Unbiased 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



Filed under Transportation

4 responses to “Unbiased Transportation Terminology

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  3. Pingback: A Call to Arms for Dramatically Improved Public Health and Safety | Dom's Plan B Blog

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