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Barrier to healthier 'active travel': People overestimate how long it takes to walk or bike somewhere

People overestimate how long it takes to walk or bike somewhere
MinnPost file photo by Steve Berg
When it comes to getting to work, only 5.1 percent of Americans take public transit to get to work, and even fewer walk (2.3 percent) or use other forms of transportation, such as cycling (1.3 percent).

Most people incorrectly estimate how long it would take them to walk or bike from their home to a location they frequently go to by car — and usually by overestimating the amount of time, according to a new study.

These findings, published recently in the journal Transportmetrica A: Transport Science, underscore one of the biggest barriers to getting people to use more active forms of transportation: the perceived time commitment.

“People in general aren’t very good at estimating how long it’s going to take to get somewhere,” says Melissa Bopp, one of the study’s co-authors and an associate professor of kinesiology at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State), in a released statement. “That’s problematic when you’re trying to get someone to walk or bike somewhere.”

And there are plenty of good reasons for trying to get more people to ditch their cars for more active forms of transportation. Not only does active transportation help reduce traffic congestion and air pollution (and thus contribute to a more sustainable environment), it’s also associated with many health benefits, including lower levels of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer, as well as higher levels of psychological well-being.

Yet, as background information in the study points out, when it comes to getting to work, only 5.1 percent of Americans take public transit to get to work, and even fewer walk (2.3 percent) or use other forms of transportation, such as cycling (1.3 percent). Most people commute by car.

In one study, only 28 percent of Americans said they spent more than 10 minutes walking to any destination within the previous week.

Study details

Bopp and her colleagues wanted to investigate how common it is for people to incorrectly estimate the time it takes to walk or bike to frequently visited destinations and what factors influence those misperceptions. To conduct such a study, they recruited 253 faculty and staff and 252 students at Penn State. The participants filled out questionnaires about how often they drove, took the bus, walked or biked to campus. They also answered questions about their health and physical fitness and about how they felt about active travel, including their self- confidence about riding a bike around town. 

Each participant was also asked to select, using an online map, a location on the Penn State campus that they visited most often as well as the location of where they lived. Then they were asked how much time it would take to get from their home to the campus location on foot and by bike. The researchers used Google Maps to determine the accuracy of those perceptions. A perception was considered inaccurate if it over- or underestimated the Google Maps’ travel time by more than 10 minutes.

An analysis of all that data revealed that about 91 percent of the faculty and staff incorrectly estimated how long it would take them to walk to campus, and about 93 percent of them incorrectly estimated how long it would take them to bike. The overwhelming majority of those misperceptions involved overestimates of the travel time.

The students did relatively better. About 55 percent of them inaccurately estimated the time it would take them to walk campus, and about 44 percent did the same regarding the time it would take to bike. Interestingly, the students’ misperceptions regarding walking were most likely to be underestimates, while those involving biking were most likely to be overestimates.

The analysis also identified several factors that increased the likelihood that the participants would have inaccurate perceptions of walking and biking travel times. Faculty and staff who were older, who expressed less confidence about their biking skills, and who had a campus parking pass were more likely to misestimate the travel times. In addition, women were more likely than men to misjudge the times. 

Among the students, misperceptions about traveling to campus by foot or bike were more likely for those who reported lower levels of physical fitness, who lived farther from campus and who had a campus parking pass. No significant gender gap in travel-time misperceptions was found, however.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people in both groups who frequently walked or rode a bike were more likely to accurately predict the travel times. 

Limitations and implications

The study has several important limitations. Most notably, the participants were small in number and all part of a specific university community. The results may not apply, therefore, to other groups or settings. Also, because the participants volunteered for the study, they may have biases regarding active traveling that might not be found in a randomly selected group.

Still, the findings are interesting, for they suggest, as Bopp and her colleagues write in their paper, “that addressing perceptions of travel time among commuters may be a beneficial way to increase [active travel] behavior.”

One reason people often overestimate the time it will take them to walk or bike somewhere is that they envision the journey as if they were doing it by car.

“People who aren’t familiar with walk or bike travel tend to assume you use the same route you would drive, which might be along a busy road,” says Bopp. “Meanwhile, in actuality, there’s a perfectly lovely bike path that only crosses that busy road once.”

“That’s a knowledge gap we can fix,” she adds. 

Self-confidence also appears to be a major barrier to active travel, particularly in regard  to biking.

“We can have all the bike lanes in the world, but if you don’t feel confident to go out there and bike, then you’re not going to do it,” says Bopp. “But luckily, self confidence is a targetable thing. Providing education, encouragement and resources can help with that. There are urban biking classes you can take, for example.” 

FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the Transportmetrica A: Transport Science website, but the full study is behind a paywall.

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Comments (9)

Yes, and other factors as well

People who don't ride or walk can have a hard time gauging the difference between bike and drive times. People are often surprised to learn that bike times can actually be faster or equivalent in some cases, and not too much longer in others. It takes me 30 minutes to get from my house to the Uptown Diner on my bike, 15 minutes by car. On one hand that's only 15 minutes, on the other it's twice as long. At what point do people decide how much longer is too much longer?

And of course the other thing is that at least as far as cycling is concerned, when you arrive you typically don't arrive in the condition as far as sweat and what not is concerned, that you would in a car.

Time and energy

My arthritic knees won't tolerate a bicycle, so I can't speak to that travel mode, but I'm a dedicated walker (45 to 60 minutes a day unless it's below zero or actively raining/snowing), and have a pretty good idea of how long it takes me to get to the few places in my part of Minneapolis that are destinations. Twenty years ago, when I first began my walking regimen in my 50s, I routinely traveled a mile on pavement in somewhere between 16:30 and 17 minutes. Now, alas, it's usually 19 or 20 minutes, depending upon weather and my mood. On occasion, when the weather is nice, I **will** walk to the local Cub if I only want to pick up one or two items, but the local Cub is a bit more than a mile-and-a-half from my house, and a 25-minute walk, one way, and that's more than I want to deal with if I'm buying a week's worth of groceries. At age 73, I (so far) only see my doctor twice a year, but I usually walk to her office for those appointments, and her office is 2 miles away, according to Google maps, which takes me 38 to 40 minutes, one way, and depending on the weather. Except for those two destinations, my walking is usually confined to the trails around a pair of stormwater detention ponds, and along Shingle Creek in the northwest corner of Minneapolis

It's all a matter of perspective

When I was a graduate student at Yale, whose main campus is relatively small, there was a social center for graduate and professional students. The most commonly used facility was the bar, which functioned under the laws for social clubs, but there were other programs as well.

Those who managed the center wondered why so few law school students patronized the place.

When they surveyed the law school students, they learned that these students considered the center to be "too far away."

Now you have to understand that the Yale Law School is a self-contained building that contains not only classrooms but also dorm rooms, a cafeteria, and a law library, as well as a pleasant, tree-shaded courtyard. Theoretically, a law student would never have to leave the building.

The distance from the law school building to the graduate and professional student center? Three blocks.

Comparative time

The time spent walking, even a few miles, can be quite comparable to the time required for making the trip by public transit, especially if going by transit means a bus transfer or taking the Green Line.

Another barrier from "Second Opinion"

"4 in 10 American adults are now obese, CDC reports"

As a previous poster mentioned, it becomes a question of how much more time (or effort) will it take as opposed to a car?

Barrier to "healthier" active travel

Is health. Many of us are limited by a variety of health conditions/issues. Perhaps I should have chosen parents who would bestow upon me a better gene pool.

I’m a little surprised

I’m a little surprised that no one’s mentioned that for probably a significant number of people, their estimate of how long it might take to walk or bike a distance is not independent of how they feel about walking or biking there, or anywhere else. In particular, one way many people justify to themselves not walking or biking is to simply assert that it’s too far and so would take too long. I’d say the fact that the “overwhelming majority of those misperceptions involved overestimates of the travel time” strongly suggests this endogenous effect. And so to the extent that these over-estimates simply reflect their underlying preferences across travel modalities, the authors’ policy implication “that addressing perceptions of travel time among commuters may be a beneficial way to increase [active travel] behavior” seems a bit naïve to me.

I agree

Time estimates could very well be a convenient excuse, not so much a real excuse for travel preferences. It would be much more difficult to tease that out in a study design.

No Brainer

I finally was able to bike in to work today. Last year at this time I'd been biking in for more than a month. I was great. Fortunately, I'm able to bike 8-9 months out of the year. My route is a little over 7 miles and I start not far from where I'd take the bus. On some days, I know I'm beating the bus on my bike (because of traffic). On other days, not so much. Who cares?

What I'm never doing on the bus or my car is working off the stress of the day and a whole bunch of calories. By the time I get to my car (I have to drive the same distance to commute whether I bike or bus), I feel relaxed after a stressful day and my head is clear. If it takes me 10 minutes longer on the bike on a given day, so what? I mean, really? 10 minutes? Again, who cares?

Oh, and I save about a $1K a year by not using the bus or for parking because I bike.