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Language Matters: PBOT on Sunday Parkways

Posted by on May 24th, 2011 at 12:18 pm

[Publisher’s note: As anyone who follows me on Twitter or who has read the comments and stories on this site closely over the years knows, I have a thing for language. In my opinion, the words we use have a very powerful role in shaping the narrative around transportation issues. I see examples of this impact almost every day. In Language Matters* (column originally called Language Police, but changed after some feedback in the comments), we’ll highlight communications from advocacy leaders, government agencies, and elected officials that offer examples of how transportation language is used — and misused.]

Sunday Parkways kicked off last weekend. To prep the media for the event, the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) sent out a press release. Here are the excerpts that caught my eye (emphasis mine):

“The public should expect traffic control changes in the vicinity of the event and be aware of increased numbers of pedestrians and bicyclists. Residents will have access to their homes and can cross the route at the designated intersections.

… The traffic-free streets and parks are excellent, safe places to be a pedestrian and bicyclist and be active during the event.”

One of my main issues with transportation language is the use of the words “pedestrians” and “bicyclists.” In my opinion, putting a label on someone simply for how they move around only makes it easier for them to be marginalized, stereotyped, criticized, dismissed, and so on.

In the case above, PBOT’s press release reads as if “pedestrians and bicyclists” are some sort of alien beings that will descend upon these neighborhoods. What makes the statement worse, is that it’s followed immediately by “Residents…” These two sentences create the false dichotomy that the “pedestrians and bicyclists” that will participate in Sunday Parkways are not residents of the area.

Given the fact that some people in East Portland don’t like the inconvenience of Sunday Parkways and feel “trapped” inside their homes as it is during the event, it would be wise for PBOT to avoid endorsing the idea that participants are outsiders, or worse, these odd creatures known as “bicyclists and pedestrians.”

Here’s my rewrite:

“The public should expect traffic control changes in the vicinity of the event and be aware of increased numbers of pedestrians and bicyclists people walking and biking on the roads. Residents will have access to their homes will be maintained and residents can cross the route at the designated intersections.

… The traffic-free streets and parks are excellent, safe places to be a pedestrian and bicyclist and be active enjoy your community during the event.”

I think the words we use matter. A lot.

What do you think?

NOTE: Thanks for sharing and reading our comments. To ensure this is a welcoming and productive space, all comments are manually approved by staff. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for meanness, discrimination or harassment. Comments with expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia will be deleted and authors will be banned.

83 thoughts on “Language Matters: PBOT on Sunday Parkways”

  1. Avatar daisy says:

    Stop using common sense it will only lead to more common sense and who wants that?

  2. Avatar Dave says:

    Generally, I completely agree. There is some grey area, as in certain circumstances it’s useful to refer to people by their mode of transportation, but I agree that in general, it is better to refer to people as all being the same, and that some choose one thing, and some choose another.

    I agree that the PBOT statement here makes it sound like “Residents” of the area are the ones driving cars and being inconvenienced by the event, and the people riding bikes and walking through the route are not from the area.

    The statement “The traffic-free streets and parks are excellent, safe places to be a pedestrian and bicyclist” seems particularly awkward to me, as if you suddenly become something else if you decide to walk or ride a bike rather than drive. Technically, everyone takes the opportunity to “be a pedestrian” every day, at some point or another, even if it’s just walking to and from their car to their house/office.

    Thanks for doing this column, I really think this is important to pay attention to and to think about carefully when writing things of our own.

  3. Avatar Alan 1.0 says:

    I like your rewrite and I think your concern about the meaning of the statement is valid but this part has a problem:

    access to homes will be maintained and residents can cross the route

    For many of the residents in that SE neighborhood, their big concern is that they won’t be able to DRIVE to or from their home during the ride and that does not address their fear. My understanding (AICBW but I’ve seen it at most every Parkways I’ve done) is that residents can, with escort from volunteers and at walking speed, get their cars in and out. Either way, I don’t think it’s fair to people who do feel car-dependent to not tell them clearly what to expect.

    1. Avatar Dave says:

      Perhaps you could say something like “residents who need to drive can cross the route at designated intersections with guidance from volunteers.”?

      1. Thanks Dave.

        FWIW, my rewrites aren’t really the point of this series…they’re just a way to demonstrate how a slight re-working doesn’t have to fundamentally change the message, but it can fundamentally change the perception of the message.

        I’m saying this because I don’t want the discussion to focus too much on the merits of my rewrites. What I’m trying to say is that I don’t want the discussion on these posts to become an english or grammar lesson, I want to stick to the topic of how language use impacts public perception of transportation issues. thanks.

