This week’s tweet is a reminder that language matters. Brent Toderian, Vancouver’s former chief planner, writes:

What does it mean for a street to be open or closed? A typical arterial in a North American City might be 120 feet wide from building to building, if not wider. Aside from two 10-foot sidewalks and the occasional crosswalk, most of that width is unavailable for pedestrian use. Anyone who tried to walk in that space would either be arrested or hospitalized.

The past 70-odd years have seen the steady erosion of pedestrian space, and the expansion of space reserved for cars. And this expansion has affected how we speak and write. At least in the US, car travel is linguistically unmarked. “Directions” means driving directions. “A map” means a road map, and probably one where limited-access are emphasized as fast travel corridors rather than impermeable barriers. “Traffic” means congestion on roadways used by motor vehicles. “Closed” means that cars aren’t allowed (like when San Francisco proposed to improve pedestrian access and safety on a crooked part of Lombard Street by restricting car access).

You can ask for walking directions, or a transit map; you can complain about bicycle traffic on the Burke-Gilman trail, or about how pedestrians aren’t allowed to cross SR-520. But without the qualifiers — without the words “walking”, or “transit”, or “bicycle”, or “pedestrians” — everyone will assume you’re talking about cars.

The way our cities are built will not change overnight. But we can change the way we talk about them. The next time your city proposes to create or expand a pedestrian zone, follow Brent Toderian’s example, and call it what it is: a street opening.

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