our data —- we find

after the conclusion of  —- After

along the lines of —- Like

as is the case —- as is true

ascertain the location of —- Find

at such time as —- When

at the present time —- Now

at this point in time —- now

be deficient in —- lack

be in a position to —- can, be able

by a factor of two —- two times, double, twice

by means of —- by

come to a conclusion —- conclude

despite the fact that —- although

due to the fact that —- because

during the time that —- while

equally as well —- as well, equally well

fewer in number —- fewer

for the purpose of —- to, for

for the reason that —- because

for this reason —- thus, therefore

give consideration to —- consider, examine

give indication of —- allow, indicate, suggest

happen(s) to be —- am/is/are

has been proved to be —- is

if conditions are such that —- if

in a number of —- several, many

in all cases —- always

in case —- if

in close proximity to —- near

in excess of —- more than

in large measure —- largely

in many cases —- often

in most cases —- usually

in no case —- never

in order that —- so that

in order to —- to

in some cases —- sometimes

in terms of —- in

in the amount of —- for

in the case of —- for

in the event that —- if

in the field of —- in

in the near future —- soon

in the neighborhood of —- near, about, nearly

in the vicinity of —- near

in this case —- here

in view of the fact that —- because, since

is capable of —- can

is found to be —- is

is in a position to —- can

it has been found that —- (nothing)

it has been long known that —- (nothing)

it is a fact that —- (nothing)

it is evident that —- (nothing)

it is interesting to note that —- note that

it is noted that —- (nothing)

it is our opinion that —- we think

it is possible that —- perhaps

it is well known that —- (nothing)

it may be said that —- (nothing)

make inquiry regarding —- ask about, inquire about

manner in which —- how

notwithstanding the fact that —- although

on the basis of —- from, because, by

on the order of —- about, approximately

present in greater abundance —- more abundant

prior to —- before

provided that —- if

put an end to —- end

reach the conclusion —- conclude

serves the function of being —- is

subsequent to —- after

the question as to —- whether

there can be little doubt that —- Probably

utilize or utilization —- Use

with reference to —- about

with the exception that —- except that

Needless Repetition


adequate enough—- adequate (or enough)

advance planning —-planning

appear(s) to be —- appear(s)

basic essentials —- basics (or essentials)

close proximity —- proximity

consensus of opinion —- consensus

cooperated together —- cooperated

definite decision —- decision

elongate in length —- elongate

first priority —- priority

future predictions —- predictions

general rule —- rule

green colored —- green

increase in increments —- increase

initial prototype (model) —- prototype

joint cooperation —- cooperation

major breakthrough —- breakthrough

modern science of today —- modem science

most optimum —- optimum

necessary requirement —- requirement

outside periphery —- periphery

rate of speed —- speed

resemble in appearance —- resemble

true facts —- facts

twelve in number —- twelve

usual rule —- rule

very unique —- unique

Difficult —- Simple

Administer —- manage

allocate —- give, divide

deem —- consider

enter (on a form) —- write

for the duration of —- during

herein —- here

heretofore —- until now

implement —- carry out

indicate —- show

in the event that —- if

on behalf of —-for

procure —- get

promulgate —- make, issue

pursuant to —- under

render —- make, give

represents —- is

said, same, such —- the, this, that

submit —- Send

subsequent to —- After

to the extent that —- if, when

utilize —- Use

with regard to/respect to —- For


Filed under Transportation

2 responses to “Unbiased, “Plain English” Transportation Terminology

  1. Pingback: The Many Transportation Reforms Needed in Boulder, Colorado | Dom's Plan B Blog

  2. Pingback: The Many Transportation Reforms Needed in Boulder, Colorado – Boulder Transportation Reforms

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