8 Transportation Engineering Euphemisms That Should Be Tossed Out

Road widening cartoon
What engineers call an "improvement," others might call a disaster. Cartoon: Ian Lockwood via ITE

Have you ever gone to a public meeting about a street in your neighborhood, only to be told that your ideas to calm traffic would result in a “level of service” that would be “unacceptable”? Or that an “alternative transportation” option like a bike lane would render the street “capacity deficient”?

Those terms originated in the mid-century highway era, and they remain baked into transportation engineering to this day. There is a whole specialized vocabulary tilted against street design concepts that can improve health, safety, and street life. Ian Lockwood, a transportation engineer and consultant, says it’s time to leave these phrases behind.

In a recent article for the Journal of the Institute for Transportation Engineers [PDF], Lockwood advocates for replacing the following terms to remove bias from transportation engineering, in the same way words like “mailman” and “chairman” were replaced with “mail carrier” and “chairperson” to avoid marginalizing women.

1. Accident

Why it’s a problem: Calling car collisions “accidents” makes them seem like unavoidable acts of God instead of the result of conscious decision-making, and fosters the perception that they cannot be prevented.

Neutral replacement: Collision or crash.

2. Alternative Transportation 

Why it’s a problem: Referring to biking, walking, and transit as “alternatives” establishes driving as the default way to travel, subordinating other ways to get around.

Neutral replacement: Active transportation, non-automobile transportation

3. Capacity

Why it’s a problem: In engineering terms, the “capacity” of a road describes how many vehicles it can carry in a given amount of time. It does not factor in how well a street works for transit, biking, or walking.

Neutral replacement: Maximum motor vehicle volume.

4. Level of Service

Why it’s a problem: One of the most pervasive conventions in transportation engineering, “level of service” is basically a measure of vehicle delay at intersections. The implication that the only “service” rendered by a street is to reduce motorist delay overlooks functions like social interaction or local commerce — not to mention travel modes besides driving. As a planning tool, LOS leads to the obliteration of walkable neighborhoods and the proliferation of car-centric places.

Neutral replacement: Queueing time at an intersection for motorists.

5. Undesirable/Unacceptable

Why it’s a problem: Again, when engineers say a certain level of service is “unacceptable,” they are making a value judgment based how people may perceive a street when they’re driving. Instead engineers should convey results without assuming that driving is the only mode of travel that matters.

Neutral replacement: Describe the effects of a project on specific types of travel or other uses of a street.

6. Efficiency

Why it’s a problem: “More efficient is often a euphemism for faster,” says Lockwood. “An objective translation would be ‘Let us widen the highway so motorists can drive faster.'”

Neutral replacement: Increase driving speeds.

7. Enhance

Why it’s a problem: “‘Enhanced’ connotes that the situation has become better, which is a matter of opinion and perspective,” says Lockwood. For example, engineers might call a road with an added turn lane an “enhancement project.”

Neutral replacement: Instead of  saying “motor vehicle speeds were enhanced,” Lockwood suggests the more straightforward “increased” or “reduced.”

8. Improvement/Upgrade

Why it’s a problem: This is industry jargon for road widening, essentially. The question of whether a project is an “improvement” is a value judgment. As the cartoon above illustrates, if a road “improvement” brings traffic closer to your doorstep, you might not view it in such rosy terms.

Neutral replacement: Modification/change.

30 thoughts on 8 Transportation Engineering Euphemisms That Should Be Tossed Out

  1. One problem I have with “active transportation”: I get a funny look from ANYONE outside the bike or ped advocacy world if I say it. I understand what the downside is to alternative transportation, but at least people know what you are referring to. I love the term active transportation, but feel that it will never go very far.

  2. A lot of those terms always bothered me when I was a practicing traffic engineer EIT. The other term that bothered me was “traffic engineering” itself when in fact what I was doing was applying engineering principles to what should be a social science. I could never understand why all other disciplines of engineering wouldn’t accept much less than a 0.9 r-squared for data, but the data we had about traffic often couldn’t breach 0.25. Often we were fitting lines to data”sets” with one or two points collected in the 70s or 80s.

    When I was studying engineering in the early 2000s we were already learning about the limitations of some of these terms, especially LOS and calling something “failing”. I think the changes are happening in the younger engineers and over time the old ideas will retire out.

  3. While I agree that models for determining Level of Service should change, I think this article glosses over what the main purpose of the Level of Service rank is for; it’s a way to quickly determine which transportation assets are underperforming and need capital investment. In other words, it’s a funding formula to identify where limited road upgrade funding should go; roadway improvement monies are prioritized to go to roadways that have lower LOS grades. That said, transportation planning for most other transportation assets uses matrices of indicators, not just LOS as a single indicator, to determine where budgets should be spent, and roadways should also get a matrix of key performance indicators instead of just a LOS grade in that decision-making process.

  4. These are great. I would add “rush hour” – colloquial but common. To me “rush” implies you are moving quickly…. I would replace it with “congestion hour” or something similar. It also reminds me how LRT was shot down in Austin because it “only” moved at an average 17mph. Like people think they cross town at 65mph or even 35mph just because the speed limit signs are etched into their retinas.

    I agree with “active transportation” probably missing the mark with the target demographic. Especially in the South where those same people are worried about breaking a sweat dare they have to walk more than one block.

  5. It also glosses over the problems posed by assigning letter grades A through F for levels of service. F for failing is useful when it describes a facility that has more demand than supply.
    LOS A, on the other hand, sounds like everything is shiny, but this disregards problems caused by overbuilt roadways, like speeding and the resulting high-severity crashes, severed communities, or wasted highway funds that could have been used elsewhere.