        1. Avatar Dave says:

          Right, of course 🙂 Thanks for the reminder 🙂

        2. Avatar Alan 1.0 says:

          Yeah, yeah, linguistics are important but this isn’t NoamPortland and anyway, the devil is in the details. If you provide an example for discussion, you can’t really subsequently say, “oh, and don’t discuss the example.”

          FWIW, I think Dave’s suggestion is pretty good.

  4. Avatar Matti says:

    Excellent work, Jonathan. Language shapes our perceptions.

  5. Avatar patrickz says:

    YES, usage does matter. And your observations are right on. They should be read by those who write these “official” notices. Funny what we tend to do with language when trying to come to the point. Most everyone “overwrites”. When I was a clerk in the Army I kept a small collection of howlers by folks who were only trying to make things “clear”. Your Language Police idea makes very good sense. You’d make a good news editor, although I wouldn’t wish such a job on you…

    1. Avatar Dave says:

      Actually, he kind of is a news editor… he just does it for himself 😀

  6. Ooof, that is pretty terrible.

  7. Avatar q`Tzal says:

    I noticed from my comp class, taught by a newspaper columnist, that often a message is brought most succinctly by the use of the fewest number of words.

    Alas, the lawyers have the opposite viewpoint.

    1. Avatar Dave says:

      I think lawyers are often intentionally trying to be as obscure as possible, not succinct.

  8. Avatar mark kenseth says:

    You’re right. Discourse can steer ideology.

  9. Avatar craig says:

    I’d be curious to see you address this question to whomever manages public communications for PBOT, specifically for traffic operations.

    I would think the proposed Office of Equity would have a significant stake in updating the city’s communications strategy to deliberately use language which unites reather than divides people, both in the city’s internal and external comm’s.

    1. I actually shared these exact concerns with a high-level PBOT staffer at Sunday Parkways. They were very grateful for the feedback and said they’d look into it.

      Ultimately, I’d like PBOT, the BTA, the PPB, and other local orgs to take a pledge to use thoughtful, neutral, non-mode specific transportation language. stay tuned.

      1. Avatar craig says:

        Looking forward to the followup 🙂 I agree with you that the use of specific language is much to powerful a force to be taken for granted.

        1. Avatar craig says:

          “too powerful” so much for specific language.

      2. Avatar Brian E says:

        How about, “Our traffic free streets” instead of, “The traffic free streets”. Giving the sense that we are all included.

        1. Avatar are says:

          how about the fact that pedestrians and cyclists — sorry, people on foot and on bikes — are also “traffic.”

  10. Avatar wsbob says:

    It’s more than a little obsessive to expect that the words ‘pedestrians’ and ‘cyclists’ should never or almost never be used to refer to people traveling on foot and bike.

    Is there any suggestion whatsoever in the PD’s press release excerpts maus has posted in his story, suggesting that by the use of those words, the PD intended people traveling about in the Sunday Parkways event be “…marginalized, stereotyped, criticized, dismissed, and so on. …”?

    Even if the mere presence of the words themselves in a sentence does somehow, in the minds of certain individual readers, diminish the people being referred to, that’s not a particularly compelling reason to abstain from using those words. The words ‘pedestrians’ and ‘cyclists’ are simple, functional terms used to describe people in certain modes of travel, just as are, ‘motorists’, ‘drivers’, ‘joggers’, ‘flyers’, , ‘skiers’, etc., etc. .

    No offense from their use should be taken unless in the writing or the speaking of the person that’s using various descriptive words, it’s very clear that the person is intending to marginalize, stereotype or dismiss people being referred to by use of the words.

    1. Avatar craig says:

      @wsbob. No offense to you, but I think you’re somewhat out of touch.

      The city’s intent is not the issue–what matter are the results of the city’s communications.

      The city crafts public communications which influence the image that the general public has about biking and walking. Language which differentiates “them” from “you” from “us”, especially with travel mode as a demarcation point, is by its very nature divisive, and is counter to the city’s overall strategy and to the public good, and could reasonably called “reckless”.

      1. Avatar wsbob says:

        “…The city’s intent is not the issue–what matter are the results of the city’s communications. …” craig

        Results of the city’s communications are one of the things that matters in promoting positive relations amongst people in the city…road users of all kinds, and others…but Maus has not shown that the city’s use of the words he’s picked out for this story “pedestrians” and “bicyclists”…is having the negative results he’s attempting to suggest they are.

        This is not the first time in bikeportland’s history that Maus has made a story topic over his concern over road user nomenclature. Two or three years ago, he was fretting on these pages over the same thing, approximately about the time when the Oregonian was on its so called ‘bikes vs cars’ slew of attention getting articles.

