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Why People in Cities Walk Fast (2012) (citylab.com)
51 points by vinnyglennon 10 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 48 comments

I think it would be interesting to see not just the average but also the distribution of walking speeds. I posit the effect might just be “number of people walking to/from work or arrival time sensitive activity.”, with “average age” and “adoption of mass transit” as significant factors.

(Mass transit because you’re more likely to see commuters! Outside big cities you will measure fewer people walking to work, because they drove).

So, strongly correlated with economic activity and cultural factors around timeliness, but no deep psychological explanation required.

I walk fast in the city when I’m going to/from work or trying to get somewhere on my break.

I don’t walk as fast on the weekends, and tourists in the city certainly seem to be in no particular hurry (at least, it seems that way when stuck behind them clogging up the footpath).

I think there's a secondary aspect here as well. I walk a lot and always have. And while I almost never feel I need to walk 'fast', I've observed that my comfortable walking pace is a lot faster than most people I know who don't walk every day, even when I'm in no particular hurry.

I can confirm it and have to add that it's the same with riding my bike. Moving at a "normal" speed becomes even somewhat hard when with other people who always tell you to slow down (because when you are not paying attention, you are already speeding up again).

I'm surprised they don't mention the obvious practical reason. I walk faster when I'm in the city because I have farther to go.

Last week, I was working in a smaller city 30 miles out. So I drove, and out in the suburbs, I can park pretty close to where I'm going.

Today, I was working in the city, a mile from home. At that distance, there's a good chance I wouldn't be able to find parking any closer to where I'm going! So I walk, and that's a decent amount of ground to cover.

Smaller city means better parking, so you don't need to walk as far. When you get really small (like Psychro), things are naturally close enough together you don't need to walk far at all.

I'd look not just at how long it takes people to cover 50 feet, but the starting/ending points for their entire trips. I bet when people take optimal modes of transportation for their routes, their trips simply require more walking in bigger cities.

> I'm surprised they don't mention the obvious practical reason. I walk faster when I'm in the city because I have farther to go.

I tend to walk slower when I'm going a longer distance because I want to avoid arriving at my destination drenched in sweat, although I suppose this could be driven partially by the fact that I live in a tropical city (Hong Kong).

> I suppose this could be driven partially by the fact that I live in a tropical city (Hong Kong).

Most likely it is. I live in Poland, and there I can walk very fast without visibly sweating, except on the hottest days of the summer, and during winter iff I wear too thick clothes.

Been to HK/Shenzhen in early winter, and what you have there then seems equivalent to our summers :).

I also live in Hong Kong and I did notice that people seem to walk faster in Winter than Summer :)

I do think that the weather is a factor that should be studied... Another factor is location, I've found that people walk faster in Central than in other places but that might follow their theory about money.

"a mile from home. At that distance, there's a good chance I wouldn't be able to find parking any closer to where I'm going"

Would you drive, just to travel a mile? Barely seems worth it in the best case. That's without getting into the environmental and social issues.

Would you drive, just to travel a mile? Barely seems worth it in the best case.

The bigger issue is that the "best case" is more brought by luck than anything. I've lived plenty of places where walking that mile wasn't actually feasible. No sidewalks, for example. Work that expects employees to arrive to work clean and dry, no matter the weather. Work that provides little space to store winter gear. Sometimes, the drive is seriously shorter: You might be driving a mile, but they don't allow walking on those roads, so the walk is a mile and a half.

The social issues are important things to consider depending on where you live, as they might make it nearly impossible to walk without police harassment. Especially at 2am.

It used to amaze me when I walked my children to school. We would pass people getting in their car to avoid walking half a mile. I suspect a lot of the time they don't even think about it, it's just automatic.

My Dad will get in his car and drive across a parking lot rather than walk it, even though it takes longer. He'll sometimes wait for several minutes for someone to leave in their car rather than face a 45 second walk across a parking lot. He acknowledges the irrationality of this behaviour when I tease him about it, but he won't change.

On the other hand, he keeps fit, enjoys walking recreationally and happily walks for miles when hiking, golfing, or fishing. But he'll drive his car as close as possible to the start of the trail first.

I recall that statement was much easier to make back when my job was sitting in a chair all day. :-)

I am guilty of driving just to travel a mile, on occasion. When you do physical labor, have to carry your own tools, go to work before sunrise, and may not be done until well after midnight, it's really nice to know that when you get off shift at 3am you'll be able to hit the pillow 10 minutes later.

The bus sounds like nice solution, but it's more expensive ... and it shuts down entirely for the 4 hours that I'd need it most (1am-5am).

