The language of raised and lowered crosswalks, and raised and lowered classes of street users

Every now and then, I think about the language that we use when discussing municipal issues and citybuilding. There are a few words or terms that I’ve abandoned, adopting new language that’s more appropriate. I don’t say “car accident”; it’s “crash” or “collision”. And a pedestrian doesn’t get hit by a car; they get hit by a driver (we’d never say someone was stabbed by a knife). More recently, I’ve dropped “multi-unit building”, choosing to say “multi-home building”, instead.

It can all seem like semantics, but the words we use carry deeper meaning. There are underlying assumptions, value judgements and general baggage.

Recently, I’ve been involved in various discussions about raised crosswalks. When this comes up, the framing is always “raised crosswalks” versus “at-grade crosswalks”. Whenever I hear someone speak of an at-grade crosswalk, it always takes a moment to register what they mean. “At-grade” is used to mean at roadway level, but I reject that, and I think I’m going to stop saying it.

A real “at-grade” crosswalk would be one where the sidewalk doesn’t drop to meet the road. Basically, we say “raised” when we mean “at-grade” and “at-grade” really means a lowered crosswalk.

Now, I’m sure people can point to city documents with specific definitions, and this is probably the standard lexicon of engineers, but that doesn’t mean they’re right.

Of course, when we look at the terms “crosswalk” or, worse, “crossing”, we can see the problem. The pedestrian’s path is deemed to be crossing the driver’s path, not the other way around. The underlying assumption is that the driver has the right to the road, and the pedestrian is the foreign species getting in its way.

And that’s why we say “at-grade” when we mean the crosswalk lowers. It is a car-centric term for car-centric design. This sort of language is hardly neutral or impartial. It has layers of status and prioritization baked in. Worse, it inherently prioritizes drivers, the one class of road user the regularly, and often with impunity, kills people.

The mindset behind the language that raises car drivers over all other street users contradicts everything the city says about Complete Streets or “Towards Zero” or street safety, in general (even though there are still significant flaws in this rhetoric, too).

What if we didn’t call them crosswalks? What if we didn’t have crosswalks? What if the sidewalks just continued, unencumbered, when they intersected roadways? What if we said the drivers are crossing pedestrian space when they go through an intersection, rather than the other way around? How would simple shifts in language and infrastructure shift our whole paradigm when it comes to street safety and street life?

And how would this effect our prosperity, health and environment, know how destructive driving-obsessed culture is to all of these? We have a default mindset that is inherently destructive. We need a shift in thinking along with a shift in culture.

And we need better language, so that we stop reinforcing our inherited biases.

(So, no, I will no longer speak of “at-grade” crossings.)