  6. I’ve lived in upstate NY, Veracruz, Mexico, South TX and southern LA. Based on this limited data set, is say most places have 8 months or so of good walking weather. The difference is whether the bad weather is 10°F or 100.

  7. Here in the US, outside of a few urban areas like New York and Boston, the privately owned automobile is the “normal” form of passenger and small-goods transportation. “Pedestrian” can be a pejorative term, bicyclists are labeled “bike freaks” and buses are scorned as “loser cruisers”. This mindset is just fine with the motor vehicle and petroleum industries, as their marketing departments come up with slogans such as “You are what you drive” and “It’s not your car, it’s your freedom.” I remember when California Gov. Duekmejian labeled passenger trains as “exotic transportation.” This has been going on ever since Henry Ford “cranked up” his new, improved production line in 1915 and, even though advocates for more sustainable transport have made progress, there’s still a lot of cultural bias to overcome.

  8. SB-743 removes LOS from CEQA reviews of new development projects, and replaces it with VMT. VMT measures how much new motor traffic the project is likely to cause, and allows project sponsors to get better VMT scores by minimizing parking for cars, maximizing bike parking, funding significat improvements to the pedestrian realm, etc. LOS for cars is on the way out, while bike/ped LOS is gaining popularity.

  9. Along with crash or collision in place of accident, I urge everyone to attribute behavior to human beings and not machines or inanimate objects. However unintentional, my shoe did not step on your toe, I did. A car didn’t hit someone, a driver did.


  10. I’ll use “Active transportation” only among people in the transportation world cause no one else understands it. Otherwise I’ll use whatever I am doing. Maybe “non-car modes”? I’m not really sure on this one.

  11. Engineers are monsters. I say this as a current engineering graduate student. We should also focus on educating less out-of-touch engineers by 1) expanding the liberal arts curriculum within engineering and 2) ensuring that college towns are developed with a variety of transportation options. (Most students have grown up in the suburbs and only know an auto-centric lifestyle. They are honestly (I can’t make this up) scared of cities and locally-owned restaurants.)

  12. Exactly. Growing up in the Upper Midwest, I had to politely but forcefully reject offered rides from parents of acquaintances who saw me walking around town and repeatedly informed them that I would not, in fact, tell my parents that they should be driving me.

    Somewhere thrown in there were two tickets I received for ‘riding a bike in the street’ and ‘riding a bike on the sidewalk’ on the same street, on the same block, in the same year for which I had to write a page essay on why each were wrong as my punishment in ‘bike court’

  13. We should take back the word “capacity” and redefine it to mean the number of people per hour.

    Also, the words “street” and “road” need to be teased apart. A road is for transportation while a street is a destination. A road with a driveway in a city is really a street.

  14. Thanks for the article. You’re right on many points here. The traffic engineers forever have viewed designing a street from the drivers point of view. It’s going to take a loooooooooooooooong time for that to change. Can we advocate higher prices in fossil fuels?

  15. Getting more engineering jobs in cities would be a huge help also. I went to Bronx Science (one of the best science/engineering high schools in the country), graduated with a BSE in Electrical Engineering from Princeton University, and was faced with a choice of perpetual underemployment, or relocating to a place I know I would hate living in. I choose to remain in NYC. While I never regretted this decision, it impacted me financially, probably to the tune of many hundreds of thousands of dollars, perhaps a million dollars plus, over the course of my working life. In a fitting bit of irony, the Internet finally enabled me to get work for which I was suited. I work at home and earn as much as I might be had I been an engineer all along. However, there were many years of sub $10K income before that.

    I understand the economics of putting engineering jobs in a big city versus out in some “campus” in the middle of nowhere. Sure, they can get people to fill those jobs but I tend to think the best and brightest in any field come from big cities. There’s a depth of experience here you can’t get anywhere else. And how many of these people end up perpetually underemployed doing whatever jobs they can get instead of doing what they were meant for? It’s hard, indeed close to impossible, for a big city person to relocate to a bland, nowhere place. If more companies realized how much talent they were literally throwing away by not having their major engineering centers in or near city centers, they might realize the economics aren’t as clear cut as they think. Even if midtown Manhattan is too costly, no reason you couldn’t have a major presence of scientific and engineering firms in the outer boroughs with enough diversity to employ all the different types of engineers our local schools churn out.

  16. The pedestrian was hit and killed by the car in that accident.
    The person walking was hit and killed by a person driving a car in that crash.

  17. there is no bad weather, but lack of proper clothing.
    I’m also in upstate NY and walk or bike every day. -20F or 95F.

  18. How about using active voice?
    “A vehicle driver collided with and killed a person walking.” Is that too blunt?

  19. I’m not sure what would be appropriate clothing for Houston in July. I’d suggest desert nomad robes, but it’s too humid.

  20. Backing up. As in: The traffic on HWY 80 is backing up. Or “backed up” or whatever version.

    The road is congested, or traffic is stopped. I mean unless everybody *did* shift into reverse.

  21. I would remove improvement from the list. Yes, whether a project improves things is always subject, but improvement is a standard term in many industries for construction intended to add value. This is why you will see both freeway improvements and pedestrian safety improvements, and why constructing an office building on vacant land is an improvement.

  22. I feel it’s important to point out that LOS is a metric that is used across the United States, while CEQA is a process specific to California. To the 280 million people in the United States who don’t live in California, mentioning the specifics of LOS to CEQA is not terribly useful.

  23. The term LOS was originally set up for highways not city streets. What may have been a good measure for restricted access roads hasn’t been a good measure for developed areas. As the article says, using LOS as a prime driver for design makes it impossible to design for any other mode of transportation other than motor vehicles. LOS needs to be dropped.

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