BTW, that's one of the major problems with public transit around Seattle. Rent is terrible, traffic is terrible, parking is terrible, and it's easy to say "so just take the bus", but we don't run the bus at hours when a lot of blue-collar workers need it.

If parking were easily available & free, then whats the downside? 15 min + a bit of effort versus 5 min and no effort... and you have the convenience of having a car nearby for your next thing (eg lunch).

The choice seems obvious to me.

That 15 minute walk will always take 15 minutes, whereas that 5 minute drive may turn out to be a 15 minute space hunt, so you still have to set off at the same time.

So unless you're travelling somewhere afterwards, where's the upside?

One of my favorite ideas about selecting a major for college is that, if you don’t know what you want to do, you should select the option that gives the most freedom for when you do decide.

Eg a math major can transfer to just about any engineering field with little cost, but its harder to go from say CS to a math major. Philosophy might apply to anything, while art history is quite limited in application elsewhere.

In the same fashion, you should not ask “unless you’re travelling elsewhere”, but rather, “unless you’re planning not to travel elsewhere”; the car gives you both options. You’ve essentially not made a decision regarding travel. Walking otoh does make a decision on the matter (at 15 minutes extra, outside lunch is less appealing; at 20-30, its likely unviable).

Thus, in this particular regard, driving needs no justification, but walking does.

then whats the downside?

Personally. Driving is stressful and uncertain (doubly so in cities with a lot of traffic), while walking is nice and relaxing.


The whole thing seems like a hammer looking for a nail. It's clear from every study quoted that there were always multiple factors that changed the results, and they were trying to find one "overall" factor, but even that was limited.

For example, most of the "walking speed" measurements are done in "downtown locations". Most cities are not made up of downtown locations, downtown is one location in the city, so the measurements only indicate why people walk fast in downtown locations.

They also quote other factors that change the results, like environment, and culture. So basically the results change for any cities that aren't identical. And they're trying to use a national metric (GDP) to relate to walking speed in individual cities, when it's obvious that walking speed is going to relate more to local economic metrics, not national.

I remember reading this. I also remember reading a compelling argument that the conclusions drawn by those studies were wrong, and that the actual cause for the difference in walking speed is age. People in big cities tend to be younger (due to urban migration, and whatnot), and with lower age comes faster walking speed.

I can't remember where that argument was made, and I never fact checked it, so take it with a grain of salt. However, it seems much more convincing than the 'pace of life' argument.

Doesn't it seem like somewhere out there is a company with a lot of data on people's walking speed, which could just bury these studies with orders of magnitude more data? Some smartphone app or similar device for counting steps, or maybe just Google Maps when you're using the pedestrian option to plot your path.

Google has a lot of data from the Google Maps timeline and also from Google Fit.

FitBit is one of them

Muggers consistently choose targets based on how they walk. This is shown to be the case even if other physical information is hidden during the research:


To avoid attack, move with "synchrony and energy", with purpose. The city people are doing exactly this.

I just realized that I walk this way whenever I'm traveling in an unfamiliar place and find that I've chosen a route through a sketchy part of town.

I'll walk straight through at a brisk pace with a little bit of a scowl on my face as though I'm annoyed to have to be crossing this same area of town again and none of these f'ng people had better get in my f'ng way.

Now I know why I do that.

I was told more or less this many years ago by a friend who grew up in rough neighborhoods. Paraphrasing: "When you walk around in the ghetto just walk like you're packing heat in your jacket." Nobody messed with me. I guess it's science.

OT, but a sentence that struck me as weird:

> Interestingly, Wiseman clocked some of the quickest feet in Singapore, China, and Brazil — perhaps a reflection of these rising economies.

Sure, China can obviously be considered rising. Brazil; sure why not? But Singapore? That economy already rose a long time ago. The have one of the highest GDP PPP per capita in the world and have reached convergence. How odd.

I'm fairly certain why I walk fast in a city and it's because of the lights and buses. In certain parts of downtown you turn into a video game character because you've learned how all the crosswalk lights work, how the traffic flows.

So if I see that I might make a green light if I walk faster I start to speed up, and then I catch myself maybe 20 meters after the light and slow down.

Same with trying to avoid bicycle paths and catch buses.

It's all one big video game and it raises your pace significantly. I often catch myself walking faster than I intended and make an effort to slow down.

Maybe it's just how many people are late for work/appointments they measure. Travel time is less predictable in the city.

But actually I think it's a mix: more dates in peoples lifes, wanting to flee the noise (little joy in transit on foot), false urgency to catch public transit because murphies lets you remember all the times you just so missed the tram, as noted by others: more transit by foot in the city in general because of public transport.

