What’s in a Word? Expanding Your Active Transportation Lexicon!

Active Transportation – What’s That?

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Put simply, Active Transportation refers to using active modes of travel to get to everyday destinations.  Active modes include walking, biking, using a wheelchair, connecting to transit, and otherwise using transportation means that are primarily human-powered, low-speed, and human-scaled. It is often referred to in everyday speech as walking and biking, bike/ped, or walking and wheeling.

Active Transportation can make it easier for people to incorporate more physical activity into their daily routines and reduce adverse health outcomes. Safe, accessible, and inviting transportation networks reduce and even eliminate acute injuries and fatalities from motor vehicle crashes in the short term and using them regularly reduces the risk of a wide range of long term health issues including obesity/overweight, depression, dementia, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s, and asthma.

Can we just tell people to start walking or biking everywhere and thereby solve our chronic disease problems?  No, because we have built ourselves into a bit of a corner and our streets and roads are not safe, inviting, or accessible enough for everyone to be able to walk and wheel along them with confidence.  We need to undertake some planning, design, construction, and general re-thinking to make the healthy transportation choice, the easy choice.

Communities in Pennsylvania have extensive and connected infrastructure networks for motor vehicles, but incomplete and unsafe Active Transportation networks.  Arguably, we should all be able to get to the places we need to go using transportation options other than just personal motor vehicles. The kinds of everyday destinations we need to connect are homes, schools, work, food stores, libraries, public buildings, entertainment venues, parks, restaurants, doctor’s offices, and so forth. Recreational trails are nice, but they in isolation are not the comprehensive network we really need. We don’t just need regional amenities and tourism draws but also neighborhood connections and safe routes to local services of all kinds.

Active transportation used to be thought of as something for just the fit and the fearless. In reality, everyone gets around using some form of active transportation even if it’s only in or near their home.  In contrast, not everyone can drive – in fact, depending on the local demographics, often as many as 33 to 40% of the population does not drive, whether because they are too young or too old, lack access to a vehicle or a license, have a disability that prevents them from doing so, or choose not to. In effect our current road networks are designed for a subset of the population who can drive.  We need to start designing our transportation systems for everyone, regardless of age, ability, means, or mode.

As soon as possible!  We need safe, accessible, and inviting Active Transportation networks facilitating our movement to our daily destinations. Often when we travel, we visit places that have this type of infrastructure in place.  Maybe we travel to a beach town or a big city or some place outside the country and we never get in a vehicle other than a train, subway, or gondola the whole time we’re there. It’s time to bring those time-honored mobility techniques home. The best time to put this infrastructure in was 10 years ago, but the next best time is now. Even places that did install things decades ago are always working to update and upgrade to the best possible versions.  Time to go back to the future – “where we’re going, we don’t need no roads”, just protected bike lanes and continuous sidewalks and fast, frequent, and dependable transit service going throughout our communities!


Let’s talk terminology!  Here’s a starter lexicon of Active-Transportation-related words and phrases:

Complete Streets

The National Complete Streets Coalition says “Complete Streets are streets for everyone. They are designed and operated to prioritize safety, comfort, and access to destinations for all people who use the street… Complete Streets make it easy to cross the street, walk to shops, jobs, and schools, bicycle to work, and move actively with assistive devices…

“Creating Complete Streets means transportation agencies must change their approach to community roads… to prioritize safer slower speeds for all people who use the road, over high speeds for motor vehicles.”  

For more on the tradeoff between speed and safety outside of limited access highways and the way design shapes driver behavior more effectively than signed speed limits alone, check out this Smart Growth America explainer.

Read the full definition:  https://smartgrowthamerica.org/what-are-complete-streets/


Vulnerable Road User

Vulnerable Road User” is a term for anyone on a roadway who isn’t inside a motor vehicle. It captures in a single phrase a wide range of people: pedestrians, construction workers in a work zone, cyclists (whatever the frame design or number of wheels), people using wheelchairs, children in strollers or trailers, people on e-bikes, people in buggies, wagons, or on horseback, motorcyclists, police or first responders on the scene, people on mopeds, people on skateboards or scooters, etc. 

People who aren’t protected by the metal shell of a large vehicle are literally more exposed on the road and therefore more at risk of injury and death from collisions. Drivers often focus only on their own safety when selecting or operating a vehicle, but this term helps emphasize the need to focus on safety for all and make sure one group’s health and wellbeing is not being sacrificed for another’s security, much less for another’s convenience.

