Attacking the Language Bias in Transportation Engineering

“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.

Ian Lockwood, PE, is on a mission to reform the "biased language" in transportation engineering. Image: ## Harvard Graduate School of Design##

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?

AS: Are there any formal efforts underway around the country to change this?

IL: There ought to be one. In the city of West Palm Beach, years ago, we passed a transportation language ordinance where we required our staff and consultants to use objective language. I don’t know if they still practice that, but they did when I was in charge there.

AS: Can you give me some examples of words that were switched, or how that worked?

IL: For example, “alternative mode of transportation”: The “alternative” sounds weird or odd or abnormal, but maybe an objective term would be “non-automobile mode of transportation.” Or if they mean bicycle or walking, maybe “human-powered,” but certainly not “alternative.”

We talk about the “capacity” of street. My profession thinks of that as how many cars can cross a line in an hour. But that’s really just the motor vehicle capacity of the street. Everyone else knows that streets have the capacity to nurture businesses, be great addresses, to create identity, to be recreational facilities. They can be lots of things. But to let conventional thinkers own that word is just wrong.

Another good example is “protect” — protecting rights of way. Protect, to you and me, means shielding something from harm. Protect, in that context, means that you’re going to build a road on it somehow, that you’re going to widen the road. “Protecting right of way” means that it’s doomed to be covered over. So perhaps “purchase” might be good, or “designate.” “Protect” is a nice word that means you’re doing something inherently good and that just might not be the case depending on the nature of the work.

AS: Do you know of any other cities or places that have looked at this critically?

IL: After we published [our language ordinance in West Palm Beach], I know Chicago was interested. We got an email from Sri Lanka about it. We got calls from all over.

At the time I first got interested in this, probably 15 or 20 years ago, I sent a proposal to the [Institute of Transportation Engineers] to talk about the language and they replied that it was not only unnecessary, it was inflammatory.

AS: What was their explanation?

IL: They didn’t explain. I think it violated their paradigm. They were part of a conventional paradigm. Now today the ITE is a lot better; the ITE has changed dramatically and perhaps the time is right to do this reform now.

Image: Ian Lockwood

AS: There is a whole discipline that is part of linguistics called conflict theory that looks at how different words reinforce existing power structures.

IL: Words are the clothing that ideas wear. There’s an idea under there that, depending on the word that’s used to describe it, we can clothe it one way or another.

AS: So how would you imagine a word change would change the way a project played out on the ground?

IL: Well if you can imagine yourself in front of a city commission, objecting to a road widening. And the supporter of the widening says, “we have to put the road widening [or improvement] in to create an acceptable level of service.”

So first of all, “improvement” is biased. Second of all “acceptable” to whom? Is it the pedestrian? The shop owner? And then “level of service,” for whom, again? The automobile is anonymous in this whole discussion. “Acceptable” just assumes that we have to make things great for motor vehicle users passing by.

So they should say, “adding the automobile lane to increase” – increase instead of improve – “to increase the level of service for automobile users” – because then at least you know what they’re talking about: All they’re talking about is the car.

It levels the playing field because the person objecting can say, “Hey look, that’s where my kid’s school is,” or, “That’s where my stores are,” or, “The streets are in a neighborhood that you’re going to create a barrier in.” Those are the kind of concerns that get washed away by the built-in anonymity for the car in all of our language.

AS: Do you think the work you’ve done in West Palm Beach has the potential to impact the profession?

IL: It certainly impacted that city. When I first started there, I had a difficult time convincing anybody of the wisdom of what I was doing, because I was working against a cultural bias. But through exposing the bias through the language reform, I got a lot more projects done, a lot more reformist elements of the projects built. I think that has set some precedents which have helped other cities.

AS: What are some examples of that?

IL: We did some of the first big road diets, before the term was even coined. To create precedents in a biased environment is really hard. The first woman CEO was really difficult because they had to become chairman and they’re a woman. “Chairman” has a biased connotation to it. To do the first road diets when the language and the culture was completely unsupportive was really difficult. And now it’s easier, they’re all over the country.

