What If We Measure Streets for Walking the Way We Measure Streets for Cars?

“What you measure is what you get,” the saying goes. In transportation, the dominant metrics are all about moving motor vehicle traffic, so America has built a transportation network that moves a lot of cars. Our streets may be dangerous, expensive, and inefficient, but they do process huge volumes of motor vehicles.

Photo: Billie Grace Ward/Flickr via City Observatory

A quintessentially American transportation metric — and a highly influential one — is the Texas Transportation Institute’s congestion report, which ranks cities based on the time drivers spend moving slower than “free-flowing” traffic. By focusing so intently on driver delay, the report obscures more meaningful information, like the total time people spend commuting.

City Observatory has been doing a fantastic job debunking the TTI report. On April Fool’s Day, City Observatory’s Joe Cortright published a tongue-in-cheek takeoff on TTI’s methodology that he’s calling the “Pedestrian Pain Index.” The idea sounds simple: What if we measured the transportation system for pedestrians the same way we measure it for drivers?

The Pedestrian Pain Index sums up how many minutes people around the country spend waiting for the “walk” signal at intersections. If you multiply that number by the same “value of time” assumptions that TTI uses to assign a dollar figure to the cost of congestion, pedestrian delay at intersections costs the U.S. economy $25 billion annually.

Cortright says it’s not as easy to produce this analysis as the one for car congestion, because transportation agencies have developed all sorts of tools to measure motor vehicle delay. Not so much for pedestrian delay. Here he explains his methodology:

Here’s how we came up with our PPI estimate. According to data tabulated by John Pucher and his colleagues from the the most recent National Household Transportation Survey, the typical American spends about 112 hours walking about 37.7 miles per year. We estimate that out of a typical walk, a pedestrian spends about five percent of their time waiting for traffic, either as they cross the street an un-signaled location, or waiting for a traffic signal. Our five percent estimate corresponds to waiting about 55 seconds during the average 18.5 minutes that each American walks on a daily basis. For those in low-traffic, low-density areas, these 55 seconds will likely be an overestimate; in urban settings with traffic lights on most corners — where a disproportionate share of walking occurs — 55 seconds will be an underestimate.

We multiply our daily delay estimate of 55 seconds per person by 365 days and by the roughly 300 million Americans five years of age or older to come up with an estimate of about 1.6 billion hours of pedestrian delay experienced by Americans annually. Valuing that delay at $15 per hour — a figure somewhat lower than that used in studies of automobile congestion delay — produces a total estimate of $25.2 billion in time lost in pedestrian pain waiting for automobiles.

Keep in mind that Cortright’s method accounts for a small fraction of the delay imposed on pedestrians by car infrastructure. Calculating the extent to which parking lots spread destinations farther apart, for instance, would show a huge cost to pedestrian travel times, but would obviously be much more difficult to calculate.

So any day now there should be an explosion of headlines about the Pedestrian Pain Index, just like for the TTI congestion report. Right?

7 thoughts on What If We Measure Streets for Walking the Way We Measure Streets for Cars?

  1. Let’s also not forget that we read frequently about how “driver frustration” means that our streets are less safe because people in cars will execute dangerous maneuvers and become more prone to road rage. That we need to minimize this scourge as it will spill over into more collisions and injuries. Notice that these same people never stop to consider how our car based infrastructure frustrates people walking and riding bicycles in the numerous ways. For those commentators, frustrated cyclists and pedestrians are simple scofflaws who are breaking the law and that we just need more aggressive enforcement, but that no one would ever consider spending millions to reduce their wait times at intersections…

  2. Pedestrian, n. A taxpayer whose time, comfort & safety are irrelevant. –your DOT’s dictionary

  3. Yes, exactly! I’ve experienced this myself when I do one of my rare day rides. It usually goes something like this: get around double-parked car, slow for jaywalking pedestrian, slam on brakes for some jackass pulling out of a parking spot without looking, then get caught at a red light I easily could have made if not for the slew of mostly motor vehicle caused delays. Now I’m stuck sitting at the light stewing for 30 or 45 or 60 seconds. I can’t go through it even if I wanted to on account of the volume of vehicles on the cross street. Repeat this a handful of times and I’m cutting corners for every inch of forward progress, just like a road-raging driver. Much the same thing when I’m walking. I’ll often bang on the hoods of cars inching forward, even if they have the green light, just to make forward progress.

    The usual answer to the frustration you mentioned, besides treating cyclists or pedestrians like scofflaws, is to simply dismiss their concerns. The pat answer often is if you were in such a hurry you would be driving, not cycling or walking. It’s a pity local DOTs don’t analyze delays of both cyclists and pedestrians caused by cars and traffic controls needed only because there are too many cars. They might be shocked by what they find. I’m also thoroughly convinced there are only two ways to really minimize these delays in places with lots of all three users—either get rid of most motor vehicles, or build grade-separated infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians. Anything else is a poor compromise where the latter two groups almost always come out on the short end.

  4. In NYC, if you’re in a hurry, you would be walking, cycling, or taking the subway, not driving. NOBODY who is in a hurry and has half a brain drives in NYC.

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