Learn How to Protect the Most Vulnerable:  https://www.nhtsa.gov/press-releases/national-pedestrian-safety-month


Vision Zero

According to the Vision Zero Network, Vision Zero is “a multi-national road traffic safety project that aims to achieve a highway system with no fatalities or serious injuries involving road traffic.” The philosophy includes acknowledging that people involved in a crash are not solely responsible for the event, but that the designers of the infrastructure they are using also share responsibility. Vision Zero started in Sweden in the mid-1990s and has been pursued in various parts of the US in the past decade. Complete Streets and Vision Zero have a great deal in common, but you may want to think of Complete Streets as coming more from an urban design and community advocacy perspective and Vision Zero arising more from engineering design and policy assessment. 

In late January 2022, the federal Department of Transportation announced a new National Roadway Safety Strategy which cited statistics about road safety disparities for vulnerable road users and proposed Vision Zero as a national goal. The Strategy proposes to end preventable deaths and injuries from crashes by applying the Safe System approach, which recognizes that safety is a shared responsibility not simply on the part of road users, whether in motor vehicles, walking, or biking, but also on the part of designers (whether of cities, roads, or vehicles), regulators, and legislators/decision-makers.

What Is Vision Zero?  https://visionzeronetwork.org/about/what-is-vision-zero/


Climate Justice

Climate change has significant equity dimensions, captured in the term climate justice. At its core, climate justice refers to the fact that those most likely, most severely, and most imminently to be impacted by climate change are least responsible for the global predicament we are all in. This is particularly true of the “global south” countries with emerging economies and low-lying or already extremely hot areas. While not uniformly the case, it is also generally true of the most exposed communities within the US — those most likely to be subject to flooding and/or fire and/or drought. Being both in the bullseye of extreme weather and less equipped to adapt or flee makes for even worse outcomes when a crisis hits. 

This same pattern of displacement or mismatch between causes and consequences also plays out in transportation infrastructure. The populations most likely to be beset by noxious emissions, deadly traffic, and destructive highway siting are, and have historically been, least likely to be the cause of any of those ills themselves. Recognizing and naming this dynamic is key to addressing it.

Watch an Inspiring (and Chastening) Speech:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PN6THYZ4ngM



Headway refers to the time between transit vehicles traveling in the same direction on a given route, in a fixed route system. In other words it’s the greatest amount of time a rider will have to wait to catch the next train, bus, trolley, gondola… Headways in the most humane transportation environments are around 3 to 5 minutes. In some US cities they can be an hour, an hour and a half, or even more. They frequently vary depending on the time of day or day of the week in a given location and are definitely keyed to population size and density in a given market. They are often historically optimized for office worker commuter traffic and not responsive to the many distinct transportation needs of other users. 

To retain effective transit function in smaller, more rural locales, using smaller vehicles that run more frequently may be effective or some rural areas have worked with what is called pulse timing (translated from Taktfahrplan in German), trading off frequent departures for efficient transfer options. Those one hour or even longer pulse timed headways may be workable/reasonable in remote areas, but they should be avoided in cities. 

Remember, transit is a key part of active transportation! The ideal is to have many options for meeting your transportation needs, rather than being just locked into one (or none). If you do have access to motor vehicle travel — but no other options — that is also a non-resilient and limiting situation.  What happens when you or your driver are either temporarily or permanently unable to drive?

“Talking Headways” Podcast:  https://streetsblog.libsyn.com/



Woonerf is a Dutch word for “residential yard” or “living space.” It’s a technique of redefining the space of a street as shared by all users, including pedestrians and playing children, allowing for vehicle access but not through traffic. Often the divisions between use zones, like curbs or road markings, are eliminated and everyone is given access to the full volume of the street. This may sound like a pedestrian mall, and that is a similar concept, but the woonerf is for neighborhoods and residential areas, not commercial zones. That description might make it sound like a cul-de-sac, but the lack of through routes for cars is not on a street-by-street basis, but rather by zone or neighborhood. Meanwhile other non-car modes can move freely with extensive through-connections to the larger network. 

Usually the layout of the space is very different from the typology of the road. And pedestrians – including children at play – have priority over cars. There certainly are also roadways that carry through motor vehicle traffic in such communities, but those roads, if they are _in_ the community, also still accommodate all modes. The first woonerf took shape in the 1970s and by 1999, there were more than 6000 in the Netherlands.

