The use of language in cycling debate


Language is such a powerful construct. Take this sentence for a moment:

As I was cycling into to work this morning, a motorist cut me up severely.

We’d all be familiar with that situation. A member of one tribe, crossing swords with another. But let’s remove some of the emotion for a minute and reword it slightly.

As I was travelling to work this morning, a fellow traveler cut me up.

The difference is that the tribe and emotiveness has been removed and all we’re left with is people.


People lie at the heart of cycle infrastructure conversations. As a ‘person who rides a bike’ my choice of removing a vehicle off the road, helps the ‘person in the car’ by removing traffic and helps ‘the person walking along’ by removing noise and fumes. But how easily is this nuance lost, when we’re huddling up in a phalanx, shields raised, fending off attack? I would posit very, very easily.

A Roman phalanx / group of cycle advocates preparing for constructive dialogue with other interested stakeholders

A Roman phalanx / group of cycle advocates preparing for constructive dialogue with other interested stakeholders

This week I stumbled across an excellent article that highlights the power of language perfectly. In 2011 a Greenways, a Seattle based NGO adopted an approach of shifting the perception of transport issues to move away from the ‘us’ v ‘them’ debate, an approach I wholly subscribe to. According to prominent Seattle cycle blogger Tom Fucoloro:

 “When you start thinking of somebody as a ‘driver’ or somebody as a ‘cyclist’ or somebody as a ‘pedestrian’ – which is actually my least favorite – it’s easy to think of someone as part of a tribe”.

Language in Seattle


Greenways broke down that tribalism by convincing advocates around the city to talk about “bicycling,” an activity, rather than “bicyclists,” an identity. “It’s harder to get really angry,” Fucoloro said. “Just because you’re riding a bike doesn’t mean you’re in epic opposition to everyone who’s driving a car.”

As a cyclist, pedestrian and a motorist – in other words a person – I couldn’t put it better myself.

The result?

Today, the language appears to have played a significant part in shaping Seattle’s approach. The pro-bike, pro-transit policies championed by former Mayor Mike McGinn and continued by his successor Ed Murray are bearing fruit. Seattle has now lined up one of the most ambitious protected bike lane building schedules in the US and a public bike sharing system was launched last autumn (of the type we sadly lost in Cardiff). If you didn’t follow the subtle link approve, I suggest following this little subtle one: FULL ARTICLE HERE

I did a little exercise on a cycling document recently,  a very good document, with some very proactive and progressive aims. I took all of the words on the key aims and objectives page and turned them into a word cloud. I stripped out reference to the place in question and the result was this:

Word cloud

Have you noticed that the words ‘person’ or ‘people’ simply don’t appear? Whilst I would not argue with any of the intentions of the document, I would attempt to positively re-frame the issue for the widest audience.

In my view, the Seattle example illustrates that  language matters and approaching issues from a people perspective can be much more productive than defining and pushing groups into corners.

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