In 1854, the American writer Henry David Thoreau wrote the classic work “Walden”, recounting his experience of life in the woods and extolling the advantages of simple and self-sufficient life. Right at the beginning of the book, the author comments that, if someone wants to travel 48 km to visit the countryside, it would be faster to walk than to opt for a locomotive.
This was not because the speed of the train when moving was slower, but because Thoreau proposed that travel time is considered to be that spent on work to pay the costs of the ticket, which, at the time, would be equivalent to almost a day's salary.
In the 20th century, with the proliferation of automobiles, other authors recovered the idea, systematized it and started to apply it to analyze the performance of the car and other means of transport. Thus, in 1973, Ivan Ilich published the book “Energy and Equity”, in which he points out that, of the sixteen hours spent awake, the typical American spends four on the road or gathering resources for this activity. Annually, this represents 1,600 hours dedicated to cars, while the distance traveled is around 12,000 km, which results in an average speed of only 7.5 km/h.
This way of accounting for the time spent on transport is extremely relevant and opportune for today. The appeals and attractions for car consumption have always involved the issue of speed and the supposed time saving.
Of course, other variables are present in the desire and option for this modal, such as a feeling of safety, comfort, practicality or even status. However, it would be very difficult to convince people to opt for such an expensive means of transport if the speed was perceived as lower than other options.
In 2004, Professor Paul Tranter from the University of New South Wales (Australia) proposed that this holistic comparison be called effective speed, which could better guide individual consumption decisions and the definition of public policies for urban mobility. To calculate it, just divide the distance traveled by time. The difference with the traditional formula is that, in this case, the travel time must also be added to the time worked to make its costs viable.
For example, IBMEC estimates that the annual costs of fuel, oil changes, maintenance, parking, insurance, fees, and taxes for a Honda FIT 2022 in Brazil would be around BRL 22,000. It is important to take into account depreciation and opportunity cost when purchasing a car and also when purchasing a place to store it (residential garage).
After all, when buying a vehicle, a person “loses” money every year, either through devaluation (depreciation) or not earning gains from more profitable investments (opportunity cost), which, to a certain extent, also applies to residential garages.
Therefore, the sum of the fixed and variable costs of this car model can result in an annual income commitment close to BRL 40,000. In this sense, if the person has a labor income of BRL 160,000 per year, he or she will need to dedicate 25% of his working time to pay only for the means of transport. This implies that, for an 8-hour working day, this person must work 2 hours just to pay for transportation.
On the other hand, if you receive BRL 80,000, you will need to dedicate 50% of your working time to finance the BRL 40,000 spent on the metal casing that promises you time savings, which, in daily terms, corresponds to 4 hours of toil. Thus, the lower the salary, the longer the time needed to finance your mode of transport and the lower your effective speed.
Based on these assumptions, several studies have made estimates of the effective speed for the main means of transport in different cities around the world:
- In Boston, USA, a survey calculated effective speeds of cars always below bicycles and in some cases just above walking.
- In Canberra, Australia, the estimates found were that only the economy car model (23.1 km/h) was actually faster than the bus (21.3 km/h) and bicycle (18.1 km/h), while more expensive cars had performance between 12 km/h and 15 km/h.
- In Perth in Australia, the ranking of the results for effective speed was: 1st – Train (37.1 km/h); 2nd – Bus (19.5 km/h); 3rd – Cheapest car (18.7 km/h); 4th – Bicycle (18.1 km/h); 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th – Other cars (16.7 km/h; 15.6 km/h; 13.9 km/h; 11.5 km/h).
- A study carried out in Mossoró, Brazil, identified that for those earning less than BRL 100,000 per year (which represents almost 99% of people in the city), cycling had an effective speed higher than all other modes of transport and walking was faster than the car in almost all comparisons. Even for those earning close to BRL 300,000, at least 3 car models had an effective speed below the bicycle.
- In Recife, also in Brazil, a master's thesis found that the effective speed of the subway was much faster for everyone, regardless of income, and the car was in last place in all scenarios. The ranking for income brackets above 5 minimum wages was: 1st – Subway (32.6 km/h); 2nd – Bus (10 km/h); 3rd – Motorcycle (9.8 km/h); 4th – Bicycle (8.3 km/h); 5th – Pedestrian (7 km/h); 6th – Car (4.5 km/h).
Under these parameters, automobiles are much slower than usually imagined, even losing speed for good old-fashioned walking. Of course, the results can vary greatly depending on the traffic conditions of each place, the costs of the modes of transport and the labor income of each one. But, in general, what is perceived is that, for the vast majority, the time spent in work to pay for higher speed on the road almost never pays off.
In fact, it is possible to go further and work with the concept of effective social speed, which considers not only the costs paid by the owners but also the costs borne by the whole society. After all, it is always good to remember that drivers do not individually bear the problems they generate, such as pollution, traffic accidents, soil sealing, global warming, heat islands, urban sprawl, barriers to other means of transport, etc.
Research carried out by professors at the University of Pernambuco found the following results for estimates of effective social speed in the city of Recife: 1st – Public Transport (9.6 km/h); 2nd – Motorcycle (9.3 km/h); 3rd – Walking (8.3 km/h); 4th – Bicycle (7.3 km/h); 5th – Car (3.7 km/h); 6th – Taxi (3.3 km/h).
In this sense, when accounting for some externalities produced by transport, the car’s performance drops even further and is compared to the walking speed of people with limited mobility. It is worth remembering that the researchers only took into account estimates of traffic jams, traffic accidents and pollution, and there are many others.
With this, it is healthy for society to understand that it may be underestimating the total time spent on transport, so it would be very beneficial for this concept to gain more expression. Tranter proposes that, as happened with the obligation for some products to contain seals indicating fuel consumption and CO₂ emission, the automobile industry should also be obliged to stamp estimates of the effective speed of cars.
The idea doesn't seem bad, after all, for those who already find it unpleasant to be stuck in a traffic jam and/or would like to be able to work less and/or have more resources for more pleasant activities, using the concept of effective speed can be very beneficial to them and to the society.
Via Caos Planejado.