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July 15, 2021

A Deep Dive into Speed and Transportation Planning

A Deep Dive into Speed and Transportation Planning

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A Deep Dive into Speed and Transportation Planning

Instead of our usual show today while we are on a summer break, please enjoy this week’s deep dive! Join us for a look at attitudes towards travel time, equity in city planning, and how we can slow down.  

What Do We Think about Travel Time?

When it comes to thinking about speed and transportation planning, a good place to start is to look at what our attitudes are towards travel time. As we discussed, although surveys conclude that people who travel would prefer slower methods of transport (e.g. walking, bicycling, or public transit), there is an abundance of anecdotal evidence that we actually prefer to get places faster. For example, we are more likely to be annoyed at someone going 5 mph below the speed limit who slows us down than at someone going 15 mph over it who passes us. 

A 2009 report by the Department for Transport for the United Kingdom found, among other things, that reliability is a crucial component of how much passengers value their time when it comes to transportation. We can think back to the example of the slow driver: if our arrival time gets delayed, it can have a domino effect and impact our future plans, which makes us value our time during the unexpected delay more than if we had not gotten stuck behind a slow driver. Regardless of the mode of transport, travelers seem to place greater weight on the reliability of the method than anything else. 

More recently, the Transportation Research Board released their second Strategic Highway Research Program report, “Value of Travel Time Reliability in Transportation Decision Making: Proof of Concept—Portland, Oregon, Metro.” This report further confirmed that reliability is a key element of how travelers assess the value of their travel time. Specifically, they found that bus rapid transit had increased ridership due to higher reliability and variable message signs increased reliability by increasing the dissemination of important information for drivers. 

Of course, more than reliability considerations go into our decision-making process when we are figuring out how to get from Point A to Point B. A 2019 report from the International Transport Forum found that what we think about travel time is influenced by the quality of our travel time (e.g. can we do other things, our potential comfort, crowds, etc.), and that improving passenger comfort increased their perception of the utility of travel even if the transport time was not reduced. The report concluded that because technology, lifestyle choices, culture, social norms, and demographics influence our attitudes towards travel utility and travel time, we need to measure and track these changes regularly to make sure that our understanding of travelers’ attitudes towards quantity and quality of travel time is up to date. 

How Do We Use Travel Time?

The vast majority of Americans use cars as their primary mode of transportation. Although daily mobility has decreased over the last few years, time spent in our cars has increased (this is despite more available modes of transportation). To put a figure on it, a 2019 study found that Americans spend 18 days in their car per year. 

The 2019 American Community Survey found that about 85% of commuters travel by car to work. Of those, about 90% drove alone and 10% carpooled. The next highest was public transportation at about 5%, followed by walking (3%), “other means” (1%), bicycling (0.5%), taxicab (0.2%), and motorcycle (0.1%). People who worked from home made up 5.7% of the respondents. 

If someone is driving, they are (hopefully) spending their time by paying attention to all of the things they need to for safe driving. Some people take advantage of longer commutes by listening to audiobooks or meditating. Passengers will usually spend their time talking with the driver or other passengers, listening to music, looking out the windows, reading, or using electronic devices. 

The Victoria Transport Policy Institute looked at how people assess the value of their travel time, including how people spend their time traveling. A survey they conducted of U.K. rail passengers found that many used their time on the train working or studying (30% some of the time and 13% most of the time), most spent it reading (54% some of the time and 34% most of the time), and a smaller portion spent it resting (16% some of the time and 4% most of the time) and talking to other passengers (15% some of the time and 5% most of the time). With these activities in mind, passengers tended to consider that travel time as having positive utility. They found that passengers traveling for business spent more of their travel time on productive activities than those who were traveling for general commuting or leisure reasons. Time spent being productive also increased with journey duration.  

