The Speed Paradox: Effective Speed

I sat in on a Transport and Logistics seminar at the University of Canberra today.
It was hosted by Cameron Gordon and was presented by Paul Tranter.
Paul discussed the complex links between speed, time pressure and health. He introduced his talk with mention of:

  • The success of a 30kph speed limit in urban centres.
  • Evidence of obesity linked to extra hours spent in a car
  • The links between speed and pollution
  • The impact of speed on social interaction

Paul developed his discussion of speed and time pressure. He noted Jane Dixon and Dorothy Broom’s (2007) discussion of obesity and the identification of time pressure as the second deadly sin of obesity.
Paul asked if ‘fast’ modes of transport are linked to a perceived lack of time. He used a Fast and the Furious (2001) video clip to explore the concept of effective speed. (In the film a 400 metre road race lasts 90 seconds! This equates to 10kph.)
Paul then asked ‘Are we fooling ourselves to believe that machines save us time?’ He pointed out that we have to work to pay for all time saving devices.

High speed transport was one of the major attractions of cars when they first appeared as a means of urban transport. Cars provided the means for a privileged group of people to travel at higher speeds than the rest of the population, which was restricted to walking, cycling or trains. However, when cars became available to the general public, the time advantages of cars faded, along with the rise of traffic congestion. Even when the car appears to provide a speed advantage over other modes of transport, this advantage is questionable when the total time devoted to the car is considered. The ‘effective speed’ of the car is limited by the time investment needed to keep cars mobile. (Tranter, 2004)

Paul suggests that effective speed can be calculated using the formula:

“Speed = distance divided by time”, where distance is the total kilometres traveled, and time is the total time devoted to the mode of transport (including the time spent at work to earn the money to pay all the costs created by the particular mode of transport). (Tranter, 2004)

He noted that Henry David Thoreau (1854) was the first to discuss effective speed. Ivan Illich (1974) revisited these ideas. Paul then considered objections to the use of effective speed as a measurement and pointed to the paradox that the faster you drive the lower is your effective speed!
Paul gave some examples from his research:

For a detailed discussion of these themes see Paul’s (2010) paper Speed Kills: The Complex Link Between Transport, Lack of Time and Urban Health. The Abstract of this paper is:

Road safety experts understand the contribution of speed to the severity and frequency of road crashes. Yet, the impact of speed on health is far more subtle and pervasive than simply its effect on road safety. The emphasis in urban areas on increasing the speed and volume of car traffic contributes to ill-health through its impacts on local air pollution, greenhouse gas production, inactivity, obesity and social isolation. In addition to these impacts, a heavy reliance on cars as a supposedly ‘fast’ mode of transport consumes more time and money than a reliance on supposedly slower modes of transport (walking, cycling and public transport). Lack of time is a major reason why people do not engage in healthy behaviours. Using the concept of ‘effective speed’, this paper demonstrates that any attempt to ‘save time’ through increasing the speed of motorists is ultimately futile. Paradoxically, if planners wish to provide urban residents with more time for healthy behaviours (such as exercise and preparing healthy food), then, support for the ‘slower’ active modes of transport should be encouraged.

For a discussion of social effective speed see Paul’s paper co-written with Ian Ker (2007) A Wish Called $quander: (In)Effective Speed and Effective Wellbeing in Australian Cities.

The twin concepts of effective speed, private and social, highlight a common dichotomy in public policy. In the case of effective speed, an individual may feel worse off if he/she makes a larger proportion of travel by bus, as the average trip speed declines. Society, on the other hand, is likely to be better off as more public transport use enables a higher level of service to be offered, thus increasing the average social effective speed for all users of public transport.

Paul’s presentation concluded with a discussion of investment in the fastest effective mode of transport: the bicycle. He drew attention to David Engwicht‘s work too (particularly Mental Speed Bumps).
See too Paul’s Children and Their Urban Environment (2011) co-authored with Claire Freeman.
Photo Credit
Jaap Kersten in Gramont


  1. Keith,
    I hope you don’t mind if I ramble here a little as this is a subject close to me heart. I have not driven a car since 1990 for what I jokingly refer to as ‘ideological reasons’ – and fear. This is very odd behaviour for a 42 year old male in Australia but I firmly believe that we need more people taking the train or bus, walking and cycling. I live a 15 min walk, through wetlands, from a train station on a beach. It is a beautiful walk. It is considerable less on my bike. Our quality of life is being reduced by an over-reliance on cars. Quite simply it has to stop and the answer, as always, is be the change you wish to see in others’.
    And fear? I was in three car accidents before turning 5. Unfortunately, since then, I have seen some terrible things too. It changes your attitude towards being the pilot of a missile. I have never been the driver but have had to assist in these emergencies. Lets face it, any OH&S review of cars driving in opposite directions at 100kmph passing withing metres of each other would have to lead to a rejection of the activity. 😉
    Anyway, the noise of our cities, the pollution and gridlock just has to stop. Ben Elton’s satirirical novel, Gridlock, is probably as good an analysis of the heavily subsidised car industry and the realities of our modern lives as one needs to read. One wonders how history will judge us.
    Before you ask, I have a license and have had one since I was 17. I used to be a delivery driver. Not a very good one ;O)

    • Darcy
      Thank you for not rambling. What you say is very clear and articulate. I agree entirely and thought I needed to write about Paul’s seminar for the reasons you have shared.
      I have just left a seminar on cycle tourism. Both events have left me wondering about political will and self-evident arguments.
      We should (and must) change.
      Thanks for making time to comment.
      As ever, best wishes

  2. Table 1 is misleading because it does not include waiting times for public transport. I do not believe it would be more effective for me to commute regularly from Sydney to Canberra on a weekly basis by public transport. Certainly it would not improve my quality of life, but I do agree we work far too hard for things that are ultimately of little value.

    • Raymond
      Thank you for your comment. I note the issue you raise.
      I am hopeful that public transport will be more available in years to come making all journeys more time effective through an integrated system.
      At present like you I have to manage risk and opportunity cost.
      Best wishes

  3. The key is to somehow translate this eye-opening information into something that the public can grasp, process and then change their habits. Most urban cyclists know full well they are as fast or faster than cars in real time, and much faster in effective speed.

    • Greg
      I agree entirely. We will be pursuing some of these translation ideas at the University of Canberra.
      Thanks for visiting the post.
      Best wishes


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