Many modern societies are addicted to speed. A hurry virus has taken over our lives. Time pressure is now a serious health issue, linked with stress, depression, lack of physical activity and obesity. We eat fast food to save time, yet still don’t have enough time for regular exercise.
A common response to time pressure is to go faster, particularly as motorists. Yet a reliance on cars as a fast mode of transport has literally stolen our money, time and health. The more we rely on ‘time-saving’ machines such as cars, the more time we lose. The following anecdote illustrates this paradox.
Imagine you live in a village in the 18th century, where your job each day is to collect a bucket of water from the river. This takes an hour each day. To ‘save time’ you build a machine to fetch the water. However, to make the machine work, you need to spend two hours winding up a spring.
In modern cities, the equivalent for comparisons sake of ‘winding up the spring’ is the time we spend at work earning the money to pay for all our transport costs. For pedestrians, this time is virtually nil. For cyclists it is minimal. For car drivers, the time spent earning the money to pay for all the costs of cars is usually much greater than the time spent driving. As Ivan Illich explained in Energy and Equity (1974), the typical American driver devotes 1,600 hours to their car, to travel 7,500 miles. That’s less than 5 miles per hour. As speed increases, so does the cost. When we drive faster to save time, the few seconds we save will cost us much more than that in the time needed to pay for the extra fuel, wear and tear on the car, and stress on ourselves. Paradoxically, slowing down will reduce time pressure, which itself is a major benefit for our health.
In cities where the active modes of transport are the main modes, people spend less time travelling than in cities where cars are the dominant form of travel. This is not only because bicycles can be faster than cars in congested traffic. Even when people travel faster in cars than on trams or bicycles, this speed is not used to save time. Instead the increased speed leads to longer travel distances as the city spreads out and as local shops, schools and post offices close. Car-dominated cities pay for their higher speeds with more time spent travelling. Attempts to boost car speeds are futile, as increased speed leads to higher costs (e.g. in new roads) which in turn requires more time to earn the money to pay for these costs.
Over the long term, a switch from cars to active modes of transport will save huge amounts of money and time, for both individuals and cities. By choosing not to own a car, an average income earner could have a shorter work week, or retire 10 to 15 years earlier. Through more walking, cycling and use of public transport, years of active healthy life are also extended.
Tranter, P. 2010, Speed kills: The complex links between transport, lack of time and urban health, Journal of Urban Health, 87(2), 155-165. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2845829/
Tranter, P. 2012, Effective speed: Cycling because it’s “faster”, Chapter 4 in Pucher, J. and Buehler, R. (Eds) City Cycling, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.