Turns out pedestrians who live in cities consistently over-estimate the amount of time it takes to walk somewhere. Why this matters to density.

Think, for a second: How long would it take you to walk to the coffee shop closest to your home? Less than five minutes? More like 10, 20, 30?

When Kevin Krizek, a planning and civil engineering professor at the University of Colorado, and his colleagues asked hundreds of people living in and around Minneapolis, Minnesota, to estimate the time it would take them to reach destinations like this—the closest coffee shop, convenience store, laundromat, bank, pharmacy, hardware store, bus stop, library, post office, book store and park— on foot, only about a third got the answers right.

Turns out people are not very good at conceiving of the distances they walk with any accuracy. And the ways in which we get these distances wrong have a lot to do with where we live. In Krizek's study, which was published in Accessibility analysis: Improving transport planning in Europe and North America in November, people living in inner and outer-ring suburbs and people living in the denser city core both misestimated distances, but in entirely different ways.

Suburbanites tended to underestimate the time it would take to walk places. City dwellers tended to overestimate. In other words, if you live in a city, your coffee shop is likely closer than you think.

This might be good news on a personal level, but it should be worrying for advocates of density. This research was motivated by the growing sense that it’s not enough to plunk down a high-density, mixed-use development and call it a day. Krizek, who also chairs the National Research Council’s Transportation Research Board committee, is working to understand why people don’t necessarily flock to the amenities in these types of developments.

One explanation is that the nearest coffee shop isn’t quite right—the coffee’s bad, or the music too annoying. But maybe, Krizek thinks, people simply don’t know it’s there or don't quite understand the ease with which it can be reached. "The whole idea is to be making the more environmentally benign modes of transportation—cycling, walking, public transport—irresistible," he says. "What types of carrots can we throw out there and what will allow people to understand that these other modes are more easily in their reach?"

Psychologists, social scientists, and urban planners have known for decades that people's perceptions of distance are not tightly anchored to reality. In 1970, the psychologist Terence Lee published an influential study titled Perceived Distance as a Function of Direction in the City. He was building on work that showed that, if they were headed towards a city, housewives would travel farther to shop. In the study, Lee picked asked participants to estimate distances from a fixed point to 22 other destinations, some of which would bring them towards the city and some away from it.

Since then, studies have shown that a whole mess of variables affect distance perception. Some of these factors have to do with the destination. The direct distance between the origin and the destination matters, but so does whether or not walkers can see their destination in front of them or how familiar they are with the route. Uphill and downhill journeys seem longer than ones along a flat plain. Lower-income people are more likely to overestimate travel time than wealthier people. Men and women perceive distances differently, as do older and younger people.

One of the more comprehensive theories to come out of this research is the "feature accumulation hypothesis," which posits that the more stuff there is on a journey—the more intersections, turns, distractions—the longer it will seem. The problem is that many of the studies that have examined perceptions of distance focused on specific routes or were conducted in a controlled, experimental environment.

That’s what Krizek and a few other researchers are trying to look at now: what does all this mean out on the street?

So far, the results aren’t entirely clear. One study, for instance, looked at how perceptions of distance might vary based on the length of time participants had lived in a city. Architecture students living in Manchester, England, estimated the distance from the steps of the student union to places like dorms and public buildings, all of which were on one straight road. The results showed that the longer the students had lived in Manchester, the longer they estimated the distances to any destination to be. But another study, which had shoppers estimate driving times and distances to certain stores, found that the more familiar the participants were with the route, the more accurately they could estimate the time the journey would take.

Krizek and his colleagues chose to look at the county where Minneapolis is located, because there’s a clear spectrum of people living in the downtown and in inner and outer ring suburbs. Their finding that city dwellers tend to overestimate distances compared to suburbanites is another piece of evidence supporting the idea that more features encourage people to believe journeys are longer. Perhaps more discouraging was how few people got the estimates right at all. This didn’t hold true for all features: two-thirds of participants accurately estimated the time it takes to get to their bus stop, and estimates were more accurate for the banks, libraries, stores, and coffee shops within a five minute walk of their homes. But as a rule, we're just not very good a guessing how long it'll take to walk someplace.

"It gives us a moment of pause and a reason of concern, that people's appreciation and perceptions of how we're building things varies widely,” Krizek says. “We're trying to develop all these mixed-use, higher density places. We're creating more features, which is going to make people feel, ‘Oh my god, it's that much further.'"

Top image courtesy of Flickr user La Citta Vita.

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