The way that we think about mobility can act as an obstacle to change.
The way that we think about mobility can act as an obstacle to change. Shutterstock/URem

Headline: Language Compass: Mobility and Public Space


Language shapes consciousness, and the decisions we make in daily life are influenced by words and statements. This extends to the way we think about mobility and how we use space in cities and villages. For example, if cars and motorized traffic are what we associate with the word "road," then road design will reflect this - with cars taking up most of the space. And yet, the connection of the word "road" with automobiles is a relatively recent phenomenon: the word "road" used to have different associations and roads were planned and used differently. In short: The way that we talk about cities influences how we design them.

Transforming mobility and public space

City surfaces sealed with asphalt must be unsealed to enable water to seep into the ground if cities are to cope with increasingly frequent heavy rainfall events. The speed limit must be reduced to ensure road safety. Steps must be taken to improve the appeal of walking and cycling and reduce the burden on public health systems by promoting physical activity. But the language we use in connection with this mobility transition can act as an obstacle to change. Does it make a difference whether we talk about a "pedestrian" or a "jaywalker"? When an accident report states that a pedestrian "fell" under a truck, the wording obscures the role that the truck driver, or perhaps the road layout, played in this incident. And when a road is "closed," the "closure" often affects only motorised traffic. This overlooks the fact that many more people can use a "closed" road - and for many more uses - when it is "open" to pedestrians. These examples illustrate how the language used in reporting on transport and mobility issues reflects a hidden bias in the way we think about mobility more broadly. The use of language inevitably conveys attitudes and values and - depending on our role - is also an expression of power or powerlessness.

What the Language Compass aims to achieve

Together with Linguists from the Universities of Vienna and Bern, social and political scientists at the RIFS with the Language Compass project analyse the language used in the media in relation to mobility and public space and identify wording that is likely to hinder transformations. Their findings will be communicated to media professionals, NGOs, politicians and public authorities in a process of transdisciplinary dialogue and reflection. Methods to cement the outcomes of these dialogues in public discourse will also be pioneered. The project is jointly funded by the Mercator Foundation Germany and the Mercator Foundation Switzerland.