The urban bike magazine

Language Shapes Traffic – Seattle Neighborhood Greenways Shows How

The idea that language can influence thought and thus shape reality is a controversial one in many sociopolitical debates. The subject also attracts controversy when it comes to traffic. A neighbourhood initiative from Seattle has shown that certain types of language can lead to a more conscious approach towards one another. This could help to resolve the tension involved in daily traffic situations.

Cyclists, Car Drivers, Pedestrians

Labelling people who cycle, drive and walk as cyclists, drivers and pedestrians suggests that this is all that these people are and do. By using the term “cyclist” or “driver” in such a general way, the unique aspects of this person are played down. And since language can influence our thought processes, we then also think within these pigeon holes.

Conscious Approach to Language in Traffic

However, we can try to be smarter and be more aware of how we use language. By noting that there is a person behind every general designation of “cyclist”, “driver” or “pedestrian”. And that nobody is just a “cyclist”, “driver” or “pedestrian”. We are often all three, or at the very least two. Many people use all three modes of transport (disregarding public transport), such as commuting by bicycle, strolling through pedestrianised areas or taking the car on holidays.

bike lash language campaign people for bikes_Seattle Neighborhood Greenways

The “War on Cars” in the Media

What may have previously seemed like nothing but theory now has some substance behind it. In Seattle, the citizen initiative Seattle Neighborhood Greenways launched a campaign for language awareness with regard to traffic. In 2009, traffic policy in Seattle met with a phenomenon known as “bikelash” for the first time. This is a “backlash” to cycling, a sort of counter-reformation of traffic development.

This was inspired by the provocative phrase “war on cars”, as witnessed on the streets of the USA. This phrase related to investment in public transport and cycling facilities in Toronto and Seattle. This was fuelled by tabloid press and conservative media close to the car lobby to a great extent. You can read the whole story of the War on Cars here.

Seattle Neighborhood Greenways intentionally did not use the world “bicycle” or “bike“ in their name, even though the organisation makes no secret of its support for pro-cycling policies. Its goal was simply to achieve traffic-reduced streets suitable for walking, running and cycling, and they pursued this goal under the label of a neighbourhood initiative.

Combating Negative Language in Press

An important part of the initiative is fighting against the use of negative language in traffic. What may sound like radical language policies has been very positively received. Both media and politicians have taken the new regulations to heart.

The process of finding a common language was of course not simply limited to the “War on Cars” faction. Also older cycling organisations that were involved, such as the “Cascade Bicycle Club”, have changed their language to this effect, no longer simply referring to their projects as “cycling projects”. This name implied that only cyclists stood to benefit from the projects.

Cyclist vs. people cycling_Seattle Neighborhood Greenways

Overcome Traffic Roles

This, and other measures, could go some way to resolving the hostile atmospheres endured by cyclists, and other residents, as part of the bikelash. We should remember that there is always a person sitting in the car or on the bicycle. And these roles could easily be reversed next time.

Image © Bike Citizens & © Seattle Neighborhood Greenways

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