8 transportation engineering euphemisms that should be discarded


Have you ever gone to a public meeting about a street in your neighborhood, only to be told that your ideas for calming traffic would result in a “level of service” that would be “unacceptable”? Or that an “alternative transport” option like a cycle path would make the street “deficient”?

These terms originated in the mid-century era of highways, and they remain embedded in transportation engineering to this day. There is a whole specialized vocabulary against street design concepts that can improve health, safety and life on the streets. Ian Lockwood, transportation engineer and consultant, says it’s time to put those phrases aside.

In a recent article for the Journal of the Institute for Transportation Engineers [PDF], Lockwood advocates replacing the following terms to remove biases from transportation engineering, in the same way that words like “mailman” and “president” have been changed to “postman” and “president” to avoid marginalize women.

1. Accidents

Why it’s a problem: Calling car crashes “accidents” makes them appear as inevitable acts of God rather than the result of conscious decision-making, and fosters the perception that they cannot be avoided.

Neutral replacement: Collision or crash.

2. Alternative transport

Why it’s a problem: Designating biking, walking, and public transportation as “alternatives” establishes driving as the default mode of travel, subordinating other means of travel.

Neutral replacement: active transport, non-automobile transport

3. Capacity

Why it’s a problem: In engineering terms, a road’s “capacity” describes the number of vehicles it can carry in a given amount of time. It does not take into account the proper functioning of a street for public transport, cycling or walking.

Neutral replacement: Maximum volume of the motor vehicle.

4. Service level

Why it’s a problem: One of the most prevalent conventions in transportation engineering, “level of service” is essentially a measure of vehicle delay at intersections. The implication that the only “service” provided by a street is to reduce motorist delay neglects functions such as social interaction or local commerce – not to mention modes of travel in addition to driving. As a planning tool, the LOS leads to the erasure of pedestrianized neighborhoods and the proliferation of car-centric places.

Neutral replacement: Waiting time at an intersection for motorists.

5. Undesirable / Unacceptable

Why it’s a problem: Again, when engineers say that a certain level of service is “unacceptable,” they’re making a value judgment based on how people might perceive a street when driving. Instead, engineers should communicate the 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 street uses.

6. Effectiveness

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

Neutral replacement: Increase driving speeds.

7. Improve

Why it’s a problem: “’Improved’ implies that the situation has improved, which is a matter of opinion and perspective,” says Lockwood. For example, engineers may qualify a road with an additional turn lane as an “improvement project”.

Neutral Replacement: Instead of saying “motor vehicle speeds have been improved”, Lockwood suggests the simpler “increased” or “reduced.” “

8. Improvement / Upgrade

Why it’s a problem: It’s basically industry jargon for road widening. Whether a project is an “improvement” is a value judgment. As the drawing above illustrates, if an “improvement” in the road brings traffic closer to your door, you might not see it in such optimistic terms.

Neutral replacement: Modification / change.


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