Barely 3 percent of the American work force bikes or walks to work with any frequency, despite the obvious virtues: decreased risks for obesity and diabetes, environmental benefits and lower transportation costs. Ask people why they eschew what’s known as active commuting, as many surveys have, and the primary reason cited is time. Those things take too long, most say.
They’re probably wrong. A new study published in a journal called Transportmetrica A: Transport Science shows that people often overestimate the time required to commute actively, a miscalculation especially common when someone has secured a parking permit near the office.
For the study, researchers at Penn State solicited the school’s faculty, staff and students to complete an extensive series of online questionnaires about their fitness, health, commuting and parking habits, comfort and ability on a bike or as pedestrians, distance from home to their main workplace on campus and how long they thought it would take them to either bike or walk that distance. Only a few of the 505 respondents went by foot or bike; most of them were students. Estimates of commuting times were then compared with the corresponding route times calculated by Google Maps. The researchers independently timed some of the routes by walking or riding them.
The survey participants — faculty and staff members above all — proved to be generally poor at guessing active-commuting times. About 90 percent of their estimates were too long by at least 10 minutes. The few assessments close to Google’s were almost always made by riders or walkers. Parking availability and distances affected the estimates. Those with parking permits, a fiercely sought-after campus amenity, tended to overestimate active-commuting times significantly; the closer someone lived to the workplace, the better the guesses. Confidence had an outsize effect, too. The people surveyed, especially women, who had little bicycling experience or who did not feel physically fit thought that active commuting would require considerably more time than the Google calculations.
The study is limited, of course, because it relies on an insular, self-selected group of respondents to provide information about themselves, a topic on which people can be surprisingly unreliable. The published results also did not delve into such pressing active-commuting concerns as hygiene, showers or the logistics of carrying changes of clothes. But the study’s results do indicate that time may be less of a barrier to active commuting than many might anticipate, says Melissa Bopp, an associate professor of kinesiology at Penn State and the study’s senior author.
“I’d urge anyone who is considering biking or walking to work to do a test run,” she says, perhaps on a weekend (although the traffic patterns will be different from those during the week). Ask colleagues for route suggestions. “Google is good at finding bike paths,” she says, but it emphasizes brevity and directness over scenery for walkers.