Language Matters

Taking a closer look at the power of words and framing when it comes to bicycling issues.

Portland radio show hosts: ‘Jerk bikers’ deserve ‘clothesline wire’ for riding through parking lot

Posted on September 10th, 2019 at 1:22 pm.

A host from 1080 The Fan makes the throat-slitting gesture as he suggests using clothesline wire to hurt bicycle riders.

A trio of local sports radio show hosts has posted a video where they talk about how they’d like to seriously injure “jerk bikers.” The two men in the video are Isaac Ropp and Jason “Big Suke” Scukanec, hosts of Primetime with Isaac & Suke, which the station bills as, “Portland’s most popular sports talk show.”

Employees of 1080 The Fan, a radio station owned by Entercom Communications Corp, posted the video in
a tweet last Thursday (September 5th). Apparently they are frustrated because people who ride on the Willamette Greenway path cut through the parking lot outside their building to connect to surface streets in the South Waterfront District.

Here’s the tweet:
[Read more…]

Crashes are still accidents at the Oregon DMV

Posted on May 10th, 2016 at 1:40 pm.

I was looking for the crash report form.(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

I was looking for the crash report form.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

As advocates and even the Associated Press move away from calling all traffic incidents “accidents” there’s one important state agency that shows no signs of ridding itself of the controversial word. And unfortunately it just so happens to be the one agency that every single licensed driver has contact with: the Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles.

A few weeks ago I paid a visit to the DMV office in downtown Portland. As I walked in I noticed a wall rack full of forms and one of them stared back at me: “Accident Report” it read. It made my language and activism hairs stand on end. As many of you already know, there are a lot of reasons why the word “accident” should never be used in the context of vehicle interactions on streets. For starters, calling something an “accident” makes a huge assumption that the crash was unavoidable and unintentional. And if that isn’t reason enough, the term dismisses the pain of crash victims.

When I got home from the DMV I pulled up the DMV website and there was that word again, splashed all over the page. From local to regional to statewide government, I haven’t seen any transportation-related agency use the term “accident” so much. I had to ask the DMV about it.
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A look inside one newspaper’s thinking on crashes, accidents and collisions

Posted on March 31st, 2016 at 9:39 am.

fatal accident angle coverage of a fatal collision this month.

“Accident”? “Crash”? “Collision”?

The Oregonian’s director of news says the newspaper’s unofficial practice has been, for years, to avoid “accident” in the absence of information because that word suggests that a traffic incident was unpreventable.

But the copy desk chief says the opposite: his preference is to go with “accident” in the absence of information because he feels “crash” and “collision” are favored by “activists” and the newspaper needs to remain neutral.

Reporters, meanwhile, don’t seem to be sure what to do. Last week, a business reporter was taking her turn on a weekend cops shift when an allegedly drunk driver killed a 17-year-old; her report described this as a “bike accident.” After a local lawyer emailed her to suggest different phrasing, she first described the word choice as “fine” based on the advice of one editor, then later apologized based on the advice of a different editor.

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Dear fellow journalists: This is why you should use #CrashNotAccident

Posted on March 21st, 2016 at 4:39 pm.

fatal accident angle coverage of Saturday’s fatal encounter.

I spent five years in daily newspapers. I get it. Everyone has an axe to grind; it is not your job to grind their axes for them.

When you use the word “accident” in a story about a man who allegedly decided to get drunk and zoom down an East Portland side street in a pickup truck, presumably getting a nice bounce over the speed bumps right before he killed a 17-year old on a bicycle, some people get upset.

Use “crash” or “collision,” they plead. Not “accident.”

I got these comments myself sometimes after I’d worked weekend shifts at my last newspaper, The Columbian, and for years I ignored them.

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Language Matters: Three rhetorical tricks bike advocates could learn from Uber’s Plouffe

Posted on May 6th, 2015 at 11:40 am.

(Video courtesy Willamette Week/Tech Fest Northwest)

Language Matters is an occasional column about the ways we talk about bikes and biking.

When bike believers get political, they often struggle with talking points. People who know the argument for biking in their bones can forget that those who don’t ride won’t be convinced without words.

David Plouffe has never struggled with talking points.

The Obama campaign manager and strategic advisor turned professional Uber evangelist was in town last week to speak at the annual Tech Fest Northwest conference, and his 13-minute stump speech on behalf of his current employer was a rhetorical sight to behold.

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National org wants to know: What should we call this thing we do everyday?

Posted on August 25th, 2014 at 2:39 pm.


People for Bikes, a national advocacy group funded by the bicycle industry, wants to change cycling in America by coming up with a new name for it. Specifically, the group wants help figuring out what to call everyday cycling in order to differentiate it from recreation and fitness riding.

Here’s the set-up from People for Bikes via an email they sent out today:

“Lots of people ride bikes for recreation, exercise and sport. But there’s another kind of bicycling that’s becoming more and more popular in communities across the country. It’s difficult to quantify, because folks call it a lot of different things. And it doesn’t have an official name…

Imagine you’re rolling out on your bike right from your garage—no spandex involved, you’re wearing normal, everyday clothes.

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Comparing language in winter traffic advisories from PBOT and ODOT

Posted on February 6th, 2014 at 1:17 pm.

Are all road users equally served by traffic advisories?

We think the words people use say a lot about their perspectives and priorities. That’s why I always enjoy reading traffic advisories and press releases from our local transportation agencies.

When it comes to severe weather warnings, I have communicated directly with both the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) and the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) that their statements should not ignore the fact that many people in this region ride bicycles in winter. Yes, even when it snows and rains.

So, with this week’s big snowstorm on its way, I sat back and waited to see how each agency would handle the inevitable bad weather road advisories. I’m happy to report, that while not perfect, both agencies have improved a lot in recent years! Let’s start with ODOT…
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Language Matters: Despising ‘avid cyclist’ and a news story anatomy

Posted on October 7th, 2013 at 2:05 pm.

“The term ‘cyclist’ continues to provide us with a damaging mental barrier and convenient scapegoat. It serves only to alienate and denigrate an entire segment of society, and cast them aside as ‘others’.”
— Chris Bruntlett, via Hush Magazine

In our ongoing effort to raise awareness about how the words we use establish (sometimes harmful) cultural norms and have a major impact on our discussions around traffic safety and bicycling, we’re bringing back our Language Matters column.

While many people still don’t get why we take this issue so seriously, we are heartened by two recent examples we’ve come across that help make the case that this is something worthy of consideration and action.

The first is an excellent essay by Vancouver (Canada) resident Chris Bruntlett titled, I Am Not a Cyclist which was published on Hush Magazine’s website last week. Chris emailed us to share the essay and said he was inspired to write it after an appearance on a local talk radio show where the host referred to him as an “avid cyclist” throughout the interview. Chris said he had recently watched Áron Halász’s Cyclists Do Not Exist Tedx talk and he read our story from last month about a researcher’s work on language use and bike advocacy.
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Researcher explores the ‘Language of promoting cycling’

Posted on September 18th, 2013 at 1:53 pm.

“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.”

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Bike Gallery uses ad to make ‘Plea to Portland Cyclists’

Posted on September 22nd, 2011 at 5:08 pm.

Bike Gallery, an institution in Portland with six local stores, is running an interesting new ad in the Willamette Week. The ad is a ‘Plea to Portland Cyclists’ and it implores people on bikes to wear bright clothing, use lights, and obey traffic laws.

Here’s the ad:[Read more…]