As someone who’s not in a corporate environment, I’m always struck when, on assignment for a story or some such, I enter this world — whether it be Wall Street or Silicon Valley — and immediately become aware of curious forms of dialect. Sometimes it’s words used in ways I never heard them used before — weird verbs like “transition” or “architect” or “blue sky.”

Other times it’s some humdrum word used in a novel way, and used so often that I figure it must have been distilled from some recent management bestseller. Take, for example, “bucket.” I came across this yet again in a Sunday New York Times piece about Ford CEO Alan Mullally, who said, “So I don’t have separate buckets of my life, like my family life or my personal life or my work life.” Well, I for one am glad to hear that; one’s life really shouldn’t be in buckets. But I hear “buckets” all the time, as if I were at a farm, or in a sinking boat — some place in which buckets might truly be, er, actionable. Another favorite, which I heard out in California awhile back at a computer company, is “we don’t play in that space;” meaning, we have chosen not to enter that market (or tried and have failed). The whole undertone is we’re loose, we’re creative, we’re not buttoned-down, hell, we’re barely working! — even if those kids at Google probably work longer hours than the young marrieds at Sterling Cooper (and they got to go out for three-martini lunches).

I recognize that jargon can be useful as a shorthand in a field, as a mark of authority, or a sort of signaling device (hey, we get it), but it also strikes me that it often represents an intellectual laziness, a way of saying essentially nothing, instead of thinking up something more original. And it can also be used as a cudgel, of course, on outsiders who don’t speak the language.

As all professions seem inevitably to inculcate their own jargon (or corrupted language, if you’re being less charitable), I’m curious as to how this shakes out in the field of transportation. Walking in Savannah recently with Michael Ronkin (who, as I mentioned in an earlier post, also questioned “pedestrian”), I used the word “signage,” which brought a jovial rebuke. “Why not just say signs?” Ronkin asked. I had to laugh; I’ve absorbed that over time. I tried to think back to some recent conferences and the terms that had floated this way and that. “Stakeholder” is one I hear a lot, and while it at first glance sounds like something you might buy at Williams-Sonoma, I suppose it makes sense; the problem was, however, I heard it used in situations where the “stakeholders” were, essentially, everyone (but maybe it sounds better than the simple “people”). I always flinch a bit at “vulnerable road user.” The spirit of it its perhaps well-intentioned, but as Gerald Wilde once pointed out to me, most people killed in traffic in the U.S. are killed in cars — so who’s vulnerable?

And then Dom Nozzi pointed me to this page, which lists a whole scad of seemingly innocent words (e.g., “level of service”) that are, in their way, politically loaded. “Road improvements,” for example. “The word improvements is often used when referring to the addition of through lanes, turn lanes, channelization, or other means of increasing motor vehicle capacity and/or speeds. Though these changes may indeed be improvements from the perspective of motor vehicle users, they would not be considered improvements by other constituents of the City.”

One might stretch this further to think of a term like “mobility.” Who could argue against it? (actually, John Adams has questioned “hyper-mobility”). But, to take my local street as an example, one form of mobility — the car — runs against another form of mobility — walking. The more mobility in the first mode, the more my mobility is constrained. So mobility should too be questioned: Whose mobility? What kind of mobility? Mobility at what expense? Mobility from where to where? As commenters here have pointed out as well, “traffic” tends to take on a homo-modal (I’ve just invented that piece of jargon) sort of meaning — cars; and as I point out in the book, it has come to have instinctively negative connotations on the road (but not elsewhere, as on the Internet, where my inbox is flooded with spam promising ways to “boost traffic”).

In any case, I’m curious as to what those of you in the transportation professions might see as odd turns of phrase, lingo that baffles people or conceals some kind of ulterior meaning, words you yourself are trying to purge from your vocabulary.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 9th, 2009 at 2:11 pm and is filed under Traffic Culture, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

13 Responses to “Transpo-Speak”

  1. aaron Says:

    Induded Demand.

