When we block traffic from a road, such as for a sporting event or a street party, we say the road is “closed”. But for whom is it closed? For drivers. But indeed, that path is now open to humans.
We say this because we are used to thinking about the road in “traffic logic”. For centuries, streets have been a place of multiple purposes: conversation, commerce, play, work and movement. Only in the last century has it become a space for traffic to pass as quickly and efficiently as possible. This idea is so widespread that it has colonized our thinking.
I first learned about this from Roland Kager, a data analyst and multimodal transportation researcher — meaning he’s interested in traffic, but not cars. Machine logic permeates the language we use, says Kager. “We talk about vulnerable road users, but they have only been vulnerable since the advent of fast traffic with large and heavy vehicles. Why don’t we call them fast and heavy vehicles dangerous road users?”
Why are streets you can’t live near, bike or walk along called main roads? Why do we talk about “separated” or “separated” bike paths, when in fact it is motorists who are given their own special space? The language of traffic inculcates a “glass view” of the world, as Belgian mobility expert Kris Peeters wrote 20 years ago.
Kager thinks the language of traffic stops us from really seeing what’s happening on our roads. “Why do we talk about traffic accidents? As if the only cyclist who runs over and kills a pedestrian — which never happens — is part of the same system that kills people day in and day out, which almost always involves cars.”
On the news, you’ll hear that dense fog has disrupted “traffic.” This “traffic” is at a standstill. That there are “traffic” delays after an accident. This “traffic” is gradually returning to normal after such incidents. What traffic means in these cases are cars. But it sounds like it means all of us.
According to Kager, the way we talk about traffic makes cars much more important in our perception than they really are in the Dutch context. “Only 15% of the Dutch get caught up in traffic jams every week and only 5% of the population say it’s a problem that affects them personally. But because we all want a functioning traffic system, 35% say they see it as a social problem anyway. So one in three people think that traffic congestion is a problem that affects other people, even though those other people are a small minority.”
Kager says that many of the non-machine phenomena he encounters and researches in his work don’t have names—there’s just no conceptual framework for some things. No categories. This makes it harder to make them visible in reports and advisory documents to government – meaning they get less attention and less funding.
For example, in the Netherlands, almost half of train passengers go to the station by bicycle or continue their journey by bicycle. Kager calls them “train cyclists” and despite their high numbers, they are not included as an official category in mobility surveys. One reason so many trips are made by bike in the Netherlands is that bikes are so useful for getting on the trains. And Dutch trains are used as intensively as they are, because many people commute by bicycle. Dutch railways have been surprised by the popularity of public transport bicycles. These continue to break new rental records every year. However, the Dutch trip planning website only recently adopted door-to-door itineraries that include bicycles, and still with very basic functionality.
Fascinated by this discussion with Kager, Thalia wrote an article introducing the concept of train cyclists, and we saw how new words can change reality. Flemish MP Dirk de Kort read the article and contacted for more information. Thalia put her in touch with Kager and they shared Dutch and Flemish statistics and experiences. After that, De Kort incorporated “train cyclist” into his political vocabulary. He even came up with another variant: “bus cyclist”. Half a year later, De Kort supported an extension of a scheme in Flanders to support cyclists on trains and buses, for which a further €1m (£860,000) was allocated.
Kager made an invisible group of travelers visible and gave them a name. They now constitute an official category and policies are actively being developed taking them into account.
Kager continues to play with new categories. What if you divided drivers into four groups: the quarter who drive most often, the quarter who drive least often, and the two groups in between? He studied this new categorization in Eindhoven: “What you see is that the 25% who use the most cars are responsible for two-thirds of the motor traffic in the city. So now we can have a meaningful discussion: should the local authority make things easier for them? Or doing more for the other 75% who use cars less often or very little, and taking their wishes more into account in decisions affecting the city?”
Imagine a situation where a quarter of the people living on a street produce two-thirds of all the trash in the recycling containers, so the containers are always overflowing. Should the local authority provide more containers? Hire more bin collectors? Or do something completely different? What kind of city do you want?