        In that instance, where resentment and animosity were part of the incidents described, The Oregonian’s use of those terms, repeatedly in a fairly closely spaced series of stories, might have been fairly said to have helped in creating an association with the words maus has picked here, that possibly resulted in some of the effects maus talks about.

        The example maus used for this story…a simple PPB press release for the family event Sunday Parkways…is nothing like the stories the Oregonian did back then. Neither is Sunday Parkways anything like the incidents covered in the stories published by the Oregonian that I mentioned. There’s nothing negative going on in the event itself or the PPB press release.

        What maus seems to be suggesting, is some kind of a ban or restriction by the city, of it’s use of the words “pedestrians” and “bicyclists” in its press releases., and maybe even in other communications. If not so, what exactly he is suggesting is something he doesn’t make clear in his story.

        1. Avatar craig says:

          Suggesting a ban? Read “offering intelligent advice”. Sir, please minimize the drama.

          1. Avatar wsbob says:

            Okay, even though it’s not a phrase maus used in his story, instead of a ban or restriction…in the interest of constructive discussion, let’s go with you’re impression of what maus is advising: “offering intelligent advice”

            And that intelligent advice is what? If the advice is not non-use of the words “pedestrians” and “bicyclists.” what is the advice?

            Just for an experiment, whenever in future you write a comment in response to a bikeportland story, make a practice of substituting the words “pedestrians” and “bicyclists.”, which maus has become anxious over the use of, for the phrase (or variations thereof.)”…people walking and biking on the roads…” he offers in his re-write of the PBOT press release. If at all possible, don’t use the words “pedestrians” and “bicyclists.”.

            Occasionally, it works out to use phrases like ‘the person riding the bike’, etc., instead of simply ‘cyclist’, but after awhile of repeated use, it’s gets very awkward to not be able to use a single, not inherently negative descriptive word that refers to the same type of person.

        2. wsbob,

          All I’m suggesting is a heightened awareness and sensitivity to the words used to communicate information.

          And about your point about it becoming awkward or difficult to NOT use “pedestrians” or “bicyclists.” I agree and I disagree. I write about these topics everyday and it can be a bit more of a challenge on certain stories (especially describing how a crash happened) to avoid them. However, it’s not that hard once you get used to it.

          And to me, the larger issue — reducing hatred and divisiveness through more neutral language — is far more important than concerns about style, word count, and ease of writing.

          1. Avatar wsbob says:

            “… All I’m suggesting is a heightened awareness and sensitivity to the words used to communicate information. …” maus/bikeportland

            That’s advice that’s generally good to live by.

            The example you used though, for this story to illustrate your concern, was a press release for a family neighborhood cycling event…the press release being produced and released by an official bureau of transportation. In transportation bureaus,departments, agencies, and whatnot, the words “pedestrians” and “bicyclists.” are standard terminology for the types of road user each term implies.

            Oregon DMV driver’s and bike manuals also use those words to refer to people traveling by foot and people traveling by bike. Use of words such as “pedestrians” and “bicyclists”, from and by those sources, is for the purpose of succinctly communicating to the reader, information that’s of critical importance to safely traveling a wide variety of road situations.

            This isn’t people casually commenting in response to newspaper or weblog stories, or people writing stories for the same. It’s not a neighborhood association president speaking, or people from a neighborhood chatting over the back fence.

            I suppose, the writer of that transportation bureau press release, might have considered using words not unlike those you proposed in your re-write of their press release. They didn’t though, and part of the reason they didn’t is probably that the chosen writing was intended to draw on association with rules of road use specifically laid out in official manuals such as the driver’s and bike manuals published by the DMV.

    2. Avatar captainkarma says:

      I think in outer SE (where I live), the words “pedestrian” and “bicyclist” might indeed be negative flag words to motorists in the prevailing old-school culture. Out here, when one sees a bike trailer, it’s usually going the wrong way down a one way street, no lights/helmet etc, full of scavenged items that might be from *your* garage.

      Anyway, I like to use the language “people using bikes” or “folks walking”, because it seems to be less “us vs. them” ; more just “us” which is the actual reality, eh? We are all people just getting around.

  11. Avatar a.O says:

    I agree with the premise and like the re-write (except for the passive voice in the sentence about maintaining access).

    Now my pet peeve is people talking about cars doing things, as though those inanimate objects control themselves. This perpetuates the perceived anonymity of people driving motor vehicles, which is a factor that enables anti-social behavior toward other road users at times.

  12. Avatar Allison says:

    This is one of the most celebrated ideas people who are not linguists have about linguistics. “Language shapes thought” – the problem is, there’s very little evidence for it.