    Should be replaced with economic stimulus.

  2. Kevin Love Says:

    “Automobile temporal denetworking.”

    In other words, you can’t use your car here in the winter. Only walking, cycling and public transit. This makes cars a lot less attractive when they can only be used three seasons.

  3. John Says:

    The best communicators speak in plain language and can talk with everyone.

  4. Bossi Says:

    This is why I no longer say it’s an improvement unless referring to a specific factor… like “vehicular mobility is improving (but pedestrian safety isn’t)”. I’ve gone so far as to set up Microsoft Office to automatically replace the words akin to “improvement”, “improving”, etc. with “modification”, “modifying”, etc.

    …And another motto of mine is in line with what John said. You’re not a professional & you’re not adept at your job if you aren’t capable of explaining what you do to a 5 year old. *Anything* can be explained in simple everyday language if you try, from transportation networks to quantum mechanics to rocket science to politics to economics. Er, well so far I haven’t quite found anyone capable of the last one.

  5. thm Says:

    A thoughtful policy to counter the loaded language of transportation engineers comes from, of all places, West Palm Beach, Florida (PDF via Local Government Commission). It calls out words and phrases like “improvement” and “upgrade,” explains how they are biased, and prescribes neutral alternatives.

  6. aaron Says:

    The WPB policy is very good. I was very suprised. Usually “neutral” is just even more strongly biased in the other direction. I really liked it up until the last section.

    “Typically, efficiency issues are raised when dealing with motor
    vehicles operating at slow speeds. The assumption is that if changes were made that increase the
    speeds of the motor vehicles, then efficiency rises. However, this assumption is highly

    Just wrong. Timing has to do with throughput and does increase efficiency. Higher speeds are the result of the improved vehicle traffic efficiency. It’s technically true that higher speeds don’t necessarily lead to better efficiency, but totally irrelevant. The relationship is the other way around. Increased efficiency is what leads to the higher speeds. The follow on effects are just ways that people choose to put the increased productivity to use. We consume more because there is more to consume.

    However good the first part of the policy was, the most important part is very wrong. I’m still very pleased, so low my expectations for goverment policy are.

  7. aaron Says:

    Probably could be easily solved by using the term “throughput” instead of the much less relevent effect speed.

  8. aaron Says:

    “Motor vehicles burn the least fuel at about 30 miles per hour; speeds above this result in inefficiencies.”

    EPA research clearly shows that motor vehicle efficiency is best at 55mph.

    It may be lower for traffic if lower speeds increase the road capacity (the threshold for this is 45mph, below that the reduction in vehicle spacing doesn’t make enough room to make up for the reduction in speed). Also if stops are frequent, the energy needed to get up to a more efficient speed may not be worth it if the time at the more efficient speed isn’t long enough.

    The more I read and think about it, the more these PC policies frustrate me. Most of these “anti bias” policies are a small legitimate quibble, used to open the door to redifine efficiency and muddy waters and ultimately prevent prosperity.

  9. aaron Says:

    Everyone in West Palm Beach must drive hummers.

  10. Bossi Says:

    While I generally support using unbiased language, I at the same time also hold a grudge against politically-correct multi-syllable conglomerations of words that are devoid of any emotion… the late George Carlin had a great bit on that, highlighting how terms such as “shell shock” have transformed from war to war since the War to End All Wars.

  11. Bossi Says:

    I’m sitting here typing a report right now, and it just occurred to me… I use the words “adequate” and “significant(ly)” at an incredible rate. They’re two great words for remaining vague without committment.

    To make up two examples…

    “The level of service is adequate” could mean that it’s an LOS A and that’s great; or it’s an LOS F but there’s nothing that’ll be done about it. Given financial restraints, I’m sure many are reluctantly finding themselves meaning the latter.

