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Researcher explores the ‘Language of promoting cycling’

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“When it comes to cycle planning and policy, all parties involved (politicians, policy-makers, practitioners, advocates, etc) should remember that they are providing for “cycling”, not “cyclists””.
— Glen Koorey, University of Canterbury

Reader John Lieswyn (an associate at Alta Planning + Design) emailed me a link to an amazing bit of research this morning. A 2007 paper written by Glen Koorey, a transportation researcher based at the University of Canterbury titled, Are You a Cyclist or Do You Cycle? The Language of Promoting Cycling.

This 10-page paper (PDF) blows my mind, not because of the subject matter itself, but because Mr. Koorey explores a topic I have thought and spoken about for many years. It’s as if he crawled inside my brain and then reported back what he found.

From the online abstract, it appears Koorey presented the paper at a cycling conference in New Zealand. Here’s how he introduces the topic:

“Promoting more cycling in New Zealand is still an exercise fraught with much adversity, both from the general public and from decision- and policy-makers. It is therefore crucial that anyone advocating for a better cycling environment is careful in how they present their case, lest they end up “scoring an own goal” or furthering existing mis-conceptions.”

Anyone who reads this site closely, follows my daily rants on Twitter, or has heard me talk about this in person, knows that I agree with much of Koorey’s thinking. While I was not previously aware of his work, I find it fascinating that he and I have come to some of the same conclusions about 1) how to talk about cycling and 2) the power and importance language has in general.

Here’s more from the abstract:

Some key examples of this include:

  • Referring to “cyclists” rather than “people who cycle”, the former often conjuring up images of a relatively small bunch of “weird” people who only ever cycle.
  • Asking to “provide cycle facilities” rather than “provide for cycling”, when many treatments that greatly benefit cyclists often involve no dedicated cycle facilities.
  • Publicly highlighting safety problems for cyclists in an attempt to get improvements, when the net effect may be to increase the general perception of cycling as “dangerous”.
  • Pushing strongly for on-road cycle provision, thus alienating the population who would prefer an off-road environment to cycle on; or vice versa.

The paper itself goes into greater detail about how language reflects (often unintended) bias against “cyclists” — or as I prefer to say, people who ride bicycles.

One of my pet peeves is when people refer to a “bicycle community”, “cyclists”, or “bike advocates” as one, homogenous, definable block of people. As if we are all friends and we hang out in some basement plotting our next move. “It can be simple descriptions like this that can subtly serve to question the rights of those who cycle,” Koorey writes, “Humans, by nature, like to group similar people together, especially when trying to discredit them (e.g. “Asian drivers”, “Muslim terrorists”). A more objective way to deal with this is to refer to the activity rather than the people… When it comes to cycle planning and policy, all parties involved (politicians, policy-makers, practitioners, advocates, etc) should remember that they are providing for “cycling”, not “cyclists”.”

And with this, Koorey recommends one of the major principles in my approach to language use: use the verb “cycling” whenever possible, instead of a noun like “cyclist”. By taking the human identifier out of the equation and focusing on the activity, you make it more difficult to attach bias to the subject. I do this a lot when I write about “pedestrian” issues (I put it in quotes, because I don’t like to ever use that word). Instead of “pedestrian advocates” or “bike/ped projects” — two very common terms in the advocacy/DOT worlds — I will substitute the word “walking” whenever possible. For example, someone who works to make walking safer and more pleasant is “someone who cares about walking” or a “walking advocate” — not a “pedestrian advocate”.

Koorey’s paper is full of other important thinking about the words we use and why we should consider using other ones. “Vulnerable road user”, a common term here in Oregon because we have a law named after it, perpetuates what Koorey calls the “dangerisation” of cycling. Instead, he prefers “active transportation user”.

In my opinion, Koorey’s paper touches on just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to re-thinking our language use. I am constantly learning and understanding more about this topic each day as I try to communicate about cycling and its role in our society and the transportation debates we often find ourselves in.

I have gotten a lot of interesting feedback when I share my feelings on this topic. Some people are initially skeptical, but after keeping an open mind they see the value in taking this stuff seriously. I’ve even had a public information officer at the Portland Police Bureau call me to help proofread a press release because he knew how important the topic was. But there are also folks who think this whole thing is much ado about nothing and get upset at me for even suggesting that the words we use matter.

And it’s not an exact science. There are not hard-and-fast rules about which words to use when to use them. It’s simply about respect and consciousness for how words impact our ability to make change and have productive conversations.

I highly recommend checking out Goorey’s paper (PDF). Another good one sent to me by the same reader is a 2010 paper by Russel Greig titled, Limitations on the use of the term ‘cyclist’ to describe people who ride bicycles (PDF).

UPDATE: For more on this topic, read this “Language Matters” piece I wrote in 2011 which critiqued a PBOT press release.

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