    I don’t want to go into the details – you can check out the wikipedia article on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or look at what has written on it, but the simple version is this: we don’t store words in our minds when we store information. The words signify a meaning that we tap into, store that meaning, and pull out that meaning later when we’re using the concepts. What that means it that if you say “cyclist” or “person on a bicycle” the mind stores that information identically. An individual who is likely to see a “cyclist” as an identified unit (political, social, whatever) will see “person on a bicycle” the same way. An individual who is likely to see a “person on a bicycle” as a person who happens to be on a bicycle but at other times is a real person with a family and ideas and motivations etc, will see the same thing when you say “cyclist.”

    We enter into our discussions with pre-formed ideas and world views. The words we use simply activate them. Changing the words doesn’t change the images and ideas we activate. Our relationships to our communities is what changes our ideas about them. The words are just words.

    Does that mean framing is unimportant? No. I think most political liberals have found themselves frustrated by what seems to be the incredible success of the conservative coining machine – but the effect that word choice has is not on the ideas themselves but the “stickiness” of the ideas – how easy it is to get a new person to consider them and then pass them on. They’re pithy. They’re clever. They’re quick. Jonathan, your preferred language choices are the opposite of those things. I don’t degrade them for their accuracy or even for what you’re trying to do – I just don’t think you’re going to get what you want out of this particular effort. It’s not the way language and people work.

    1. Allison,

      I appreciate your comment and the theory you present. However, I disagree. I have been thinking about this and practicing this type of language use for several years and I remain convinced it is real and important.

      I have also seen/heard examples of language influence people’s opinions many times. Language puts ideas into people’s heads, those ideas turn into opinions, those opinions turn into complaints/feelings, those complaints lead to comments at open houses and on blogs and those comments lead to PBOT and other orgs forming policy positions.

      I have also expressed these ideas to friends in the Police Bureau over the years and they agreed with me wholeheartedly; so much so that they began refraining from using “bicyclists” and “motorists” in their own language and in press releases.

      And, while I understand the argument about being pithy and concise, to me this isn’t about “stickiness” or word count, this is about framing vitally important transportation issues in a way that is free from bias and in a way that makes it more difficult for people to judge/label/stereotype and confirm their preconceived notions.

      1. Avatar captainkarma says:

        Theories often get more patches than a touring-bike inner tube in thorn country. Eventually they may or may not hold air any more

        Speaking of the PPB, I once had to explain to a very intelligent but autistic teen why the the PPB uses “bureau” in it’s title. The answer I got from them is that it sounds less threatening to the general public than just plain “Police”. We might not store exactly words, but we do process them emotionally. It’s how we remember.

        1. Avatar KJ says:

          Speaking of the importance of language use in a comment on language theory I feel it worth pointing out: Allison’s cited Sapir-Worf hypothesis is… a hypothesis, not a theory. Big difference.

          Not just you, Maus and Lovely Bicycle did this too, it’s a common error but an important distinction especially when talking about actual scientific hypothesis’ and theories.

          Pet peeve vernacular use of theory = idea…when hypothesis is more accurate. The common use of theory to mean idea or hypothesis weakens the validity of the word when applied to real, actual theories.


    2. Avatar Alan 1.0 says:

      What that means it that if you say “cyclist” or “person on a bicycle” the mind stores that information identically.

      A slur conjures up different meaning than the proper term for a scapegoated group, and individuals are often considered as seperate and distinct from such a group with which they share characteristics. Compare:
      Mao Zedong
      citizen of PRC

    3. Allison – You are taking a linguistic theory in a direction where it contradicts cognitive psychology theories. Those pre-conceived notions with which we arrive are cognitive schemata. Use of language can fundamentally influence which cognitive schema is activated. Look into “cognitive schema” and “priming.” There is a rich body of literature on this.

      1. Avatar Alexis says:

        Another linguist here echoing that this is not about Sapir-Whorf; it’s more about what Allison mentions in the final paragraph and Lovely Bicycle describes — framing and schemata. When the people come first, the picture we have of the situation in our head is different, and so our actions, and reactions, differ as well.

        Jonathan, thank you for your leadership in this area. It’s transformed my perception of using modes as labels. I still use the labels when it seems like the most appropriate option, but I try to avoid them otherwise.

  13. Avatar Doyle says:

    Looks like Jonathan Maus needs to read BikePortland.Org more often.

    From Jonathan’s comment on this subject above

    “Ultimately, I’d like PBOT, the BTA, the PPB, and other local orgs to take a pledge to use thoughtful, neutral, non-mode specific transportation language. stay tuned.”

    From his comments in Cycloculture blog

    “there is the amazing Community Cycling Center. This non-profit has bike summer camps for young kids, they empower lower income folks by teaching them to become self-reliant bicyclists”

    As for me –

    I believe there are two types of people in the world, those who believe in themselves and those who need to believe in something larger than themselves. Organized religion fills the need for the vast majority of those “I gotta have something to believe in” types. For those that are too liberal for but need to have something to believe in there are bikes.