    Or something that “significantly” impacts delay could mean you’re waiting to out of your neighborhood & onto an arterial, but you’re waiting 2 minutes in an urban area vs 30 seconds in a rural area… both significant delays if you consider context. Statistics isn’t a factor; Einstein’s relativity is a better fit. Regardless, the exact meaning is hidden and can be altered as needs change.

  12. ubrayj02 Says:

    Planning-speak causes a lot of trouble as well. Planners love to insert prose into documents to describe a planned state of affairs: “dense”, “high quality of life”, “appropriate”. They shy away from standards and this leads to crazy political battles that re-fight the fights that led to the planning document being produced in the first place.

    Also, here in L.A., “mobility” is officially defined based on how far a car can drive in a set period of time (5-, 10- or 15-minute chunks of time). One can argue as to the value of such a measure, but it is a measure nonetheless.

  13. ME Says:

    One term that can cause problems is “induced demand”. For many people it seems silly that more road capacity leads to more driving (the research notwithstanding). If instead we called it “latent demand”, I think it would come closer to describing the idea that there are already people out there who want to use the road, but are avoiding it due to congestion. Still sounds like jargon though, so I’m open to better suggestions for what to call this concept.

Leave a Reply

Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

Please send tips, news, research papers, links, photos (bad road signs, outrageous bumper stickers, spectacularly awful acts of driving or parking or anything traffic-related), or ideas for my Transport column to me at:

For publicity inquiries, please contact Kate Runde at Vintage:

For editorial inquiries, please contact Zoe Pagnamenta at The Zoe Pagnamenta Agency:

For speaking engagement inquiries, please contact
Kim Thornton at the Random House Speakers Bureau:

Order Traffic from:

Amazon | B&N | Borders
Random House | Powell’s

U.S. Paperback UK Paperback
Traffic UK
Drive-on-the-left types can order the book from

For UK publicity enquiries please contact Rosie Glaisher at Penguin.

Upcoming Talks

April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
Bloomington, MN

June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
Utrecht, The Netherlands

July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
Phoenix, AZ.

August 12-14
Texas Department of Transportation “Save a Life Summit”
San Antonio, Texas

September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
Savannah, Georgia

September 11, 2009
Oregon Transportation Summit
Portland, Oregon

October 8
Honda R&D Americas
Raymond, Ohio

October 10-11
INFORMS Roundtable
San Diego, CA

October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
San Bernardino, CA

November 5
Southern New England Planning Association Planning Conference
Uncasville, Connecticut

January 6
Texas Transportation Forum
Austin, TX

January 19
Yale University
(with Donald Shoup; details to come)

Monday, February 22
Yale University School of Architecture
Eero Saarinen Lecture

Friday, March 19
University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
University of Utah
Salt Lake City
McMurrin Lectureship

April 19
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
Austin, Texas

Monday, April 26
Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
Edmonton, Canada

Monday, June 7
Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Wednesday, July 6
Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
Traffic Incident Management Enhancement Program
Statewide Conference
Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wednesday, October 20
Rutgers University
Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation
Piscataway, NJ

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
Injury Prevention Forum

Monday, May 2
Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
Boise, Idaho

Tuesday, June 2, 2011
California Association of Cities
Costa Mesa, California

Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Gardens Theatre, QUT
Brisbane, Australia

April 17, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Centennial Plaza, Sydney
Sydney, Australia

April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Melbourne Town Hall
Melbourne, Australia

January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
Minneapolis, MN

January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
Melbourne, Australia

May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
Transportation Engineers
Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013 “Ingenuity” Conference
San Francisco, CA

September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
(Meeting of American Association
of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Grand Rapids MI



September 2009
« Aug   Oct »

No, you probably won be compensated one million dollars; however, with the right blend of negotiating skills and patience, your efforts will be substantially rewarded!I have seen up to forty thousand dollars added to starting compensation through diligent negotiations. It is a way to significantly raise your standard of living and sense of self, simply by