20 thoughts on Attacking the Language Bias in Transportation Engineering

  1. This seems like a great way to clarify the true goals and intentions of a project. Have any large cities or, perhaps more importantly, states implemented such de-biasing of the language?

  2. One of the worst is the use of ‘highway’ to describe municipal streets in NYS code. Municipalities, as creatures of the state, borrow this language for their own local ordinances. This leads to odious jargon like ‘highway improvements to facilitate level of service B’ when you’re really just talking about something like, say, new left turn bays on a secondary, residential street, not widening the Thruway or double decking I-95.

  3. Terms like “mobility”, “access”, and “level of service” are the particles that make-up the clouds in smoke-filled back rooms where major capital investment decisions are made down at the state DOT.

    Take this statement from an ongoing EIS’ Purpose and Need for major investment, for instance:

    “The purpose of this proposed action is to provide an improved transportation facility along the I-290 Eisenhower Expressway multi-modal corridor. The specific needs identified for the project include: improve mobility for regional and local travel, improve access to employment, improve safety, improve modal connections and opportunities, and improve facility deficiencies.”

    Hooray, we’re improving the facility along the multi-modal corridor!

    TRANSLATION: The state is planning to completely reconstruct the interstate highway and leave the equally-aged transit service infrastructure located in the highway median untouched, where it can continue to decay to dust for all they care, despite its significant contribution to corridor travel needs. “We’re highways and transit is neither our concern, nor our problem”, they scoff.

    Wow, improved mobility!

    TRANSLATION: Although we have one of the most advanced road networks on the planet, we need some incremental capacity in this short, heavily urbanized corridor in order to allow cars to go farther faster – sprawl is inevitable, you know. As for the concentrations of low to moderate income families and persons residing in the study area that can not benefit from an urban add-a-lane, too bad. “We’ve considered (and dismissed) their needs although none of our study documents even mention ‘environmental justice’ and the only occurrence of ‘poor’ in our Purpose and Need is in relation to interchange geometry – what’s your point??”, they counter. Also, never mind your pretty little head that it seems intuitively obvious that adding incremental capacity to address a condition where the highway is 100% over capacity (built to accommodate 100,000 cars daily but now handling over 200,000) is pure folly.

    Improved access to employment – sweet, bro!!

    TRANSLATION: If you can take advantage of a HOT lane, you may be able to avail yourself of some dubious travel time savings we’ve calculated. If you can’t, well we suggest that you buy a car and get a better paying job.

    Improved safety – yeah, of course!

    TRANSLATION: Our models predict huge reductions in crash rates. Although our previous investments promised the same thing and didn’t deliver, this one is going to live up to our projections. What, you say – getting people to use transit is much safer than encouraging more driving, and most accidents are caused by driver behavior rather than highway design problems, anyway? C’mon, just stand behind the safety banner and smile – our number one priority is safety and there are a lot of crashes on this highway. Surely you can see that adding thousands of more cars each day and trying to make at least one lane travel fast on the other side of the painted buffer is going to solve our safety problem – are you clueless??!! Oh, and by the way, we know Bobby Cann died and that you are all shouting it is our fault for issuing a moratorium on protected bike lanes in the City. Well, snap out of it and stay focused on the golden ring! We need to study bike lanes for a few years, but need to reconstruct this highway today so we can pump more cars into the central city! What was that guy’s name again?

    Improve modal connections and opportunities – yeah, I’m all about opportunity!

    TRANSLATION: Maybe we can try to improve some crosswalks so that you don’t have to dodge vehicles exiting the highway as you try to access the old train station in the median. Would a painted island of refuge in the middle of the exit lanes help?

    Improve facility deficiencies – hmmm, yeah, I guess we need to address any facility deficiencies, whatever that references and means.

    TRANSLATION: Expand the urban highway, put ramps outside of peoples’ bedroom windows, and leave the complementary transit facilities to die a slow and agonizing death.

  4. My favorite example of “language bias”: WE are progressive elements, marching forward, shoulder to shoulder. THEY are an unholy alliance.

