Language Matters When It Comes to Sharing the Road

Bikes and cars can co-exist! (Photo: Lloyd Alter).

Language is loaded with implication. The National Rifle Association (NRA) has convinced America that "guns don't kill people, people kill people," and the headlines always seem to say "car kills pedestrian," while the people behind the wheel are absolved as being somehow an unwilling participant in what is deemed an "accident." But as Charles Marohn of Strong Towns reminds us, an accident is defined as "an event that happens by chance without an apparent cause." Or, as they say in "Hot Fuzz":

Take the phrase "the war on the car." It's bandied about in Seattle, Toronto or New York, whenever anyone proposes anything that might make life a bit safer for people who ride bikes or walk across the street. Note that I didn’t say cyclists or pedestrians; according to Sarah Goodyear at CityLab, all of these words are fraught with danger. She notes that in Seattle, cycling activists people who ride bikes are trying to change the language.

"A basic element of a street is that everyone on it is a person," says [Seattle bike blog's Tom] Fucoloro. "A person-centered word forces you to ask, 'Maybe I’m thinking about this the wrong way.' "
PSA on jaywalking
Public service announcement. 1930 Newspaper ad via Paleofuture

The use, or misuse, of language with respect to the automobile goes back about 100 years to the invention of the jaywalker. According to Matt Novak writing for Paleofuture, quoting Peter Norton, who wrote a paper on the subject, people used to use roads in lots of ways, not just for driving. There needed to be a change in behavior, and a shift in public attitude if cars were going to rule the road.

Jaywalker comes from the derogatory term "jay," which in the early 20th century referred to an idiot or rube from a rural community who would be out of place in the city. "By extension," Norton writes, "a jaywalker was someone who did not know how to walk in the city." People who didn't cross the street according to some newly established norms were thus supposed to be treated as backward country bumpkins who didn't understand how a modern city worked. The automobile was ushering in the future, and the jaywalker was its greatest threat.
So people who used to have every right to walk in the road were suddenly smacked with a new label. If they're in the road, they're jaywalkers; if they are on the sidewalk, they are pedestrians. And where did that word come from? As an adjective, it means prosaic, or dull. Why label those who walk with that name? The "Mad Men" couldn't have come up with a more demeaning term. They are people. Who

There is much we can learn about language from the Seattle Neighborhood Greenways group, which is really trying to change the way we talk about biking, walking and getting around. They have handy charts like this one:

seattle greenways table: how to talk about safe streetsf chart
Words really do matter. Seattle Greenways

It's not silly or pedantic, but a really good point about changing people's perceptions, their focus. Fucoloro tells Sarah Goodyear:

"One of the biggest changes is when you can get public officials speaking this way," says Fucoloro. "Now the city talks about safety. When you feel like what you are gaining is the ability to walk freely and safely around your neighborhood, rather than bike lanes for somebody else, that sounds a lot better."
dailynews headline about MTA bus driver arrest

Language matters a lot in New York City right now, where the transit unions (and the Daily News) are at war with Mayor Bill de Blasio over Vision Zero, his plan to make the streets safer for pedestrians by adding a law that makes running them over a misdemeanor. You could parse the headline above for days: "Law-abiding bus driver" except he broke the law; "cuffed like a thug" which is rather melodramatic, and "accident in Brooklyn" when, as noted earlier, accident isn't quite the right word.

war is over if you want it sign
War on the car is over if you want it. Imagine Peace

I walk, I bike, I drive, and I take transit. Each mode is appropriate according to circumstance and distance, so I don't consider myself as a cyclist, a pedestrian, a driver or a straphanger; I am just me. That's why language is so important. Most of us are some or all of the above at certain times, and we have to accommodate people who do all of these things.

It doesn't have to be like this. To paraphrase John and Yoko: War on the car is over, if you want it.