Alternatives to the Automobile

West Palm Beach: Revising Carcentric Language

The following memo was sent to all department directors and division heads of the City of West Palm Beach by Michael Wright, the City Administrator (Manager) on November 14, 1996:

[editorial note (dc): I am not sure who is the author of the original editorial annotations (preserved) in this doc, but I agree with all of them.]

Please be advised that the City of West Palm Beach has adopted a new transportation language policy. Employees are asked to follow the policy and encourage those who deal with the City to do the same. The intent of the policy is to remove the biases inherent in some of the current transportation language used at the City. This change is consistent with the shift in philosophy as the City works towards becoming a sustainable community. Objective language will be used for all correspondences, resolutions, ordinances, plans, language at meetings, etc. and when updating past work.

Everyone's cooperation will be greatly appreciated. Please ensure that your employees are aware of, and use, the objective language. After a few of weeks of practice, using the objective language will become second nature.


Much of the current transportation language was developed in the 1950's and 1960's. This was the golden age of automobiles and accommodating them was a major priority in society. Times have changed, especially in urban areas where creating a balanced, equitable, and sustainable transportation system is the new priority. The transportation language has not evolved at the same pace as the changing priorities; much of it still carries a pro-automobile bias. Continued use of biased language is not in keeping with the goal of addressing transportation issues in an objective way in the City.Languages Changes. There are several biased words and phrases that have been identified and summarized at the end of this memo. Suggested objective language is also summarized. The rationale for the changes is explained below. In summary, the City has to be unbiased, and appear to be unbiased. Objective language will also allow the City to be inclusive of all of the City's constituents and modes of transportation.

The word improvements is often used when referring to the addition of through lanes, turn lanes, channelization, or other means of increasing motor vehicle capacity and/or speeds. Though these changes may indeed be improvements from the perspective of motor vehicle users, they would not be considered improvements by other constituents of the City. For example, a resident may not think that adding more lanes in front of the resident's house is an improvement. A parent may not think that a channelized right turn lane is an improvement on their child's pedestrian route to school. By City staff referring to these changes as improvements, it indicates that the City is biased in favor of one group at the expense of others. Suggested objective language includes being descriptive (e.g., use through lanes, turn lanes, etc.) or using language such as modifications or changes.


Like improved and improvement, there are similarly biased words such as enhance, enhancement, and deteriorate. Suggested objective language is shown in the examples below.


Upgrade is a term that is currently used to describe what happens when a local street is as a collector, or when a two-lane street is expanded to four lanes. Upgrade implies a change for the better. Though this may be the case for one constituent, others may disagree. Again, using upgrade in this way indicates that the City has a bias that favors one group over other groups. Objective language includes expansion, reconstruction, widened, or changed.


Level of service is a qualitative measure describing the operational conditions of a facility or service from the perspective of a particular set of users (motor vehicle users, cyclists, pedestrians, etc.). If the set of users is not specified, then it is a mystery as to which set is being considered. The bias enters the picture when it is assumed that, unless otherwise specified, level of service implies for motor vehicle users. The objective way to use this term is to add the appropriate modifier after "level of service".


If "level of service" were used frequently for the same users in the same document, using the modifier every time would be cumbersome. In these situations, the modifier is only required at the beginning of the document and periodically after that . . .

. . . Promoting alternative modes of transportation is generally considered a good thing at the City. However, the word alternative begs the question "Alternative to what?" The assumption is alternative to automobiles. Alternative also implies that these alternative modes are nontraditional or nonconventional, which is not the case with the pedestrian, cycle, nor transit modes.

[I would also add that the term alternative disparagingly implies that it is a form of travel only used by hippies, wild-eyed radicals, or other undesirable, weird, counter-culture types, and will therefore never be a form of mainstream transportation used by us "normal" people -- ed.]

If we are discussing alternative modes of transportation in the City, then use direct and objective language such as "non-automobile" modes of transportation. Alternatively, one can add an appropriate modifier as shown in the last example.


[My own personal preference for terminology here is: Sustainable forms of transportation are important to the downtown. -- ed.]

Accidents are events during which something harmful or unlucky happens unexpectedly or by chance. Accident implies no fault. It is well known that the vast majority of accidents are preventable and that fault can be assigned. The use of accident also reduces the degree of responsibility and severity associated with the situation and invokes a inherent degree of sympathy for the person responsible. Objective language includes collision and crash.


Protect means shielding from harm. However, when we discuss protecting land for a right of way for a road, the intent is not to shield the land from harm, but to construct a road over it. Objective words include designate and purchase.


Everyone at the City should strive to make the transportation systems operate as efficiently as possible. However, we must be careful how we use efficient because that word is frequently confused with the word faster. Typically, efficiency issues are raised when dealing with motor vehicles operating at slow speeds. The assumption is that if changes were made that increase the speeds of the motor vehicles, then efficiency rises.

However, this assumption is highly debatable.

For example, high motor vehicle speeds lead to urban sprawl, motor vehicle dependence, and high resource use (land, metal, rubber, etc.) which reduces efficiency. Motor vehicles burn the least fuel at about 30 miles per hour; speeds above this result in inefficiencies. In urban areas, accelerating and decelerating from stopped conditions to high speeds results in inefficiencies when compared to slow and steady speeds. There are also efficiency debates about people's travel time and other issues as well.

Therefore, be careful how you use the word efficient at the City, If you really mean faster, then say faster. Do not assume that faster is necessarily more efficient. Similarly, if you mean slower, then say slower.


[It is for these reasons that I have concerns about the wording of the Transportation Goal of Sustainable Alachua County, which refers to "efficient" travel. -- ed.]


Biased TermsObjective Terms
improvechange, modify
enhance, deterioratechange, increase, decrease
upgradechange, redesignate, expand, widen, replace
level of servicelevel of service for [whom?]
trafficmotor vehicles
traffic demandmotor vehicle use
accidentcollision, crash
protectpurchase, designate
and I suggest also retiring a potentially disparaging/dismissive term:

[editorial note (dc): This memo was distributed over five years ago, as of the date I posted this -- Feb 2002. Dear reader, is your City government still using antiquated carcentric language in its transportation reports and budgets? Mine is :-) ]
De Clarke