Footpaths vs. Sidewalks

I propose a test: every time you want to say “sidewalk” in the next month, use the words “foot path” instead


Because words matter both in how we express ideas to others and for how we imagine our own ideas. Words have special significance when they’re related to policy choices that have repercussions for the general public.

Let’s break this down a bit. The term “sidewalk” may have some unintended consequences:

Side – to me, this suggests an item that is an ancillary part of something else. When we say “side road” there is an implied “main road.” When you ask for a “side salad” it is likely not your “main course.” A side is not central – the side must be at the edge. At most, a side is a portion,  it is never the whole.

Walk – when I picture walking, I see a person upright, on two feet. I don’t see people in wheelchairs or sitting on benches. I also don’t see people on skateboards or scooters. Walking implies effort and some amount of physical exertion. A walk may, or may not, have any higher purpose.

On the other hand, “footpath” suggests something that may be more universal…

Foot – feet are quintessentially human – nearly everybody has a pair even if they aren’t in regular use. The foot reminds me of human scale as it is a unit of measure synonymous with an anatomical feature. The foot is uniquely shaped to allow humans to travel vast distances.

Path –  a path connects two places: an origin and a destination. The path is the physical manifestation of the route between these two locations. A path suggests continuity, a thread that connects between time and space. A path implies a reason for travel, some purpose for the journey.

Ian Lockwood’s article “Making the Case for Transportation Language Reform: Removing Bias” (January 2017, ITE Journal) explores several other instances where widely-accepted language tends to subtly favor motorists over pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit riders. As a longtime fan of the campaign to get journalists to use the word “crash” in place of “accident” when describing collisions – I found his article inspiring since it illuminated other terms I used which had an inherit bias toward automobiles.

While this language doesn’t directly harm any individual, the accumulation of its use and repetition can lead to the formation unconscious biases against people who aren’t traveling in a car. What ideas do we neglect because we use language that artificially stagnates our thinking?

As an advocate for human-scaled solutions, I believe it is my duty to affirm the importance of walking. For this reason, I will try from now on to use footpath as it will further affirm the universality of walking.