Late last year I came across an article noting that traffic in downtown London was now moving at the same speed as that of a horse-drawn carriage, basically the state of traffic a full century ago. Today, I found myself walking past the same car here in Bangkok as I went to work, and it made me wonder: where is it actually faster to walk than drive?
First off, how fast do we actually walk? I can’t help but notice that every time I use Google Maps, I’m at my destination faster than what Google had predicted. Am I a fast walker? Probably, but still, what average speed are they using? According to most urban planners, 5 kph (3.1 mph) is an average human walking speed. If we accept that, in which cities is it faster to walk than drive?
Even in the most congested city in Europe, London, the average speed is 19 kph (or 11.8 mph), which means it’s still arguably faster to drive. But when compared to a horse-drawn carriage, as mentioned above, the carriage’s assumed speed of 10-15 kph (6.2-9.3 mph) is getting close to central London speeds.
But average speed only tells us how fast things are moving on average. What about during rush hour? Are you better off walking than driving somewhere? According to a 2013 analysis by INRIX, which looked at the worst corridors in Europe and North America, the following cities had corridors with single-digit driving speeds:
- Austin, Texas (6 mph)
- Cincinnati, Ohio (9 mph)
- London, UK (8,9 mph – two corridors)
- Los Angeles (8 mph)
- New York City (7,8,8 mph – three corridors)
- Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (8 mph)
Again, it seems it is not faster to walk, but what about bicycling? The average speed for bicycling in Copenhagen (one of the few bike-congested cities in the world) is 15.5 kph (9.6 mph), so in that case you might actually be better off biking in all the corridors mentioned above. If we look outside just speeds, there is a lot more that could be said about what is healthier, more sustainable, and so on, but if we stick with looking at just speed, it’s clear in all cases above: you’d be better off getting a horse-drawn carriage. And if starts trotting, you might get up to a healthy 15 mph.
What about in other cities, say in Asia? In New Delhi, average driving speeds are approaching 5 kph (3.1 mph), so that’s actually a good example of where walking is faster than driving or at least on par. And bicycling is much faster. Then again, the safety of walking, bicycling and driving are not exactly on par. What about Beijing? According to Quartz, the average walking speed is 7.5 mph (12.1 kph), so close to bicycling speed. Note that this is average walking speed, not even rush hour traffic on the worst corridors.
If we look at the data below, you see that Chinese cities are facing some fairly slow speeds, and the dial is unlikely to move in the other direction given increasing urbanization and motorization.
Thus, walking and bicycling can actually beat driving in a lot of cities, so the question is: what is the capacity of cities to motorize? And if you consider the deleterious externalities suffered by all (congestion, safety, local air pollution, global pollutants), congestion charging might become a viral solution. On a final technical note, most cars burn fuel most efficiently at 45-55 mph; but those are exactly the speeds cars are not reaching in cities today, and with most cars driving within cities at low speeds in start-stop traffic, it makes a stronger argument for hybrids, not diesels.