NACTO on Shared Streets:  https://nacto.org/publication/urban-street-design-guide/streets/residential-shared-street/



If your community has not yet experienced dockless bikeshare or the arrival of e-scooters, you may think micro-mobility is a new concept. On the one hand, it is new enough that we are still contesting exactly what it refers to, and in the case of the aforementioned e-scooters, deciding whether or not to declare them street legal per the PA Motor Vehicle Code. At the same time, though, it is actually a new term to refer to a broad category of, in many cases, long-extant things.

According to Wikipedia, “micro-mobility refers to a range of small, lightweight vehicles operating at speeds typically below 15 mph and driven by users personally. Micromobility devices include bicycles, e-bikes, electric scooters, electric skateboards, shared bicycles, [wheelchairs] and electric pedal-assisted bicycles. Initial definitions [indicated] a gross vehicle weight of less than 1,100 lbs. However, the definition has evolved to exclude devices with internal combustion engines and those with top speeds above 28 mph.” The wiki entry includes a list of types, though it does not get into the growing subset of cargo bicycles, including pedal-powered delivery vehicles. 

Micro-mobility infographic:  https://www.itdp.org/multimedia/defining-micromobility/



Stroad? Really? Stroad is a portmanteau that combines the words “street” and “road.” Coined by civil engineer Charles Marohn of Strong Towns, it is intended to be an ugly word. “According to Marohn… it is part street – which he describes as a ‘complex environment where life in the city happens,’ with pedestrians, cars, buildings close to the sidewalk for easy accessibility, with many entrances and exits to and from the street, and with spaces for temporary parking and delivery vehicles – and part road, which he describes as a ‘high-speed connection between two places’ with wide lanes, limited entrances and exits, and which are generally straight or have gentle curves. [He] defines a stroad as a high-speed road with many turnoffs and which lacks safety features… stroads do not function well as either a street or a road.”

Jason Slaughter of NotJustBikes has done an excellent job of illustrating the concept with a video which shows ​​how the direct routes for people and indirect routes for cars that are a key feature of woonerfs work. Alternately, you can read about it in one of the multiple posts about it on the Strong Towns website or view their much simpler and shorter video presentation here (5 minutes).  

Secrets of the Stroad Revealed:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ORzNZUeUHAM


Dutch Reach

The next time you have occasion to drive a car in England, you may have more to acclimate to than just driving on the other side of the road. As of January 29 of 2022, the UK enacted a number of revisions to its Highway Code. Many people who are accustomed to taking on different roles in the transportation system — sometimes driving, sometimes biking, sometimes walking — have lauded the changes and noted that they are not that different from existing best practices. But they have prompted consternation from a subset of drivers who are unaccustomed to paying attention to or being respectful of people outside of motor vehicles. 

The changes clarify things like the importance of yielding to people walking or biking in order to keep everyone safe. This often boils down simply to not hitting or otherwise hurting people. To that end, it introduces the concept of the Dutch Reach, which is a habit of using your inside arm to unlatch the car door when you get out. Doing so has the effect of turning your body in the direction of the door and your head such that you are able to see and be aware of cyclists or pedestrians that might be coming up alongside your vehicle. It’s a nice habit. It is common practice in the Netherlands, as the name implies, and is a super simple way to increase safety through behavioral change. It doesn’t solve all road safety problems, but it does its part — or can, if we do ours. Our motor vehicle code may not mention it, but there’s nothing stopping you from starting to do it today!

Quick Guide to British Highway Code Changes:  https://www.gov.uk/government/news/the-highway-code-8-changes-you-need-to-know-from-29-january-2022


Induced Demand

In discussing new infrastructure funding opportunities, we may at times betray some ambivalence about the changes ahead. That is in part owing to some less-than-visionary aspects to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL). We are definitely in danger of building a lot more highways. “Woohoo! New highways!” you may be thinking. Not so fast! Literally. Too often we build lots of new lanes and after a brief honeymoon of reduced congestion and free-flowing traffic, suddenly we find ourselves back to square one, just on a wider, super-congested roadway. The wider roads basically invite more people to drive, returning things to a congestion equilibrium. This is thanks to a phenomenon called Induced Demand or Induced Travel.

Wikipedia explains it with reference to economics: “after supply increases, price declines and more of a good is consumed. This is entirely consistent with the economic theory of supply and demand; however, this idea has become important in the debate over the expansion of transportation systems, and is often used as an argument against increasing roadway traffic capacity as a cure for congestion… City planner Jeff Speck has called induced demand ‘the great intellectual black hole in city planning, the one professional certainty that everyone thoughtful seems to acknowledge, yet almost no one is willing to act upon.'” The opposite of Induced Demand is Traffic Evaporation, which happens when less roadway is made available to private motor vehicles and other modes are safe and encouraged.

