How smart language can help you navigate pinch points
Instead of "cyclists," people biking. Instead of "accident," collision. Instead of "cycle track," protected bike lane.
It can come off as trivial word policing. But if you want proof that language shapes thoughts, look no further than Seattle — where one of the country's biggest bikelashes has turned decisively around in the last four years.
For a while in 2010 and 2011, the three-word phrase "war on cars," which had risen to prominence in Rob Ford's Toronto and spread to Seattle in 2009, threatened to poison every conversation about improving bicycling in the city.
Eleven characters long and poetic in its simplicity, the phrase could pop easily into any headline or news spot about transportation changes.
"It's one of those ideas that makes a lot of sense if you don't think about it too hard," says Tom Fucoloro, publisher of Seattle Bike Blog. "Like, Yeah, cars should get more lanes!"
For several years, instead of arguing about whether biking, walking or riding transit should be improved, the city was arguing about whether driving should be made worse. A winning issue had become a losing one.
Things got so bad that The Stranger, an altweekly Seattle newspaper that supports biking investments, declared in a not-quite-joking cover story: "Okay, Fine, It's War."
Today, the phrase seems to have receded from Seattle's public life. And now the pro-bike, pro-transit policies championed by former Mayor Mike McGinn and continued by his successor Ed Murray are bearing fruit.
The city has lined up one of the most ambitious protected bike lane building schedules in the country. A public bike sharing system launched last fall. Jobs and residential construction are booming along Seattle's new streetcar line. No major city in the country is growing faster.
This week, Seattle's KING-TV devoted three minutes to a triumphant catalog of the city's transportation accomplishments: falling congestion, rising bus frequencies, 20 miles of new bike lanes and paths this year.
Though there were many forces behind the turn of Seattle's tide — the "war on cars" phrase in particular faded after McGinn lost his reelection bid in 2013 — no single organization has more to do with the city's new language than a tiny nonprofit group called Seattle Neighborhood Greenways.
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