Skip to Content

Lessons from bicycle advocacy: How Seattle learned to put people first

For years, negative rhetoric around cycling infrastructure hampered Seattle bicycle advocates’ efforts to improve safety and access for cyclists. The simple changes they made to the way they framed the issue created surprising wins—and lessons learned for affordable housing advocacy.In a post on DC-area blog Greater Greater Washington, Michael Andersen of The Green Lane Project describes the evolution and eventual demise of the term “war on cars” in Seattle. It’s a catchy catch-all phrase meant to categorize (or demonize) efforts of planners and advocates to create more dedicated lanes and other infrastructure for cyclists. The moment influential people and media outlets started using the term, bicycle advocates took up arms, with mixed results. Advocacy group Seattle Neighborhood Greenways was one organization that decided to change the debate by changing the language.

People-first language humanizes instead of “otherizing”
Evidence of success: New bike infrastructure in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.  Photo by the author.

Are you a driver? A transit rider? A pedestrian? A cyclist? In reality, you are probably like most people and use multiple modes of transportation depending on your purpose. But those labels serve to artificially divide people into factions, pitting us against ourselves. In his post, Andersen shows that Seattle Neighborhood Greenways deliberately changed the vocabulary to change the tone. By simply adding “people who…” to each term, the listener is subconsciously encouraged to think first about what unites us—we’re all human—instead of about what divides us. Advocates for people with disabilities have made great strides in getting us to put “people” before the “disability” in our communications, and the housing community is making strides in using terms like “people experiencing homelessness.” Maybe it’s time for us to talk about “people who rent” instead of “tenants” or “renters.”

Junk the jargon
Jargon can be useful in the working world. Who hasn’t felt that particular mixture of joy and relief when speaking to someone at a meeting or event who “gets” our lingo? I’ve yet to meet a houser who could resist the tractor-beam pull of a well-used acronym. But the flipside of jargon is that it excludes, and when we bring our jargon out of the office and into the light of day, the message we are silently telegraphing is that those who don’t understand are not welcome in the conversation. Seattle Neighborhood Greenways threw out the RRFBs and the hybrid beacons and brought in “safer ways to cross busy streets.” Safe street crossings? I don’t need a flashing light to tell me that this is something that’s good for me. There’s similar thinking behind NHC’s effort to refer to the LIHTC simply as the “housing credit.” What other jargon-junking changes do you think the housing community could make?
More than words
No one would argue that simply switching up our vocabulary will get us the policy wins we need to ensure everyone in America has access to a safe, decent, affordable home. We need a bigger base of people who support this idea, and ever-closer ties to the policy makers and thought leaders who can put solutions into action. But if we want to build that base, we’re going to have to reach beyond our circle of usuals and bring in those who don’t see themselves as housing advocates. Cutting out the jargon and putting people first are two ways we can use language to create a more inclusive housing movement.
For more ideas about how to reframe the housing conversation, visit the Framing and Messaging Toolkit on the Housing Communications HUB.
Refine Topics