    The basic glue that holds religious groups together fits neatly into the bike community “either your one of us or you’re wrong.”

    What good Christians bicyclists would all make if they didn’t have their bikes instead.

    1. Hi Doyle,

      Not sure I understand the religion part of your comment… But as for your link to my interview in a blog. Surely you understand that quotes that end up on a blog or other news outlet aren’t always exactly accurate? I don’t recall if I said “bicyclists” to that person or not… But two things. First, that link you share is from 2008. My thinking and practice on this topic has evolved considerably since then. And second, this isn’t about a crusade to rid the world of every instance of words I don’t like; nor is it an attempt to ridicule or call out people who use these words. It’s simple. I am convinced word use is important and I practice what I preach. I also want more people to learn about this… and as an aside, nearly every person that has taken the time to listen to my perspective on this has ended up agreeing with me about it.


      1. Avatar Doyle says:

        Are you familiar with Dr. Seuss?

        What I’m trying to say is we are all just Sneetches. Some of us are Star-Belly Sneetches and others are Plan-Belly Sneetches. We can tell one from another by our belly.

        At the end of the day though if we do or don’t have a star (I’m using the star here as a metaphor for labels – Bicyclist, pedestrian, car dependent, transit rider etc.) we are all just Sneetches and the label is irrelevant.

        “And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.
        That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars and whether They had one, or not, upon thars.”

        As for the religious reference just trying to point out that some non-mode specific, carbon neutral, alternative based transportation advocates become so wrapped up in their beliefs they begin to get preachy and self righteous to the point that they themselves begin to marginalize, stereotype, criticize and dismiss all the Sneetches that don’t believe.

        Or to put it another way, there is nothing wrong with being Christian, until you start persecuting all those who don’t believe.

    2. Avatar Alan 1.0 says:

      I believe there are 10 kinds: (01) those that believe there are only 10 kinds and (10) those who don’t.

  14. Avatar craig says:

    @Doyle: Hillarious! In an article about unintentionally divisive language, you go all intentional. My $1 goes into your hat.

  15. Avatar Evan Manvel says:

    Allison, your comment is one of the most interesting comments I’ve seen on BikePortland, and I’m not sure I fully understand what you’re saying ( didn’t seem to want to work, and the Wiki article you referred to seemed to mainly talk about word choices among cultures, not necessarily within the same culture).

    As someone who’s watched a lot of focus groups and seen a lot of polling, I can confirm people’s ability to support something (in a basic Boolean way) depends greatly on how they perceive it. That’s why ballot measure sponsors do ballot title shopping, where the words used to summarize the exact same policy can change public support of it by 20-30% or more.

    Gun safety? People support it.
    Gun control? Lots of controversy.

    Estate tax? Fine.
    Death tax? Bad.

    But the second point you make – about the power of phrases that are “sticky” is exactly right. And this point:
    “We enter into our discussions with pre-formed ideas and world views. The words we use simply activate them. Changing the words doesn’t change the images and ideas we activate.”

    Is what you’re saying that “safety” is stickier than “control” and “death” stickier than “estate”? It seems to me the images that each activate _are_ different.

    So is traffic crash stickier than traffic accident?

    Thanks for sharing linguistic info – I love the knowledge that can be shared by different disciplines.

    And thanks, Jonathan, for the effort. I do think it matters.

    1. Avatar Machu Picchu says:

      1.Gun safety and gun control are not the same thing, nor have I heard the terms used interchangeably before. 2: Death Tax is sticky, because “Death” is a loaded word (Most of us are really uneasy about it.) 3: I agree with you on “Crash” v. “Accident.

  16. Avatar OnTheRoad says:

    Maus, if you’re such a stickler for language, you might try learning the difference between its and it’s.

    The first is possessive, the second is a contraction.

    1. thanks OnTheRoad, I’m well aware of that. I am a human being, not a robot. As such, I make mistakes. Like I said above, this has nothing to do with technicalities of grammar.

    2. Avatar April says:

      As much as this kind of thing bugs me too, it doesn’t bug me nearly as much as people confusing “pedal” and “peddle” or “brake” and “break.”

      And human beings make mistakes all the time. Jonathan doesn’t have an editor other than himself that I’m aware of, and so I tend to try and ignore minor mistakes like that.

    3. Avatar C-Dawg says:

      Wow. Pedantic much?

  17. Avatar Paul Cone says:

    At one of the crossings I heard a police officer, in response to a query from a motorist as to what was going on, say “it’s a bicyclist event”. I bit my tongue ever so slightly and said “bicyclists, and rollerbladers and pedestrians and…” as I slowly rode by.