I walk faster in the city because there are more people who are walking faster and if I walk slower, they will walk around me, which is more annoying in the city due to the closeness by which people walk. If people kept a respectable distance behind me regardless of my pace, and didn’t try to push past me, I probably wouldn’t walk faster in the city.

I live in Bristol, UK. I walk fast because I know where to go and because I have lots of errands to run. Another reason is to avoid beggars and charity muggers (chatty fundraisers hired by charities to approach people on the street and ask them to make a cash donation/recurring donation) from chatting me up because I appear busy.

I walk slow because some tourists have stopped to take a photo of a Banksy again. And also because of hills.

> "The resulting correlation between walking speed and population was strikingly linear"

> (plot with logarithmic axis)

/me closes tab

It would be interesting to relate this to how stimulating the environment is. I walk fast in cities because doing so lets my brain "compress" the information from the never ending shop windows, people yelling, people walking, cars honking, people asking for money, ambient music, street names, landmarks, camera flashes etc. I also walk very fast in malls for this reason. (A correlate is --yes-- I actually walk slower at night, because there is more to pay attention to at night.) It's possible that fast walking is an adaptation to decrease the neurological load from the stimuli economic activity generates (or even a consequence of the fact that exciting things prime the brain towards moving and make physical action more desirable), and not a consequence of "how much your time is worth".

Opinion on factors based on introspection:

- Desire to shorten the parts of the commute where I can’t read a book (on my phone)

- Desire to shorten the commute in general to maximise time at home or work (day is more relaxed if you arrive earlier)

- Have a set of transport departure times in mind, for the optimal ‘smooth’ journey and want to be sure to arrive early enough to guarantee not missing these. Lowers stress.

- Brisk walking raises heart rate and brings endorphins

- Everyone else walks at this speed. To deviate makes it harder for the person deviating as they aren’t working with the ‘flow’.

I don’t buy this. It seems they’ve tested one potential explanation only, GDP. What about the size of the city per se or mean walking distant between objects? As example: Berlin is a city which is not compact and quite spread out. What if people just need to walk quicker there to make it to work on time? I am not saying this is true. But I want to make a point that you could come up with other things to test easily.

Why would people go fast in dense cities, then?

"Interestingly, Wiseman clocked some of the quickest feet in Singapore, China, and Brazil — perhaps a reflection of these rising economies."

They walk faster but still slow. I'm amazed by how little they care for others. You can't cut them in front because they are fast and don't see you, you can't pass them from behind because they are slow and don't see you. (Same goes for many cyclists. Only car drivers seem to care about surroundings and their speed.)

Cities have more young people and a higher proportion of women than rural areas (women are more likely to walk or use public transportation than men). The researchers have t6o do better than just look at two variables, see that they correlate and jump right to drawing conclusions.

They are more likely to be commuters, have jobs and need to be somewhere.

I'm originally from a small town and everything is slower there, not just walking.

Time is processed differently.

Also - consider if they did the same measurement in a city, but out in the burbs? I'll be you find most people not so fast.

In crowded environments when you go slow you feel bad that you're making people go around you. So your speed naturally climbs to the speed of the faster people. Even if there are few of them the overall speed will increase.

Subways just have flow speeds.

Jan Gehl measures walking speed in his studies of how people public space. There's a hundred little factors that go into making a place walkable. And of course people who walk a lot are in better shape and can walk faster.

In big cities, walking is transportation. So the faster the better.

In small towns, walking is, for the most part, a recreational or social activity.

Climate matters a lot. You're not likely to walk nearly as fast in Bangkok.

Related book recommendation: A geography of time

In Canary Wharf, being a well off part of London, the speed of walking was traditionally quite quick, however there has been a prolonged yet steady slow down. It could easily be a spurious factor but it feels like it goes hand in hand with the trend towards hiring more pliant, less imaginative people!

They speculate about all sorts of factors, such as sensory overload and the monetary value of time, trying to tease them apart, while ignoring danger.

Right at the top of the article, the photo of rapidly walking people is taken on London Bridge. That is where people were run down in 2017. Of course people would want to get through that area as fast as possible.


The same didn't happen during the IRA campaigns. Are you supposing that the people of London are scared ? I'm fairly sure that people in London walk fast as they have busy lives, not because they think walking fast will increase their likelihood of survival. Perhaps the behaviour you describe is more US centric?

Footways on all the major bridges in London are now protected by barriers that prevent vehicles entering the pedestrian area.

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