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.
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
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