Codified language to discuss public space? Come on, stop it!

I’m going to tell you what is wrong with this seemingly positive list of sharp and slack terms being applauded in bike advocacy circles this week. I’m not going to quibble over details. A lot of the “approved” terms might be improvements on the now “banned” terms. I don’t really care. My quarrel is with the very existence of such a black and white list and the authority of a group in Seattle to issue a lexicon of approved terms for discussing space that belongs to us all.

safe streets language

It starts innocently enough. A few people read a blog post, like mine encouraging the active voice when reporting on drivers killing cyclists (how about a footnote there guys!) Before you know it though, a new term like “healthy transportation” becomes the Masonic handshake of the street reclamation elite.


I didn’t know the aim was to take public streets out of the hands of traffic engineers, with their impenetrable jargon, only to put decisions in the hands of a new protectionist guild. The classical urbanist position, that I suspect the authors of this list would nod and agree to, is that public space is created by whoever happens along, regardless of their knowledge of jargon. Are we to assume that if they use the word “driver” (banned) and not “person driving” (approved for use among switched-on in-the-know members of the new guild) that a person’s voice should receive lesser weighting than that of guild members?

I’m sympathetic to nearly all of the “yes” terms, and would welcome an invitation to use them. But I’m not having regular words like “pedestrians” being turned into red flags warning that I might be an idiot if I decide I’d rather not say “people walking”. As an author my higher calling is to write with some sense of meter, alliteration, shock value, and a clear authorial voice (in my case artfully pompous). I write to interest the disinterested, not just deepen tribal connections among the converted. Be blown if I’ll be eliding cool words like cycleway, cycletrack, etc. in favour of some complete gob full like “protected bike lane” just to be a part of this guild, or any other vying for power.

The production of public space is a public enterprise. Taking it out of the hands of one bogus profession does not mean there is a space now for another to step in like George Orwell’s pigs. That is the risk.

The background story to this binary list of “yes” and “no” terms speaks of good intensions, in the beginning. The difference between advocacy efforts that flop and ones that break through, often comes down to nomenclature and feeding politicians and media outlets slogans that steer conversations in new directions. Realising this, a community of bike advocates in Seattle and Portland have been sharing their knowledge and reflecting on language. All great stuff. How they made the leap from that, to a list of words to help experts know when they’re speaking with laity, isn’t so clear.


  1. Edward says:

    Hear what you’re saying. I took the list as a set of hints on how to frame discussions. Certain words can have the tendency to make people switch off. The word “cyclist” seems to be one of the worst offenders in my experience.

    • Steven says:

      As suggestions/hints, they’re all fine. I just thought that if I didn’t flag the spectre of elitism creeping in, no one else would. Maybe they have?

  2. This seems to be an evolution of language and nothing more. I expect the Yes phrases will themselves wither in time. I’m happy to surf the flood-waves of Babel — seemingly prescriptive or otherwise — so long as it yields an improvement (subjective, maybe) in the production of space.

    “Pedestrians”, “cycleway” and “cycletrack” are still cool, though. I’ll be using them too. Never signed a contract obliging me to do otherwise.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Since when did “bike” get verbed, anyway?

  4. Bec Short says:

    Kind of a blessing and a curse of what we call “shareable content” in the biz. That snack sized tile shaped graphic (facebook will even helpfully give you the pixel width) that locks in a simple idea to rattle around cyber space endlessly. Once its out there and taking off, ya can’t re-release. I agree, it comes across a bit didactic, and would be fine for an in house style guide – a place where plain English taskmasters like myself can lord it over their colleagues. This could have been avoided just with different column headings…. “instead of..”/ “try…” ! The topic of language, how it creates in and out groups and , i dunno even “listening” are worthy ones in making a cycle utopia future.

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