  18. Avatar JF says:

    Sorry, but I need to disagree on the first change in wording from “The public should expect traffic control changes in the vicinity of the event and be aware of increased numbers of pedestrians and bicyclists. ” to “people on bikes and walking on the roads”.

    The reason for the press release is to alert people who normally commute/live in the area to increased activity. This activity would close streets to motor vehicles. The press release indicates there will be increased pedestrian and bicycle traffic in the area, not only isolated to these closed streets.

    This is very important since the words pedestrian and bicyclist have distinct definitions in Oregon rules and regulations. This alerts motorists in the area that the increased pedestiran and bicyclist traffic does have legal rights when not in the closed areas. Crosswalks, passing bicycles, etc…

    But I do agree with changing “The traffic-free streets and parks are excellent, safe places to be a pedestrian and bicyclist and be active during the event.” to your recommended wording. 🙂

  19. We are people. Putting that word first in most circumstances is the right way to write.

    I remember reporting on the early days of AIDS. Overcoming stigma included dropping the label “AIDS patients” in favor of “people with AIDS”. Fully incorporating people who can’t see or walk, etc., into society has included tossing aside boxes made with words like “the blind” or “the handicapped”.

    Of course it’s fine to use the terms pedestrian and bicyclist. They are good technical terms. But putting “people” first in most discussions most of the time will help us get past the “us vs. them” dynamic.

    1. Avatar tacoma says:

      I like this. “People” is the term to use.

  20. Avatar sw resident says:

    I completely agree with the essence of this article. But…if this site has a preference for “neutral” language such as “people walking and biking on the road” then why the constant use of the phrase “the bike community”?
    When used with a qualifier such as “bike”, a community is generally defined as “a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists, for e.g. the Protestant community”. Bikeportland certainly pushes riding a bike as a cultural and lifestyle identity.
    If I go from A to B on a bike why the assumption that I share other characteristics or interests with a person who goes from C to D on a bike? An even more important part of the definition is that I also have to perceive myself as distinct from the larger society in order to belong to the community. Designating someone as part of a community based on one variable such as their mode of transportation at any given time renders the word “community” practically meaningless.
    Isn’t this the essence of why you have a problem with the objectification of people as “cyclists” and “pedestrians” in the first place?

    1. Um… sw resident. “Bike community” is another term that I stopped using a looong time ago. I think you’re confusing “this site” with comments you read on this site.

      You won’t find the term “bike community” used on this site in recent years. If you find an instance of it, let me know. I have been opposed to use for the exact same reasons as I’ve explained in this story.

      1. Avatar sw resident says:

        My apologies. The phrase appears so frequently in the comments that sometimes it blurs together for me. Thought I found irony where there wasn’t! And that in itself is….. As I stated I agree with your article and the power of language. Nice job. IMO, putting the emphasis on “people” is a great strategy for making the streets safer for all modes.

  21. Avatar bumblebee says:

    This discussion reminds me of a bit from “The Office” where Michael asks Oscar (a Mexican-American), “Is there a less offensive term for Mexican?” To which Oscar replies, “But Mexican isn’t offensive.” It’s a telling moment.

  22. Avatar beth h says:

    While I understand the premise and the intention, even the revised announcement would still send the message to residents of a given neighborhood that, basically a whole buncha other people are coming into this neighborhood for a few hours on a given day; and as a result, your travel times may be slowed and you may experience something akin to congestion.

    Bottom line is that the Whole Lotta People In My Hood thing may have as much to do with individual residents’ annoyance as any chosen modes of transport.

    Would we be having this discussion if the message went out that a grass-roots, unsanctioned drag race was being staged on Holgate and to expect a Whole Lotta People — and their cars? Not sure. But it would be funny to see how people reacted then. My money is still on folks not liking crowds on their residential streets.

  23. Avatar Chris says:

    I like your comments Jonathan. I also like the idea of making people realize their freinds and family may be part of that crowd. Include terms like “your neighbors” “children” “you and your friends”. We should not stop at just limiting the alienation, but go a step further and make it personal and inclusive.

  24. Avatar dwainedibbly says:

    Good wordsmithing, Jonathan. I like your edit.

  25. Avatar 9watts says:

    I too am glad you are focusing on language in this way. Taking this line a bit further, I don’t think the use of ‘traffic’ is accurate or helpful in the above passages. The point is that CARS and the traffic they represent are absent for part of the day. Following Ivan Illich, whose writing I’ve recommended here before, and who was keenly aware of the power of language, traffic doesn’t code for cars only.

