Keep Your Pedestrian, I’m A Walker, Hear Me Roar!
Last week I was in a meeting defending discussing a transportation element for Traverse City’s master plan. The process is part of the planning commission’s role to build-out last year’s passed, but rather vague, city master plan. There are nine elements, of which I’ve participated in two: transportation and parks & recreation. The master plan provides the City a framework and direction for the future, and is the key document representing the community’s values. It’s a big deal and a language is critical.
I’m not ready to talk about that; groups are still working. However, last week’s discussion got me thinking. It was reflective of the subtle meanings in language. Part of the transportation element is the Non-Motorized Transportation. Or, should I say, Human-Powered Transportation. Or, perhaps it’s Walking & Biking. Or, the Hop, Skip and Jump Transport. Or…well… needless to say, the header for this particular element was important and changed several times during our process. Our latest draft uses Active Transportation; I think.
It’s not a common term, but among planners and transportation geeks, Active Transportation is growing in use, particularly as it’s connected to combating growing health concerns. We chose it because it is the most inclusive and flexible for future uses, including funding potential. At the basis, it includes walking and bicycling, but is flexible enough to consider long-boards, kick bikes, wheelchairs, skis and kik-sleds.
Are You A Walker?
That discussion got me thinking about how we label users of different transportation choices. We often classify people into different groups as if their mobility choices define them. I’m guilty of it as much as anyone. Although when I use the term motorist, I’m typically referring to more than just people in cars. Rather, I use it to refer to the advocates of car-culture over other forms of transportation. Similar to how these motorists use cyclists as a tool to limit the perception to people who want to bike as simply lycra-clad speed riders.
Like most labels, the intention is to create narrow understanding and bias. In certain situations, that is precisely what is needed. At other times, it reflects a laziness and becomes unnecessarily counter productive. I still cringe at some of the implied meanings of BATA riders during the transit center debate a few years back.
Language isn’t neutral. We shouldn’t even try to change that, but we can be more intentional of the meanings our words imply. At times, it’s suitable to label someone or yourself to highlight a distinction. Part of the beauty of the human experience is proclaiming who we are and for what we stand. I’m a walker, hear me roar!
For public documents, however, we need to strive to be as inclusive as possible. And, as positive as possible; not as dull as possible. Beyond documents, we see this in our street signs. For example, why do we need to use the term pedestrian? It seems so sterile and limited. “Stop for Pedestrians in Crosswalk” may be more effective if it said “Stop for Your Neighbors in Crosswalk“.
This post has gone farther than intended, hence calling it a ramble, but I want to wrap it up by referring to a recent post on Human Transit on this subject. That piece was itself a reflection on a Michael Druker’s similar post at the BLOG Psystenance. Frustrated by the limitations of previous labels, he suggests these changes:
- Old: pedestrians. New: people on foot, or people walking.
- Old: cyclists. New: people on bikes, or people cycling.
- Old: transit users. New: people on transit.
- Old: drivers or motorists. New: people in cars, or people driving.
As he explains, “sometimes we’re in cars, sometimes we’re on transit, sometimes we’re on bikes, and sometimes we’re on foot. But we’re all people, and our perspectives are much more similar than the facile modal categories lead us to believe.”
What are your thoughts? Do you feel constrained by mode labeling or empowered?