In 1996, the City Administrator of West Palm Beach, Florida, Michael J. Wright, issued a directive to his staff on how to avoid biased language in the descriptions of transportation investments and policies. It’s four pages, sharply written, and may well be the smartest bureaucratic directive you’ll ever read. Here it is in PDF. (Thanks to Peter Bilton at the Vorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers for pointing it out.)
It pulls no punches:
Much of the current transportation language was developed in the 1950′s and 1960′s. This was the golden age of automobiles and accommodating them was a major priority in society. Times have changed, especially in urban areas where creating a balanced, equitable, and sustainable transportation system is the new priority. The transportation language has not evolved at the same pace as the changing priorities; much of it still carries a pro-automobile bias.
Continued use of biased language is not in keeping with the goal of addressing transportation issues in an objective way in the City.
Biased words, as identifed in the directive, include improvement, upgrade, enhancement, deterioration. The problem with these words is that they imply an idea of good or bad that may not be universally shared.
Upgrade is a term that is currently used to describe what happens when a local street is reconstructed as a collector, or when a two-lane street is expanded to four lanes. Upgrade implies a change for the better. Though this may be the case for one constituent, others may disagree. Again, using upgrade in this way indicates that the City has a bias that favors one group over other groups. Objective language includes expansion, reconstruction, widened, or changed.