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This is part of a multi-part reflection I've been doing following the death of my friend, Mark Baumer . There's nothing graphic i...

I'm a Transportation Activist, I Can Be as Contrary as I Choose!

A group in Seattle has come up with a list of smart language about safer streets that has now been picked up nationally by People for Bikes. Seattle was leading the way on great transit, biking, and walking improvements when all of a sudden it became paralyzed with rhetoric of a "war on cars" (the term "war on cars", I'm fascinated to find out, originated with North America's favorite coke-addled mayor, Toronto's Rob Ford, who ran on a specifically anti-transit and anti-bike platform. So consider the source before using it. . . ). 

New language, say the Seattle advocates, helped reset the message, and now the city is moving forward apace with protected bike lanes and more frequent transit schedules, and the public at large supports the changes.

A lot of this new language is great. Take a look.


I'm trying to wrap myself around exactly how I feel about this all. As I said, a lot of it is just smart. After watching the great Streetfilms video about Indianapolis' Cultural Heritage Trail, I started gushing about how great "bioswales" were, even though previous to the video I'd have not known a bioswale from a biohazard. Calling the darn things "raingardens" just describes what they are better. Direct language!

And making sure to tell the public that you are not just a bicycling machine, but perhaps a parent, or a worker, or a retired person, is also clearly smart.

I hope you won't mind something as middle class as a gif! 
Oh, heavens though, what is a gif?
But some of this is kind of inane. I get annoyed enough at the adage that "Everyone is a pedestrian at the end of their journey" without having to say "Everyone is a person who walks at the end of their journey". The recent snow has been a reminder to me that there is a decidedly strong difference between someone who is a pedestrian only for a few paces at the end of their journey, and someone who has to walk the whole way. Many stores in the area take good care to clear the setback sidewalks in their strip malls for customers who roll on up, but dump ten feet of snow on the sidewalks out front for those walking through. Notwithstanding the truth in the unifying message that everyone, including those who only drive places, has to cross the street or walk down the sidewalk eventually, it's clear that there's a real divide. When people tell me that I'm supposed to ignore that, I feel preached at (the image that springs to mind is a clench-toothed Mrs. Crawley from Downton Abbey: "I'm just trying to be useful," she says. Call me the Dowager Countess, but I feel like ringing a terse bell at these people).

A lot of this feels like a repeat of other messaging trends. Many people still don't like anyone to complain about how uncomfortable it is to be a cyclist (sorry, "person who bikes") on streets designed for car-use only, lest somehow this will dissuade people from taking up biking. But the battle isn't one of marketing. People take up biking because the infrastructure makes it sensible for them. These new guidelines to call people a "person who takes the bus" or a "person who bikes" feel like messaging voodoo, intended to win people with jedi mind tricks. Just say what you mean. 

If a person is so inconsiderate that they can't put two-and-two together to figure out that a pedestrian is a "person who walks", I think we're better off drawing a clear bright line in the sand and fighting that person than trying to drag ourselves behind them like whinnying sycophants.

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2 comments:

  1. The problem with "cyclist" is that for many it brings along quite a portmanteau of associated meanings: Lycra clad, red light running wannabe Lance Armstrongs for some; All black wearing, wrong way riding, red light running messengers and college students for others. Unpacking "cyclist" is probably a good thing to avoid those stereotypes with the much longer "person using a bicycle".

    I agree with you about pedestrian, there aren't any negative connotations I can think of there, and everytime I consider using 'person on foot" or "person walking" I feel like its not helping what I'm writing.

    On the other end, I really hate "accident", they are crashes and collisions, people and property get damaged, and they frequently are preventable by reduced speeds, better designs or simply paying attention, and don't get people off the hook. Same with the "person driving" or "vehicle driven by..", helps get rid of the implied lack of accountability.

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  2. Crash or collision is totally a useful language change. I think I usually say "biker" or "bicyclist" instead of cyclist, because I do have the MAML association with it. But my thought is that most people who have these deep hatreds of bicyclists won't be all that convinced by the term "person on a bike" unless it's a specific type of person on a bike: "parent on a bike", "child on a bike", etc.

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