What We're Really Saying When We Say "Alternative"

090224lahood.jpgUS 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.

17 thoughts on What We're Really Saying When We Say "Alternative"

  1. I’m always surprised how people are themselves a lot more flexible than either their culture or their politics will let them think they are.

    In much the way people shook their heads in disbelief at the time & effort taken up by the horse-and-buggy when they took to cars, many bicyclists today look back at their cars in disbelief for the same reasons. We’ll still have cars, we just won’t need them like we think we do.

  2. That’s an interesting argument and one I guess I would have to agree with despite never having really thought about it before. I use the term “alternative transportation” on my blog mostly because it’s what everyone else uses too.

    So I guess the question is how do we differentiate between cars and the other modes of transportation (metro, cycling, walking, etc.) without using the dreaded “A” word? I ask because, while everyone here is in the know, we still need to explain ourselves to the uninitiated.

    Any thoughts?


  3. Barry,

    I wouldn’t worry so much about it. This sounds like another example of political correctness being used to change the lexicon of the debate to skew things one way or another.

    The word “alternative” simply acknowledges the reality that auto’s are the predominant mode of travel in this nation but also asserts that we should be more open to other options to that, where that is practicable.

    No politician or voter is going to agree to a new bike lane just because you stop calling bikes “alternative” and instead call them “parallel” or “co-equal” or some other PC euphemism

  4. If “alternative transportation” suggests that driving a car is normal and mainstream, I’d vote for “sustainable transportation” or “low-impact transportation,” which rightfully implies that driving a car is not sustainable and has a high negative impact on our social and physical environment.

  5. I’ve taken the time to e-mail Mr. LaTourette expressing my disappointment in his comments. I think you should too:


    Whether or not you think it’s a lot cause, I think it’s important to let people in congress know that we are watching them and that these issues are important to us. I may not live in Ohio, but this is a NATIONAL issue and I’ll make sure everyone I know who does live there knows about this.

  6. So I share my thoughts with Rep. LaTourette and receive this as a response:

    “Thanks for contacting Steven LaTourette. Our records indicate that you do not live in our district.

    Please contact your local representative to voice your concerns.”

    Good to know he’s listening.

  7. Cars probably do create more jobs than bikes, but in different industries: health care and undertaking (crash trauma, obesity, asthma); insurance (to guard against same); military (staffing of oil wars); litigation (attempts to shift unpaid costs); advertising (define your personhood by your motor vehicle choice) . . .

  8. I use the word “independent” instead of “alternative.” For biking and walking, this seems obvious: You’re self-propelled, can stop anywhere, and pay nothing. Transit is more questionable, since that experience can so often feel like the opposite of independent (e.g., stuck in a tunnel on some Muni Metro cattlecar for an indefinite time and an indiscernable reason). Plus you can go only where the transit goes, unless you add walking or biking. However, you’re not strapped in, need not worry about what to do with the bus when you arrive, and are often forced to act independently in figuring out your route. Most of us have experienced an invitation or ad for some event that spoonfeeds drivers with directions down to the last pothole and completely ignores instructions for independent travel. We figure it out ourselves.

  9. Fran

    Maybe the distinction should be between individual (walk and bike) and collective (plane, boat, bus and train) travel?

    While both are sub-divisions of alternative transportation options to cars (which interestingly are also independent in your sense).

  10. For walking and biking, you can also use “active transportation”.

    I think it’s important to avoid normative thinking and language, especially when the norm you’re supporting is harmful to your cause.

  11. As an Urban Planner I’ve been using the term “Sustainable Transportation” at work for a while now.

  12. I agree completely.

    A car is simply a tool to help people get from one place to another. So is a bus, a train, a bicycle, and one’s own two feet. Obviously, they’re not all appropriate in all situations – if I don’t own a bicycle, then I’m probably not going to get around much by bicycle; if I’m in Indianapolis, I’m not going to ride the subway, because there isn’t one. Which mode (if any) predominates depends on which mode is best accommodated by the built environment.

    In most of the U.S. (with a few notable exceptions), that happens to be the car. Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way.

    The term “alternative transportation” assumes that of course everybody drives cars, that of course transportation funding should primarily go toward car-oriented facilities. Those are assumptions that I’m not willing to make.

    Here in New York City, it would be quite unusual to refer to walking or riding the subway as alternative transportation. Most residents don’t have cars, and even those who do often use other modes.

  13. I haven’t owned a car since I was in college in Ann Arbor. I just turned 32 yesterday. 10 years. I would prefer “active transportation” over “sustainable transportation.” That said, I think it’s better to say exactly what you want, “a walkable neighborhood” or “safety for people who bike.” You’re gearing up for a fight the moment the word “sustainable” escapes your lips.

  14. If we really want to play up the benefits of “alternative transportation” to an American audience, we could refer to all human-powered transportation (walking, biking, etc.) as “weight-loss transportation” and all mass transit (subways, buses, etc.) as “productivity-enhancing transportation.” Conversely, we could refer to driving a car as “fatty transportation” or “time-wasting transportation.”

  15. One thing struck me as I read LaTourette’s remark: The assumption of use of public money to create jobs.

    He said “What job is going to be created by having a bike lane?” I have to assume he’s arguing that a highway project would create more jobs.

    Don’t get me wrong, I strongly believe in public works. But coming from a contemporary Republican whose philosophy is, presumably, heavily market-oriented, I found it surprising that he considers public funding of projects, the larger the better, to create jobs as part of his political arsenal. He’s supposed to be arguing in favor of a smaller government, less taxes. How cynical!

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