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

The findings underscore one of the biggest barriers to getting people to use more active forms of transportation: the perceived time commitment.

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).
MinnPost file photo by Steve Berg

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.

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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. 

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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.