Study: People aren’t very good at estimating distances on foot

Many new home developments use their proximity to nearby amenities as a major selling point, which is probably a good thing because, according to a new study out of the University of Colorado, people aren’t very adept at accurately gauging distances to nearby shops and services.

U of C planning and civil engineering professor Kevin Krizek and his team asked hundreds of people living in and around Minneapolis, Minnesota to estimate how long it would take them to get to places like the closet coffee shop, grocery store, bank or library on foot, and found that only about a third got the answers right.

“Turns out people are not very good at conceiving of the distances they walk with any accuracy. And the ways in which we get these distances wrong have a lot to do with where we live,” reads the Atlantic Cities‘ analysis of the study.

“Suburbanites tended to underestimate the time it would take to walk places. City dwellers tended to overestimate. In other words, if you live in a city, your coffee shop is likely closer than you think,” the article continues.

So what causes the confusion? Plenty of variables affect distance perception – can the walker see their destination, is the route uphill or downhill, etc. – but a major factor could be the amount of “features” on a specific route.

“One of the more comprehensive theories to come out of this research is the “feature accumulation hypothesis,” which posits that the more stuff there is on a journey—the more intersections, turns, distractions—the longer it will seem,” the Atlantic Cities explains.

Interestingly enough, the study’s findings suggest that some features are easier to gauge the distance to than others, especially when you’re talking about a shorter distance.

“..two-thirds of participants accurately estimated the time it takes to get to their bus stop, and estimates were more accurate for the banks, libraries, stores, and coffee shops within a five minute walk of their homes. But as a rule, we’re just not very good a guessing how long it’ll take to walk someplace,” the article reads.

The take home message in all of this? Try walking and timing your own route.

For more on the study, be sure to read the Atlantic Cities article in its entirety.