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Transpo-Speak

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.”

(thanks to Ian Lockwood for the cartoon)

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.

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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
    debatable.”

    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.

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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.

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