Planners (myself included) love to bemoan our society’s over-reliance on the automobile.
We attribute it to misguided-land use policies that promote sprawl, and funding biases that direct more money toward paving roads than expanding transit service. We even acknowledge that we are up against a “car culture” or “America’s love affair with the automobile” which elevates the car as the preferred form of transportation through advertising and other media.
But our cultural relationship with transportation goes deeper than that. Our very language is not only car-centric but, at best, uninspired toward other modes, and at worst, demeaning.
- Take for example, the word “drive.” Consulting the dictionary, aside from operating a vehicle, as a verb it can mean, “to frighten or prod into moving into a desired direction,” as in “drivingcattle;” “to carry on energetically,” as in “driving a hard bargain;” and “to compel to undergo a change in emotional state,” as in “drivingsomeone crazy.” As a noun, the word is equally powerful. It can describe a strong and sustained effort or move, from a fundraising drive, to an offensive drive in football, to a full-blown military attack. And let’s not forget sexual. No explanation needed there. The noun can also be used to describe people, and in terms just as strong. If someone has drive, he or she has determination, ambition or motivation or displays initiative. Who wouldn’t want to associate themselves with that word?
- All that power in the word “drive” and yet how much energy does it take to depress an accelerator pedal? Contrast that with the effort needed to bicycle. Yet we say we “ride” a bicycle. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Aren’t we riding cars anddriving bicycles? The word “bicycle” itself does little to embolden this form of transportation. Thankfully “bike” has some bite. I bet you didn’t know that definitions of “bike” include “a nest of wild bees, wasps or hornets” or “a crowd or swarm of people?” Mass, energy, communication … now we’re getting somewhere.
- Turning to “transit,” we find it defined first as “passage,” “change,” or “transition,” and second as the “conveyance of persons or things.” But doesn’t transit do more than “convey?” Doesn’t it provide the opportunity to “connect” – on one level from place to place, but on another, with one’s fellow passengers? Isn’t the lack of connection what prompted the development of Facebook and similar social-network sites? In that case, shouldn’t we have Facebus? It seems we’d rather connect over the internet than truly “face-to-face.”
- Of course, this transportation lexicon would not be complete without one term. It describes us all as individuals. Yet despite our numbers, it is not only the weakest of all the words, it is downright demeaning. How can we be expected to walk about proudly as “pedestrians” when its first definitions are “commonplace” and “unimaginative?” “Walker” isn’t much better. I thought it only took on a negative connotation when preceded by “street,” but just learned that another definition of “walker” is “a temporary male escort of socially prominent women.” So the term really doesn’t serve either sex. The only other synonyms to “walk” I know of are “perambulate” or “ambulate.” However, they are so close to “ambulatory,” typically used to describe whether someone can even walk, that it’s clearly an unacceptable substitute.
- Maybe we should just call ourselves “automobiles.” After all, the term is just a compounding of “aut” (self) with “mobile” (move). Now wouldn’t that be something?
Photo by Thomas Hawk