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What We’re Really Saying When We Say “Alternative”

11:12 AM EDT on March 23, 2010

US DOT Secretary Ray LaHood has drawn ridicule for his support of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. (Photo: Reconnecting America)

The word "alternative" is one of the most fraught in the English language. While it can have some positive connotations, especially for those who want to be seen as opposing the mainstream (like "alternative newspapers"), when used by those within the mainstream, it is usually a not-so-subtle dismissal. If you hear someone talking about "people who live alternative lifestyles," there's a good chance what they mean is "those freaks that I have nothing in common with."

Today on the Streetsblog Network, member blog M-Bike.org argues against the use of the word "alternative" when referring to non-automobile transportation:

Biking and walking are not alternative transportation. Alternative transportation is an auto-centric term which implies that only motor vehicles are mainstream transportation.

It’s a loaded term and one worth dropping, especially given the U.S. DOT’s recent policy statement that encourages government agencies to consider "walking and bicycling as equals with other transportation modes."

That policy statement and similar remarks by US DOT Secretary Ray LaHood have caused some members of Congress to suggest -- they're just joking, of course -- that the former GOP Congressman from Illinois is really, you know, alternative. This from Courthouse News Service:

To laughter, Republican House members suggested LaHood was taking drugs, dismissed the very idea of bike lanes and derided any change to a car-dependent society. "What job is going to be created by having a bike lane?" asked Ohio Republican Steven LaTourette.

He suggested that environmental sustainability projects have "stolen" $300 million from other programs and to attacked LaHood's encouragement of bicycling, on a personal level. "If it's not a typo, is there still mandatory drug-testing at the department?" said the wit, to chuckles from the back of the room.

The idea of LaHood as being some sort of loopy fringe character would have been unthinkable when he was appointed to the DOT position at the start of Obama's term in office. Back then, his most widely cited credential was his pragmatic expertise in Congressional politics, his ability to deal with folks on both sides of the aisle. Things have changed.

Thanks to Mark Abraham of Design New Haven for the link to LaTourette's remarks.

More from around the network: Greater Greater Washington on an elected official who actually thinks we might be too lenient with drivers who kill. DC Bicycle Transportation Examiner on the health bill's Community Transformation grants. And Tucson Bike Lawyer on the "Ciclovía" in Yellowstone National Park.

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