Travel time impacts our subjective well-being, so we need to be mindful of how we spend it. A 2013 study found that commute time was statistically significant and negatively related to measures of subjective well-being. There was also a strong correlation between commute time and congestion. Taken together, these findings suggest that if we can put policies and infrastructure in place to help reduce congestion, we can help to improve the subjective well-being of travelers regardless of how they are spending their travel time. 

Drivers, walkers, and bicyclists may be more limited in the things they can do while also being in charge of the mode of travel, but they can still find ways to make it enjoyable. Passengers, such as in automobiles and public transit options, have more options for how to pass their time. We can look at Japan’s bullet trains for an excellent example of how public transportation can handle both leisure and speed well: their latest model, the N700S, can run up to 360 kilometers per hour, allows passengers to recline comfortably, provides an individual power outlet at each seat, and soft interior lighting to promote a relaxing ride. 

With advances in technology over the past decades, traveling has become significantly more comfortable and provides more potential activities to engage in until you get to your destination. 

Equity in City Planning

Image source: Aleksejs Bergmanis | Pexels

Any changes in transportation infrastructure will involve city planners and making sure that those changes will contribute towards making mobility equitable for all residents. As we discussed in our deep dive on algorithms, discrimination can happen in even the most well-intentioned cases, especially when there is a reliance on systems that have resulted in institutionalized inequities. When it comes to city planning, we can see inequity when we look at gentrification, higher rates of disease, food deserts, and exclusion of communities in the planning process due to language or logistical barriers. 

Traditionally, city planners have dealt with the physical form and function of cities, neighborhoods, regions - essentially, wherever people live, work, and relax. Equity planners deal with both the physical form and function as well as social and economic policies and programs that will impact people. The goal of equity planning is to achieve equity in the distribution of resources, political power, and participation. This typically involves a redistribution of these from higher-income areas to lower-income areas, recognizing embedded practices that have a disparate impact on minority communities, and actively working with those communities to fix these issues and create better communities for everyone. 

When working towards achieving equity in city planning, we must remember that American cities, in particular, were designed with the needs of the 20th-century white man who owned a car in mind. Consider how Black and Brown neighborhoods were intentionally cut off from the rest of the city by highways, the discriminatory practice of redlining, the restrictions on residents moving from one part of the city to others, and the lack of accessible healthy food and exercise options for those neighborhoods, all a consequence of inequity in city planning practices. 

These existing inequities that have shaped virtually all of our current transportation infrastructure mean that we cannot simply look at Europe and try to copy their transportation infrastructure here in America (also known as trying to “Copenhaganize” cities). It may seem like the perfect solution when moving towards sustainability in infrastructure, but it does next to nothing to address the social inequities. Instead, we need to actively reach out to the communities that have been most impacted by the inequities in our city planning systems and get them involved in developing and implementing solutions to these problems. If the voices of the poor and minority communities are ignored in our efforts towards more sustainable and enjoyable modes of transportation, we will exacerbate the existing inequities.

As social issues such as sustainability, income inequality, and diversification continue to grow in importance, it is likely we will see equity planning take more of a center-stage position in the future.

What Do We Mean by “Equity”?

It is common for people to be confused by the terms equality and equity. Equality means that each person or group starts with the same resources or tools, but the outcomes may be different. People are given the same opportunities, but the outcome may be determined by other factors not initially taken into account, such as social connections, family money, or racial discrimination. 

Equity means that the circumstances and natural resources or tools of each person or group are taken into account, and they are given the additional resources or tools they need so that everyone can reach the same outcome. In other words, those other factors that can influence the outcome are taken into account from the beginning so that the outcome can not be predicted on the basis of identity (e.g. race or gender). 

How Can We Slow Down?

Image source: Andrea Piacquadio | Pexels

If we are going to make changes to our transportation systems to embrace both sustainability and slowing down while reducing mobility inequities, some societal changes are going to have to happen, too. It is easy to get sucked into the trap of thinking that we must be busy or else we are slackers or lazy. There is a social stigma around not being productive. So how can we slow it down?

