Study Finds That People Overestimate Walking Distances

They walk less than they otherwise might because they think it's too far.

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Walking in Toronto
Walking in Toronto.

 Lloyd Alter

A new study published in the journal Transportation Research looks at why people tend to overestimate the walk time and distance, which has been shown in previous research to be common. Through a study of the literature and also testing with university students, the researchers came to some unsurprising conclusions:

  • People who walk a lot are better at estimating distance and time;
  • People who are familiar with the area are better than those who are unfamiliar;
  • People who are carrying stuff or worried about personal safety are less likely to walk;
  • But perhaps most importantly, the characteristics of the route matter.
"We find that respondents consistently made lower, more accurate estimates in areas with high Walk Scores. In other words, destinations in walkable areas appear closer, not farther away. This is good news for efforts to encourage walking." 
Dufferin Street Toronto
Well that looks like a nice place to walk. Lloyd Alter 

This is something that I suspect everyone knows intuitively. My favorite personal example happened when I had to kill some time while having a car repaired. I thought I might walk to the mall up the horrible street pictured above, but I was sure it was way too far to walk. Checking on google maps, I was shocked to find that it was only 3/4 of a mile. But when I walked that distance, it felt like three miles because it was so awful and boring.

Walking in Florence
Walking in Florence.  Lloyd Alter

Architect and urban theorist Steve Mouzon has called this effect "Walk Appeal," noting that in cities like Rome (or Florence shown above) people will happily walk for miles. "Europeans are reputed to walk much further than Americans, and for this reason: their streets have much better Walk Appeal. Put a Parisian accustomed to walking five miles or more per day on a suburban American cul-de-sac, and they wouldn't walk much, either!"

Mouzon notes that on a good American Main Street, people might happily walk 3/4 of a mile, but in a big box parking lot, people won't walk a hundred yards.

"As we all know, if you're at Best Buy and need to pick something up at Old Navy, there's no way you're walking from one store to another. Instead, you get in your car and drive as close as possible to the Old Navy front door. You'll even wait for a parking space to open up instead of driving to an open space just a few spaces away… not because you're lazy, but because it's such a terrible walking experience."
Central Park New York
Central Park New York. Lloyd Alter 

But people who live in cities where it is pleasant to walk tend to walk a lot. I asked my editor Melissa, who lives in Brooklyn, how far she walked recently:

"If I have the time, I always walk, no matter how far it is. I walked 12.7 miles Sunday! Saturday I walked into Manhattan instead of taking the train, walked to Central Park, and then back to 14th street and finally took the train home. That was 10 miles."

The walking study recommends good signage which would tell people how far it is and how long it would take to walk to common destinations. They found in their survey of university students that the information could make a difference in their choices.

"For example, on the Rutgers-New Brunswick College Avenue Campus, we surveyed students at a bus stop with direct service to the two destinations we queried them about. The buses are incredibly crowded, are often caught in congestion, and are infrequent on nights and weekends. In many cases, walking would save students time—and grief—but many do not set out on foot because they perceive destinations to be farther away than they actually are."
Times Square Sign
KEEP MOVING!.  Lloyd Alter

But perhaps the most significant finding was the correlation of accurate estimates with a high Walk Score. When walking is pleasant and interesting, people are happy to do it. When a place is designed for walking, people walk. Another recommendation might be to fix our urban spaces to make them more conducive to walking, to give them more walk appeal. That would be a lot more useful than a sign.