    “The discussion of how energy is used to move people requires a formal distinction between transport and transit as the two components of traffic. By traffic I mean any movement of people from one place to another when they are outside their homes. By transit I mean those movements that put human metabolic energy to use, and by transport, that mode of movement which relies on other sources of energy. These energy sources will henceforth be mostly motors, since animals compete fiercely with men for their food in an overpopulated world, unless they are thistle eaters like donkeys and camels.”

  26. Avatar 9watts says:

    the next paragraph should have been attached to the prior message. Sorry about that.
    “As soon as people become tributaries of transport, not just when they travel for several days, but also on their daily trips, the contradiction between social justice and motorized power, between effective movement and higher speed, between personal freedom and engineered routing, become poignantly clear. Enforced dependence on auto-mobile machines then denies a community of self-propelled people just those values supposedly procured by improved transportation.”

  27. Avatar Charley says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with this Maus’ new version. Reads much better, too!

  28. Avatar craig says:


    part of the reason they didn’t is probably that the chosen writing was intended to draw on association with rules of road use specifically laid out in official manuals such as the driver’s and bike manuals published by the DMV.

    Bet you money you’re wrong. What a far-fetched presumption.

    1. Avatar craig says:

      And I dare you to respond with 50 words or less.

      1. Avatar wsbob says:

        Alright: go ahead…provide official info from the city, the state or other organization associated with this event that claims otherwise.

        1. Avatar craig says:

          Why would I? I don’t have a far-fetch presumption that needs substantiation. And way to go on the response under 50 words!

  29. Avatar J.R. (Dir. Keeping Lights On) says:

    wsbob – I think that is exactly the point. If these agencies could get to a post-modal, people-first use of language, we will see less Us vs. Them and start recognizing one another as neighbors & humans who all want (at least need) to coexist despite our respective choice of travel mode.

    1. Avatar wsbob says:

      J.R. …did you (and for that matter, others of you reading as well.) read the entire PBOT press release (link in maus’s story.), and not just the excepted sections maus used to write his story?

      If not, do that and see if you find any “… Us vs. Them …” attitude implied in it. I doubt you will; the message being conveyed in it seems to me to be very upbeat and positive towards everybody that would have using the street during this event.

  30. Avatar 9watts says:

    what I think you’re missing is the fact that in the example Jonathan chose, the ostensible point of the event (Sunday Parkways) is its collective, celebratory nature. As Jonathan pointed out quite succinctly the labels don’t do a good job of conveying that core message. Having been alerted to the problem, I would go a bit further than Jonathan in my critique of the language used. Finally, if as you say this is harkening back to terms in the DMV manual (remember this event is about the absence of the MV in DMV) then that is itself part of the problem.

    1. Avatar wsbob says:

      9watts, I’ll suggest to you as I have to J.R. in my May 25, 2011 at 8:00 pm response to to him: If you haven’t read the entire PBOT press release, then do so.

      In parts of that press release other than those included in maus’s story, the PBOT writer has made a lot of effort to convey the core message that this Sunday Parkways event is dedicated to creating a setting where people can relax on their street, walk, bike, get to know each other, and have all kinds of other fun.

      The words “pedestrians” and “bicyclists.” are used within the text of the press release to refer to some of the people participating in the even, but not in ways that, in maus’s words, “… makes it easier for them to be marginalized, stereotyped, criticized, dismissed, and so on.”

      The last part of your comment:

      “… Finally, if as you say this is harkening back to terms in the DMV manual (remember this event is about the absence of the MV in DMV) then that is itself part of the problem.”

      The presence of motor vehicles in this event is minimized, but they do factor into it, because residents are allowed access to their homes.

      “…Residents will have access to their homes and can cross the route at the designated intersections. …” PBOT

      A lot of people are co-operating to make events like Sunday Parkways happen, including people living or visiting the area that for one reason or another, must rely on a motor vehicle for transportation to locations along the event route. PBOT’s press release is intended for them too, as well as event participants. If they’re going to be driving a motor vehicle along or across the event route, it absolutely makes sense for them to be reminded of their responsibilities to cyclists and pedestrians as described in the drivers manual.

      1. Avatar El Biciclero says:

        Jumping in here. The problem with the language in my view is this:

        Distinguishing between “cyclists”, “pedestrians” and “residents”, with the assumption that “residents” will be driving and have limited access to their homes due to those darn “cyclists” and “pedestrians” creates an immediate, if unintentional, adversarial relationship between “us” and “them”. Further, rather than say, “Residents will have access to their homes and can cross the route at the designated intersections”, I might have tried, “Limited motor vehicle use will be allowed for neighborhood residents who need local access.” or something similar to ease fears that cars would be completely prohibited.

