“Improvement.” “Upgrade.” “Level of Service.” The traffic engineering profession is full of buzzwords laden with meaning — and, for the most part, the embedded meaning is something to the effect of “cars are king.”
Ian Lockwood is also a prolific cartoonist. Image: How We Drive
Ian Lockwood, P.E., has been working in the engineering profession for 30 years. He served as the chief transportation official for the city of West Palm Beach, Florida, before joining the engineering firm AECOM as a consultant and completing a Loeb Fellowship at Harvard.
Lockwood is on a mission to reform the way his profession uses language. I got a chance to sit down with him last week at the Congress for New Urbanism conference in Salt Lake City. Here’s what he had to say:
Angie Schmitt: Are there any words in particular you are targeting?
Ian Lockwood: What I’m really targeting are the values that are behind the words. The words were coined during the golden age of the automobile, the 1930s through the 60s, by the transportation experts. Those folks memorialized those words in our books and technical manuals, like the Highway Capacity Manual. And the intention was to express the values of the profession in those words. The values, of course, were very automobile-oriented.
And we still use those words today, even though our value sets have shifted dramatically. What the words do is perpetuate the bias of the time. So if we want to reform and change things, it’s much more difficult if the automobile biases and culture are literally hard-wired into the language.
I compare it to the women’s movement somewhat. In the 1970s, women were trying to become more equal to men. They changed the language from gender-biased words like fireman, chairman, man hours, man-powered to firefighter, police officers… and it leveled the playing field. What I’m hoping is that we can substitute out the biased language. I just want a level playing field so we can have rational discussions without the value-coded language skewing things all the time.
AS: Can you give us some examples of biased words?
IL: Probably the one we hear the most is “improvement.” When a conventional traffic engineer talks about an improvement, often it might mean a widening. It’s hard to argue against an “improvement,” because it’s a subjectively labeled word and it implies it’s getting better, even though it might not be getting better for all the user groups. It contains a bias for the automobile user over and above the other folks.
AS: Does that word have a really technical definition?
IL: No, it’s just the habit. But it’s used in definitions, like the “Transportation Improvement Plan.” Quite frequently those transportation improvement plans are mostly widening plans. And transportation improvement sounds like an inherently good thing to a layperson or a politician, but if they knew it was just a set of widenings, perhaps they would think differently.
The word “upgrade,” when you talk about changing a street from a collector street to an arterial street, it implies things are getting better. Why would you argue against an upgrade on a street –unless you’re a business person, or a cyclist, or someone that lives in the neighborhood that thinks the neighborhood is going to get worse because of it?