Learn More About Induced Demand:  https://trec.pdx.edu/events/professional-development/friday-transportation-seminar-02042022


Adaptive Cycling

What is Adaptive Cycling anyway? Adaptive devices are physical equipment/mechanical devices that permit people with disabilities to engage in the activities they want to do but can’t achieve without assistance. Cycling is a healthy, fun, and useful activity that may not be an option for some. But with a little ingenuity, it can be available to many more people. Adaptive cycles are designed to permit people to play to their strengths, whether that means hand propulsion, balance assist from a third wheel, a variety of seating and support options, or a way to co-ride. These sorts of adjustments (adaptations, if you will) can make cycling available to people who are partially paralyzed, those who are blind or low vision, or those who have vertigo, developmental issues, or different limb strength. For some adaptive cycling is more accessible than driving. 

Adaptive devices can be unusual, hard to come by, and expensive, but there are increasingly organizations working to make them available, whether on a trial/sharing economy basis like Twin Cities Adaptive Cycling or as a custom design engineering challenge like the Adaptive Cycling Foundation for veteran athletes.

Learn More About Adaptive Cycling:  https://www.ameridisability.com/adaptive-bicycles-pave-the-way-for-riders-with-disabilities/



Equity may not seem like part of the active transportation lexicon and it is certainly true that it is not exclusive to the field, but it is central to it. There is a fair amount of confusion surrounding it, so it’s important to consider what is meant by the term. As it happens, one of the best illustrations for equity has clear active transportation relevance. The graphic shown here was developed by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to illustrate the difference between equality and equity. It shows four people in two different scenarios, one where they are being treated equally and one where they are being treated equitably. In the top row, everyone is shown with the same bike. It is totally useless to the person who uses a wheelchair; it’s too small for the largest person; it fits the medium person; and it is way too big for the smallest person shown. That’s equality and it isn’t really serving anyone’s needs. Even the person who has a bike that fits them is stuck in a community/group where most people’s needs are not met, resources are going to waste, and health benefits aren’t available to many! In the bottom row by contrast, each is shown with a bicycle or adaptive cycle that suits their needs. That is equity and it’s better for each of us individually and also for all of us together!

When we talk about equity, there are some people who are concerned that it will mean that everyone is constrained not just to the same opportunity but also to the same outcome, but what is really sought is to give everyone the appropriate (equitable!) access so that they can then make of it what they will. Equity is a principle and a mode or practice, not the ultimate target. The target or goal could be said to be inclusion and engagement/belonging for everyone!

Learn More About Equity:  https://www.rwjf.org/en/library/infographics/visualizing-health-equity.html


Distracted Driving

Distracted Driving comes up in the context of April being Distracted Driving Awareness Month, but what exactly is it anyway? You can check out wikipedia, but this is a great condensed run-down from a law office in Houston, TX:

“Distracted driving is any activity an operator of a motor vehicle is engaged in that both distracts them from their primary task of driving and increases their risk of an accident. In other words, distracted driving is any activity diverting a person’s attention away from the primary task of driving. There are four types of driver distraction:

All distractions endanger the driver, passengers, and others on the road.  Distractions come from four general sources:

The most alarming of these distractions is the one that requires the driver to take his visual, manual, and cognitive attention away from driving: TEXTING.” Or, we might add, almost anything else that involves manipulating a touchscreen/smartphone!

AAA on the Dangers of Distracted Driving:  https://exchange.aaa.com/safety/distracted-driving/the-risks-of-distracted-driving/



The term “Quick-Build” shows up in a comprehensive Funding and Finance Toolkit compiled by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) in early 2022. It may not necessarily be familiar. It refers to rapid implementation projects, something that is very much not the rule in the Commonwealth (though the pandemic response has highlighted the potential of and need for them). 

Quick-build may bring to mind the idea of “tactical urbanism,” but these projects go a step beyond temporary “pop-ups” or “demonstration projects.” The Minnesota Department of Transportation has put out a guide for demonstration projects. And the California Bicycle Coalition has a guide on quick-builds. In both cases, the projects are above all faster, cheaper, and bolder. They may entail a trial run or proof of concept. Whereas pop-ups are expected to be temporary (whether 1 day or 6 months), quick-build is more of a rapid implementation on the way to a more extensive or robust final product. Ultimately these projects entail the introduction of new design and street layouts in order to do something — anything — to address a critical issue. In many cases the project is intended to address an intolerable lack of safety in current infrastructure which accounts for the urgency to put it in place.