        Another issue I have is one that has been mentioned above: saying that the event will create “traffic-free” streets is grossly inaccurate and implies that the only legitimate “traffic” in the city is motor vehicle traffic. I might have tried “streets filled with human-powered traffic”, or some such.

        wsbob–the debate is not about what PBOT intended to connote with their use of language, it is about how labels affect perceptions of particular “groups”, which may be false groups to begin with. Sometimes I’m a “pedestrian”, other times I’m a “cyclist”, and other times I’m a “driver”. Using those terms outside of a specific incident at a single moment in time creates the notion that these groups have permanent members that never cross over from one classification to another and makes it easier to invent conflicts between groups that are really individual issues.

        1. Avatar 9watts says:

          Furthermore, this is a dynamic issue. I’m not the same person, don’t have the same outlook or understanding of these issues I was/had before becoming a reader and fan of bikeportland. Written with the kind of thoughtfulness under discussion here, press releases like these could precipitate or at least not impede social change in directions many of us might agree are positive. We’ve all got a lot to learn.

        2. Avatar wsbob says:

          I understand that the debate is about is about how labels can affect people’s perceptions of particular. I don’t see though, that maus’s apparent contention that the PBOT press release for Sunday Parkways was remiss in avoiding words that could have had an effect by way of that press release, of causing people to have an unfavorable view of event participants…has any validity.

          Have there been any reports of people reacting unfavorably to event participants of the recent Sunday Parkways in a dismissive way, due to having taken a cue from the words “pedestrians” and “bicyclists” as used in the PBOT press release? If there had been any, very likely, maus would have reported that for his story…but most likely there have been no such reports, or even any significant negative result from the use of those words in that press release for this event.

          1. Avatar wsbob says:

            correction for comment: wsbob May 26, 2011 at 11:00 pm:

            “I understand that the debate is about is about how labels can affect people’s perceptions. …”

          2. Avatar 9watts says:

            social interactions, prejudice, cooperation, solidarity, fear are not parts of a car that you can remove and line up on a greasy rag in an attempt to find the problem with the engine. The absence of reports of malice traceable to these three words in the Sunday Parkways press release does not prove that Jonathan’s argument has no merit or that the example he chose is in fact, as you keep insisting, composed of neutral letter combinations.

  31. Avatar Jonathan Gordon says:

    I fully support the premise of this article and like the idea behind the new column. And like you, “I think the words we use matter. A lot.” Which is why I think you might want to consider changing the column name from “Language Police” to something less abrasive. I think “Language Police” is a bit too evocative of Orwell’s “Thought Police”. Additionally, I think the word police has a general appeal to authority that I think many people automatically bristle at.

    I’m wondering if you can do something bike punny instead, like “Language Derailer”. Or maybe get (better) suggestions from your readership?

    1. thanks Jonathan,

      funny you mention “Language Police”… it’s sort of been bugging me too for similar reasons. If I can think of something better I’ll use it in the future. thanks.

      1. Avatar craig says:

        I like the fecetious tone of someone calling himself out as “Language Police”, but that’s just my style. But I agree that as recurring feature here, it could benefit by a more positive and less sardonic title.

  32. Avatar J.R. (Dir. Keeping Lights On) says:

    How about just “Language Matters” but only because the Central Scrutinizer is already taken. (I miss Frank)

  33. I like Language Matters. Thinking of making the change.. Thanks JR!

  34. Avatar David K says:

    I’ve often heard that these types of language shifts be defined as “people-first” changes. Instead of “bicyclists,” we say “people who bicycle” and in that way stress the similarity, not the difference.

    I find that the phrase “people-first” is a succinct way of guiding authors in their writing, something we can all benefit from and remember easily.

  35. Avatar 9watts says:

    And yet it isn’t just about people; it is about the relationship between people and their mode of transport. Sunday Parkways (since that was the example used here) is about rediscovering, re-valuing, respecting human-powered mobility. ‘People who drive’ may be language that is less divisive, but the underlying tradeoff between the modes which Sunday Parkways highlights is still there. I guess what I’m trying to suggest is that we need both, more attention to language and fewer cars, I mean people-who-drive.

  36. Avatar David K says:

    I actually really value “people who drive” and “people who choose multimodal transport.” It seems like so often it’s described as “bicyclists,” “pedestrians,” and “cars.” Which does separate the active user of those vehicles from the mode of transport they have chosen.

    In a sense, writing which puts the person first puts cyclists, pedestrians, and drivers of vehicles on the same level. I also think it’s necessary to throw in more categories to these lists in which parallel structure plays a role. I’ve always like “people who choose multi-modal transport” as a fourth category which admits that some people choose different means of transportation at different times.

  37. Avatar Ryno Dan says:

    You promised this “cyclist” linguistics editorial long ago. Glad to see it. I still don’t like the all-pervasive car mentality in our society.

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