How we lost our cities to cars through pro-car rhetoric

Jun 20, 2023

For most of human history, streets and roads have provided a variety of purposes. To travel and transport, yes, but also to gossip with neighbours, to trade, work and play. It’s only within the past century, since the invention of Henry Ford’s Model T, that roads — and our entire society — have been dominated by cars. 

City planning has prioritised the efficient transport of goods (this includes people) over general safety and community building. And it shows. Every year, more than a million people are killed in traffic accidents. Car traffic clogs our roads and poisons our air. And yet, modern society continues to be dominated by a car-centric mindset. 

So where did it come from? Like so many things, big shifts come from those tiny building blocks of culture: words. 

In this blog post, we break down instances where the power of words shapes the narrative around our car-obsessed society. We’ll also learn to make small, meaningful shifts toward changing the narrative and moving past our need to prioritise cars over the community.

Car accidents vs. car crashes

For a front-row seat to how language subtly shapes perception, you don’t have to look far. 

The way your local drive-time news programme reports car collisions is a prime example. You’ll be hard-pressed not to hear about at least one tragic car accident that occurred that day. 

Car “accident” — implying a cruel yet ultimately unavoidable twist of fate. Even if the driver of the offending vehicle was distracted, speeding, or under the influence of mind-altering substances.

If we’re to adopt the correct terminology — most car crashes are preventable through improved infrastructure, traffic laws, and/or driver training. (More on this below.) 

A subtle but meaningful shift in word choice from ‘accident’ to ‘crash’ reframes the conversation to hold the accountable parties (cars and drivers) responsible.

Shifting the narrative through passive voice

As we just covered, the way we describe car accidents crashes subtly influences our perception of responsibility. But it’s not just what you say, but how you say it. 

Ask any English grammar teacher, and they’ll tell you the difference between passive and active voice. With an active voice, the sentence’s subject performs the action. With passive voice, the subject experiences the action. Here’s an example:

Passive voice: The pedestrian was hit by a car. 

Active voice: The car hit the pedestrian.

Using passive voice in these instances is another subtle way to frame the conversation away from the agency of the driver, shielding them from blame. 

By using active voice in car-related scenarios, we redirect attention to the accountable party and emphasise the need for positive change. (More on this next.)

There’s nothing normal about the normalisation of traffic deaths

According to the WHO, approximately 1.3 million people die each year due to road traffic crashes. Tragically, road traffic deaths have become normalised in many cities, despite the preventable nature of most crashes. 

Major cities like Helsinki and Oslo have successfully implemented measures to reduce pedestrian deaths to zero. They’ve demonstrated that proactive urban planning and design — reduced speed limits, updated street design, and generally making life less convenient for motorists — will save lives. 

We can challenge the narrative that traffic deaths are a tragic yet unavoidable consequence of urban living. We do this by highlighting the growing number of success stories and advocating for safer infrastructure.

Blame-shifting via ‘shared responsibility’

In theory, pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists are expected to ‘share the road’. And yet, when injuries or fatalities happen, the blame is shifted onto the shoulders of the victim. E.g., “The pedestrian who was dressed in dark clothing” and “The cyclist who wasn’t wearing a reflector and failed to signal correctly.”

These accounts usually fail to mention the 1000 kg steel elephant in the room. 

Drivers have seatbelts, airbags, and sophisticated safety monitoring systems, in addition to the protection of the vehicle’s steel frame. The human on the other end of the collision might have a polystyrene helmet and protective clothing, at best. 

Ultimately, it’s the job of the local government to create equitable road environments. They can achieve this by introducing effective measures such as speed bumps, one-way roads, and urban speed limits. 

However, by acknowledging the shared responsibility of all road users, we can begin to shift the narrative to promote the safe and equitable sharing of roads.

Cars vs. ‘alternative transport’

Despite the prevalence of cars in our daily lives, the vast majority of people need to walk to get where they’re going. 

Most of us learn how to ride a bike decades before we drive a car. If you were to ask every human on the planet, it’s a safe bet that significantly more people know how to ride a bike than drive a car. 

And yet, for some reason, the language used in transport discussions often labels anything besides one’s personal car as ‘alternative transportation’. This skewed terminology perpetuates a car-centric mindset, disregarding the importance of other modes of transport in building a safe and equitable future. 

Furthermore, there’s significant media bias toward these forms of ‘alternative transport’. For example, a local traffic report from Bolt’s home country of Estonia contained this (translated) account: 

“At 1:18 p.m., a traffic accident took place at 62 Puiestee Street in Tartu, where a 22-year-old man drove a BMW car out of the yard into an electric scooter driven by a 23-year-old boy.”

The 2 men are about the same age. So why is the car driver described as a man and the electric scooter rider as a boy? Rather than being applauded for choosing a wise and responsible form of transport, the scooter rider is coded as an immature individual who hasn’t grown up enough to adopt an ‘adult toy’. 

More generally, the media’s disproportionate coverage of scooter incidents perpetuates the perception that scooters pose significant risks on the road. 

However, data consistently shows that cars remain the most dangerous method of road transport. By promoting a more balanced narrative and highlighting the need for comprehensive safety measures for all transport, we can combat bias and encourage a fairer assessment of road risks.

Making cities for people, not cars

Making cities for people, not cars, requires all of us to be more mindful of the words we choose and the stories we tell about life on the road. 

By redefining terminology, recognising shared responsibility, and challenging biases, we can advocate that cities should be made for people, not cars. 

Bolt: making cities for people, not cars 

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