  5. Positively brilliant notion: re-define “capacity”.
    In my dream world, capacity is redefined as “the number of people moved past point X per unit time, divided by the mass of the vehicles used for conveyance.”  This would of course motivate transportation engineers to bias our routes toward walking and cycling…

  6. This article brings to mind a proposal in the late 1980s to widen the Long Island Expressway. This was the only thing I could find on it ( ). I believe the proposal was later amended to widen the expressway within city limits as well because there was a grassroots movement to stop it in neighborhoods like mine. People would have lost a good portion of their front lawns. Even worse, the benefit of widening about 6 or 7 miles of the expressway within city limits would have been a reduction in travel time of only 30 seconds. It boggles the mind how anyone ever even got the idea that it’s worthwhile to spend billions of dollars and disrupt many people’s lives just to save suburban auto commuters a lousy 30 seconds. This is an amount of time which is worthless in the grand scheme of things. Thankfully the proposal was defeated. The only “improvement” for the LIE should consist of removing traffic lanes to put rail transit and/or bike lanes in the median. That would be seriously useful to the city folk whose neighborhood is dissected by the expressway. And long term we should seriously consider putting all urban expressways underground. The land above them could be developed. This would more than pay for the cost of burying them.

  7. I’ve always found it to be a stupid, almost self-insulting name.

    When I take the subway to work in the morning, it’s not an alternative to anything – it’s how I get to work. If, for whatever reason (I can’t imagine what it would be), I were to drive to work one day, that would be the alternative.

  8. This is great. Good to know people, even if only a few, on the inside think about this.

  9. I am 100% behind Ian’s effort. In my own writing (for Streetsblog Chicago), I stick to generic, objective words like “change” or “modification”.

  10. In southern California our streets are all highways, and our highways are all freeways. This term originated as “free from intersections” but is now a barrier to roadway pricing, because, ya know its a “free”way.

  11. There’s a petition on designed to address a related issue. ( The Federal Highway Administration currently views all of the U.S. as either Rural or Urbanized. “Streets in walkable cities, towns and neighborhoods are governed by the
    same standards as suburban arterials and collector roads, with the
    result that streets in our walkable neighborhoods still prioritize
    traffic flow rather than walkability.” They propose a new classification, Rural, Suburban, and Urban. Most of the current Urbanized areas would become Suburban, and areas that are currently walkable or wish to become so would be classified as Urban, with appropriate standards. Read more, and sign the petition:

  12. This is an excellent article, and very clearly demonstrates the power of language to frame a question in a way that precludes debate. Our so-called transportation system really has been a highway/car moving system (often based on the suburbia model) and the language used by engineers is seriously loaded to reflect that paradigm as a value rather than an objective statement. Our own New Mexico Highway Dept. was re-named the Transportation Department, but the same flavor of Kool-Aid remains.

    As my county’s transportation board chair for several years, I’ve had more than enough opportunity to see the damage such language can do to a community. Sadly, many planners and those older folks grounded in the “sixties” have bought into it lock, stock, and barrel. Its not just the PEs and PTOEs who don’t see that they are doing religion as well as engineering.

    Thank you, Angie.

  13. Very interesting. Of course, even the pro-car forces have been very aware of this for years, thus the renaming of the California Department of Highways to that of Transportation, even though almost nothing of what “Caltrans” does relates to any other mode of transport but highways. (Similarly we renamed the “War Department” to “Department of Defense”, when virtually no actions IMHO since World War II was even remotely related to defending America).

    I think we should be much more explicit as this Author suggests. We should just say “we’re taking space away from pedestrians and giving it to cars” – and not allow any value-terms that don’t tell you anything about what is actually planned.

  14. I was working for the Colorado Dept of Hwys when it became the Colorado Dept of Transp in the early ’90s. I think that the Feds forced states to make this switch under the threat of losing money. Despite all the talk of multi-modalism at the time, I was dissapointed at how little change I actually saw. Actions speak louder than words.

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