We can start making choices to consciously slow down and escape from the expectation of a hectic life. This might look like: 

  • Going outside: go for a walk or take some time outside for a few minutes to help destress
  • Ordering “for here” instead of “to go”: relax and people watch for a while, savor your food or drink
  • Unplugging from electronics: in our digitally connected age, there can be pressure to always be doing something, whether it is checking your emails or browsing the latest posts on a social media site. Take some time to engage with the world around you and let go of that drive to do things right now that can be done later
  • Focusing on people: make sure you are present and connecting with the people in front of you - we are social creatures, after all
  • Scheduling time to do nothing: purposefully doing nothing allows you to let your mind wander without intrusive thoughts about what you should be doing, because all you should be doing right then is nothing
  • Driving slower: appreciate your surroundings and take advantage of this time to think about whatever comes to mind with minimal distractions (just don’t drive too slowly - be mindful of speed limits, traffic, and the cars around you)
  • Changing your environment: sometimes our very environment can be giving us cues to hurry. If that feels like it is happening to you, take a walk or find ways to make your environment more comfortable and relaxing

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, and not all suggestions will work for everybody. Each person will need to find what works best for them to help slow down and not feel that sense of urgency that is at odds with what would be better for us overall. By making slowing down a more acceptable, widespread practice in society, we will be able to take advantage of alternate modes of transportation so that we are more satisfied with our lives. 

The Human Factors Connection

Image source: Gerrie van der Walt | Unsplash

Transportation planning impacts everyone who lives in a city, regardless of their occupation, race, gender, or income. As we shift towards modes of travel that are more sustainable and that account for our desire to slow down for many forms of travel, we need to keep in mind some important psychological principles. 

Humans prefer to avoid losses whenever possible. We even will sacrifice potential gains if it means we can avoid a loss. Any changes to infrastructure need to keep this in mind. People will immediately notice and dislike any changes that slow down their travel time, as this will cause them to have to reevaluate their schedules and potentially change plans. However, a minor decrease in travel time that is a long-term gain will have little if any impact on how people think about that mode of transport. 

When proposing major overhauls to transportation systems - because that is what will have to happen if we want to encourage people to use slower methods of transit such as walking, public transportation, and bicycling - everyone involved in the conversation will need to be considering ways to mitigate the initial dislike of these changes that will stem from residents needing to change how they plan their lives. This might be done through public initiatives that aim to change attitudes towards slower modes of transport, incentivizing using public transit, policies that help residents get their basic needs met (particularly with the goal of decreasing homelessness and providing all citizens with the means to use available modes of travel), community forums, incremental changes, or emphasizing the safety, comfort, and amenities of these alternatives. 

Addressing inequities in the planning system will continue to be a major consideration for transportation. It will be crucial to get impacted communities involved so that they have a voice in the process. We will need to be sure that we work with these communities so that their needs and opinions are heard throughout the planning process. This may also include determining what information would be useful for them to have, or would help them feel good about the major changes that will be coming. A great question to ask during the process is, “Does it benefit the least well-off?” In striving for equity, the answer should be yes.

Transportation planning is a gigantic undertaking with many moving parts and conflicting needs. With traveling being such an essential part of our lives, it has a significant impact on everyone in the community. As we move towards slower and more equitable transportation and city planning, we need to be encouraging everyone at the table to consider the needs and psychology of the individuals and groups who will be impacted by these changes. 


Don’t forget to join us when we return from our summer hiatus on 7/29/21!



For more Human Factors Cast content, check back every Tuesday for our news roundups and join us on Twitch every Thursday at 4:30 PM PST our weekly podcast. If you haven't already, join us on Slack and Discord or on any of our social media communities (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram).


Explore Some More

Episode Links

    • How Does “Speed” Affect Transportation Planning?

What Do We Think about Travel Time?

Equity in City Planning

How Can We Slow Down?

The Human Factors Connection


Photo by Frans Van Heerden from Pexels (left)

Photo by hitesh choudharyfrom Pexels (right)