Why is walking faster than driving?

In 1854, the American writer Henry David Thoreau wrote the classic work “Walden”, recounting his experience of life in the forest and extolling the advantages of a simple, self-sufficient life. At the beginning of the book, the author comments that, if someone wanted to make a 48 km journey to visit the countryside, it would be quicker to walk than to opt for a locomotive.

This was not because the speed of the train moving was slower, but because Thoreau proposed that travel time should be considered as time spent working to pay for the cost of the ticket, which at the time would be equivalent to almost a day’s travel on wages.

In the 20th century, with the proliferation of automobile use, other authors recovered the idea, systematised it and began to apply it to analyse the performance of the automobile and other means of transport. Thus, in 1973, Ivan Ilich published the book “Energy and Equity”, in which he points out that, of the sixteen hours he spends awake, the typical American spends four on the road or gathering resources for this activity. Annually, this represents 1,600 hours spent in automobiles, while the distance travelled is around 12,000 km, resulting in an average speed of only 7.5 km/h.
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This way of accounting for time spent on transport is extremely relevant and timely for today. The attractions and lures for car consumption have always been about speed and the supposed time savings.

Of course, other variables are present in the desire and choice for this mode, such as a sense of safety, comfort, practicality or even status. However, it would be very difficult to convince people to opt for such an expensive mode of transport if the speed is perceived as inferior to other options.

In 2004, Professor Paul Tranter of the University of New South Wales (Australia) proposed that this holistic comparison be called effective speed, which could better guide individual consumption decisions and public policy definitions for urban mobility. Para calcularlo, simplemente basta dividir la distancia recorrida por el tiempo. La diferencia con la fórmula tradicional es que, en este caso, al tiempo trabajado también se le debe sumar el tiempo de viaje para viabilizar sus costos.

For example, IBMEC estimates that the annual costs of fuel, oil changes, maintenance, parking, insurance, fares and IPVA for a Honda FIT 2022 would be around R$22,000. But it is important to take into account the depreciation and opportunity cost of capital in the purchase of the car and also in the purchase of the storage space (residential garage).

After all, when buying a car, the person “loses” money every year, either by devaluation (depreciation), or by not making profits from financial investments or other more profitable investments (opportunity cost of capital), which, to a certain extent, also applies to residential parking spaces.

Therefore, the sum of the fixed and variable costs of this car model can result in an annual revenue commitment of close to R$ 40,000. In this sense, if the person has a labour income of R$ 160,000 per year, he/she will have to dedicate 25% of his/her working time to pay only for his/her means of transport. This implies that, for an 8-hour working day, this person must dedicate 2 hours of work per day to pay for his or her travel.

In turn, if he receives BRL 80,000, he must spend 50% of his working time to finance the BRL 40,000 spent on the metal housing that promises him time savings, which, in daily terms, corresponds to 4 hours of work. Thus, the lower the wage, the longer it takes to finance his mode of transport and the lower his effective speed.

Based on these assumptions, several studies have estimated the effective speed of the main modes of transport in different cities around the world:

In Boston, USA, a survey calculated effective speeds of cars always below cycling and, in some cases, just above walking.
In Canberra, Australia, the estimates found that only the popular car model (23.1 km/h) was effectively faster than the bus (21.3 km/h) and bicycle (18.1 km/h), while the more expensive cars performed between 12 km/h and 15 km/h.
In Perth, Australia, the ranking results for effective speed were: 1st – Train (37.1 km/h); 2nd – Bus (19.5 km/h); 3rd – Cheapest car (18.7 km/h); 4th – Bicycle (18.1 km/h); 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th – Other cars (16.7 km/h; 15.6 km/h; 13.9 km/h; 11.5 km/h).

A study in Mossoró, in the state of Rio Grande do Norte, identified that for those earning less than R$ 100,000 per year (which in the city represents almost 99% of people), cycling had a higher effective speed than all other modes of transport and walking was found to be faster than the car in almost all comparisons. Even for those earning close to R$ 300,000, at least 3 car models had a lower effective speed than the bicycle.

In Recife, Pernambuco, a master’s thesis found that the effective speed of the metro was much faster for all income brackets and the car ranked last in all scenarios. The ranking for income brackets above 5 minimum wages was: 1st – Metro (32.6 km/h); 2nd – Bus (10 km/h); 3rd – Motorcycle (9.8 km/h); 4th – Bicycle (8.3 km/h); 5th – Pedestrian (7 km/h); 6th – Car (4.5 km/h).

Under these parameters, cars are much slower than normally imagined, even losing speed for old-fashioned walking. Of course, the results can vary greatly depending on local traffic conditions, costs of transport modes and one’s labour income. But, in general, the perception is that, for the vast majority, the time spent at work to pay for increases in road speed hardly ever pays off.

In fact, it is possible to go further and work with the concept of effective social speed, which considers not only the costs paid by the owners but also the costs borne by society as a whole. After all, it is always good to remember that drivers do not bear individually the problems they generate, such as pollution, traffic accidents, soil sealing, global warming, heat islands, urban sprawl, barriers to other modes of transport, etc.

Research carried out by professors at the University of Pernambuco found the following results for estimates of effective social speed in the city of Recife: 1st – Public Transport (9.6); 2nd – Motorcycle (9.3 km/h); 3rd – Walking (8.3 km/h); 4th – Bicycle (7.3 km/h); 5th – Car (3.7 km/h); 6th – Taxi (3.3 km/h).

In this respect, when accounting for some externalities produced by transport, the performance of the car drops even further and is compared with the walking speed of people with reduced mobility. It is worth remembering that the researchers took into account only estimates of congestion, traffic accidents and pollution.

With this, it is healthy for society to understand that it may be underestimating the total time spent on transport, so it would be very beneficial for this concept to gain greater expression. Tranter proposes that, just as it happened with the requirement for some products to have labels indicating fuel consumption and CO₂ emissions, the car industry should also be obliged to stamp estimates of the effective speed of cars for sale.

The idea does not seem bad, after all, for those who already find it unpleasant to be stuck in a traffic jam and/or would like to be able to work less and/or have more resources for more pleasurable activities, using the concept of effective speed can be very beneficial as individuals and as a society.

Author: Cristiano Scarpelli – Plataformaarquitectura.cl