Download the CA Quick-Build Guide:  https://altago.com/wp-content/uploads/Quick-Build-Guide-White-Paper-2020-1.pdf


Physical Determinants of Health

What are the Physical Determinants of Health? Only the key to the connection between health and transportation/the built environment! According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “whether people are healthy or not, is determined by their circumstances and environment. To a large extent, factors such as where we live, the state of our environment, genetics, our income and education level, and our relationships with friends and family all have considerable impacts on health, whereas the more commonly considered factors such as access and use of health care services often have less of an impact… The context of people’s lives determines their health, and so blaming individuals for having poor health or crediting them for good health is inappropriate. Individuals are unlikely to be able to directly control many of the determinants of health.”

Some ways transportation and land use impact health include:

And the health consequences of these impacts can play out in diabetes, overweight/obesity, heart disease, stroke, dementia, depression, as well as injury and death from crashes.

Physical Determinants of Health are usually considered to be a subset of the Social Determinants of Health.

WHO Says What?  https://www.who.int/news-room/questions-and-answers/item/determinants-of-health



This lexicon compiles some words and phrases of great moment, like Social and Physical Determinants of Health, Vision Zero, and Complete Streets, but there should also be room in your growing vocabulary of Active-Transportation-related terms for other more whimsical words you didn’t even know you needed. In fact, the word for this issue is one no one knew they needed until a couple years ago when it was invented. Introducing “quaxing.”

Quaxing refers to the practice of riding one’s bike, walking, or taking transit to accomplish errands — why, it’s the very essence of Active Transportation! It is all about human-scaled locomotion to everyday destinations in the course of one’s daily routine. It is derived from the name of a city councilor in Auckland, New Zealand, who scoffed at the idea of going grocery shopping without a car in January of 2015. Twitter soon disabused him of that misconception and a new word was born. People have been doing it for years all over the world of course, but in many cases, lacking a word, it was invisible, especially to people like Dick Quax! It didn’t fit the stereotype of people on bikes being all in lycra and unwilling to carry an extra ounce of cargo. Check out #quaxing on social media and consider documenting examples of it in your community. Maybe it will help people in your area think about active transportation in a new way. Look for a mix of kids, groceries, furniture, and garden supplies… Thus far it’s not in Webster’s, but other dictionaries have started to include it.

According to MacMillan:  https://www.macmillandictionary.com/us/dictionary/american/quaxing#:~:text=%E2%80%8Bnoun,term%20and%20made%20it%20their


Safe System Approach

From the FHWA summary sheet, “ The Safe System approach aims to eliminate fatal & serious injuries for all road users. It does so through a holistic view of the road system that first anticipates human mistakes and second keeps impact energy on the human body at tolerable levels… Whereas traditional road safety strives to modify human behavior and prevent all crashes, the Safe System approach also refocuses transportation system design and operation on anticipating human mistakes and lessening impact forces to reduce crash severity and save lives.”  

Up to now, we have been designing for safety according to a very constrained definition: primarily safety for those within motor vehicles. And when we have responded to increasing risk and crash incidence, too often the solution has been to prohibit people outside of vehicles from using our roads to get where they need to go. The result has been slowly dropping deaths for people inside motor vehicles and drastic increases in deaths for Vulnerable Road Users. It is time to recognize that everyone has a right to the road, infrastructure and vehicle design can make the difference between deadly crashes and safe communities, and the time to prioritize safety is up front, not after a crash happens.

The five elements of the Safe System approach are Safe Road Users, Safe Vehicles, Safe Speeds, Safe Roads, and Post-Crash Care.  The approach acknowledges some basic principles that death and serious injury are unacceptable, that humans make mistakes, that humans are vulnerable, that responsibility is shared, that safety is proactive, and that redundancy is crucial.  Taking these factors into account and using the Safe System lens, we can see our road safety practices shift from a traditional stance to a more comprehensive and effective one.   Some of the ways this can play out in a given project or community would be from controlling speeding with signage, enforcement, or legislation to directly reducing system kinetic energy through design, from holding individuals solely responsible to sharing responsibility among road users, designers of roads and vehicles, and policy makers, and from waiting for a crash to trigger a reaction to proactively identifying and addressing risks.

Safe System Summary (2 pager):  https://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/zerodeaths/docs/FHWA_SafeSystem_Brochure_V9_508_200717.pdf

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