Language Compass on Transportation

traffic island
Traffic island. Illustration: Julia Weiss

The design of public spaces, especially transportation areas, is usually oriented towards cars. This is considered “normal”, yet it takes up a lot of space and increases fossil energy consumption as well as air pollution and noise pollution – in addition to endangering our health.

This way of valuing cars and designing spaces is supported by the language used by the media who report on mobility and transportation. Research shows that the language used typically establishes cars as the norm. Other forms of transportation like walking, biking, or public transportation are then portrayed as inferior. In this way, language use impedes a shift towards more sustainable, safer forms of mobility.

For example, if an accident report states that a cyclist got “run over” by a truck, the truck appears as a force of nature – similar to an avalanche that one gets caught and buried under. The role of the truck driver and the design of the transportation space are hidden from view. The example shows: The way media report on traffic and mobility is linked with perspectives we are seldom conscious of. Inevitably, the reporting also conveys particular attitudes and values.

Project goals and results

Changing our behaviours around mobility and public space also demands language that reflects a sustainable, climate-conscious approach to transportation.

traffic flows
Traffic flows through the Gotthard tunnel. Illustration: Julia Weiss

The project “Language Compass on Transportation and Public Space: Talking and Writing about Mobility in the Context of Sustainability” has two goals:

  1. Educate: Media professionals and media users should be sensitized regarding how language use shapes perceptions and attitudes. This can enable a more differentiated view to be conveyed with language, as well as with images.
  2. Action: Selected linguistic research results – including from the previous project – will be deepened with perceptual studies in the social sciences. From this, recommendations will be derived for language use that portrays resource-conserving transportation forms in a positive way and promotes changes in mobility behaviour.
Pedestrian lane
Pedestrian lane. Illustration: Julia Weiss

The project actively involves the target groups in formulating the research questions and developing a language guide. In addition, a kit for practical language analysis will be created to make it easier for target groups to identify hidden value systems in texts on their own. The project places a special emphasis on accident reporting.

The tools and insights will be made widely available and communicated to media professionals, NGOs, and public administrators. The recommendations will also be applicable in Germany and Austria.