A Minute Is Not A Minute

Post by Steven Dale

In yesterday’s post I put forth the idea that maybe there is a psychological impact caused by how we design public transit. That there is a kind of Emotional Transit Planning that doesn’t occur but should. That maybe having sunlight and a view would be psychologically more beneficial to the average commuter than being stuck in a tunnel, underground.

The comments which followed that post were in general agreement with each other: A room with a view would be nice, but speed is most important. Most said they would want or choose the fastest option.

But how do you know what you want?

The logical, rational man might call that a stupid question. After all, it’s rather simple matter. If you want the shortest, fastest travel time possible you will opt for that which provides you with the shortest, fastest travel time there is.

Or will you?

The Transportation Research Board’s Transit Capacity and Quality of Service Manual states that studies show wait times to be on average 2.1 times more onerous than in-vehicle time. That number increases to 2.5 times when the waiting occurs at a transfer point.

To the rational, logical mind that makes no sense. A minute is a minute whether you are riding a subway, waiting for a subway or waiting to transfer from a subway to a bus. A minute is a minute and not 2.1 minutes or 2.5 minutes. And yet, despite what the rational models wish you to believe a minute is not a minute.

As Einstein once said, “put your hand on a hot stove for a minute and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour and it seems like a minute.”

In other words: Our perception of time changes depending on the situation. It’s relative.

Like time, what one wants is relative. When what we want is time, even more so. It all depends upon the situation and your perception of reality. You can say you want something, but your mind has other ideas. Or like the restaurant that always ensures chicken is the medium-priced menu item in order to boost profits, what you want can easily be manipulated by anyone with the wherewithal and inclination to do so.

Unless you time and record your daily commute meticulously (which is no way to live a life), you’re unlikely to notice the difference between a 25 minute commute and a 35 minute commute. In the mind of the average commuter, they’re likely the same: Half an hour to get to work each day.

When you are, however, likely to perceive a difference is when the difference in comfort and pleasantness diverges greatly. If the 35 minute long commute was more pleasant than the 25 minute long commute, the former is more likely to be perceived as shorter than the latter.

And yet that 10 minute difference would represent a huge premium to a transit planners model. To those models a 25 minute commute is clearly superior to the 35 minute commute, but would have no connection to the reality that the user actually experiences.

Like yesterday’s post, this is not to advocate for one transit method or technology over another. It’s to put forth the idea that when we put ourselves in the shoes of the user, we quickly see that our models may not be as relevant as we’d like to believe.

This is to suggest that maybe we should consider the hearts and minds of transit users rather than just the models and stopwatches of transit planners.

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.


  1. Hehe, one big important truth. I really like that you brought this one up. Especially that one. "If the 35 minute long commute was more pleasant than the 25 minute long commute, the former is more likely to be perceived as shorter than the latter." But it is easy to describe and to understand. First: if we want something then we are willing to pay for it. In case of the individual "fastest and best" transportation, waiting seems to be the price to pay for it - besides the real price (costs) of course. Second: our transit is already designed. Porsche for instance designs their motor noises to have the typical sporty porsche sound. While a metro has a fast acceleration and hard brakes it gives you the feeling, to travel fast (within tunnels you even can not set the actual speed into a relative). (I was going by our Metro about a week ago a little outside our city - overground - and I was shocked by the speed it was moving) It just feels right to use the best (biggest) declared option, right? Third: regarding the quotation: the comfort you are writing about is more the avoid of uncomfort in public transportation. There are things which are as they are: when you are in a hurry and the train is stopping at every stopover (whether someone is leaving/entering or not) you are getting kind of disquietingly (well, okay. the train has its schedule but you are not thinking about that) Or when train/bus are late - avoid that uncomfort and people know what they are dealing with, then everything is fine and calculable. About the comfort: a comfort is to be able to start work, to read your book or to learn your vocabulary, instead of taking care where to get off or switch the train. Therefore I fell in love with the ideas of gondolas in urban transportation. Imagine stepping into the cable car terminal and the cabin is already waiting for you. And if not: 14 seconds later another one will be there. Or imagine how junctions would look like: there are three lines for instance and you are getting out your cabin going 20 meters or less and the next one is already waiting. The only thing that might turn into a problem is the fact, that the capacity of an aerial cable car system wouldn't be enough. (maybe during peak or after the population increases). Maybe we need an alternative way of telling the transportation system that we are going to use it and maybe the system can tell us when we should go there Like two different tickets. One that your daily seat at a specific time is held for sure. Another one like a flexi-ticket (your mobile phone is telling by gps the transportation system that you just went out of your building and heading towards the cable car terminal: so the transportation system can respond and tell you by a cellphone message that there is a seat arranged for you at that specific time - maybe plus 2 minutes, so you can grab a coffee and enter the cabin). I mean: online advertising already started to profile us and amazon is coming up with clever offers of similar products. You can listen to individualized radio online, why not arranging your transportation individual (with a mechanism behind it)?
  2. it's very similar with going to a cinema with a booked seat or the old fashioned way to get your ticket and seat directly there. Or like using an elevator: the newer models combine the hits for the destinations and gather the people in front of a specific elevator. You could use that "intelligence" by the transportation system too. So maybe the system knows your destination already or you type it in and then a special cabin will be arranged for you and the other 15 people for instance to go fast through and not to stop on every platform.
  3. I very much agree that transit planners and public policy decision-makers should take into account perceived times, the quality of the experience, and so on. That said, I wouldn't be quite so quick to dismiss the 35 minutes versus 25 minutes issue. You are right that many actual riders probably won't notice or care, but total usage is determined at the margins, and some of the marginal as-yet-only-potential riders might well care. Maybe this is just part of their commute, and they are adding up all the times in order to pick an option. Maybe their kid's daycare closes at X, and they need to get there before X. Or so on. My point is just that there is going to be a tradeoff: if you go from an unpleasant 25 minutes to a pleasant 35 minutes, you will gain some marginal riders who are sensitive to the quality of the trip, but you will also lose some marginal riders who are sensitive to the actual time of the trip. The balance may well favor the pleasant 35 minutes, and those perceived time ratios can be seen as an attempt to develop rules of thumb to help you figure out such things. But I do think we need to resist oversimplification of these sorts of at-the-margin issues.
  4. Strange, Everyone is now looking at this Technology all of a sudden.. As if it were an Instant method to Improve there Citys. As a chhep alternative to Light Rail. ------------------------------------------ Instead Has anyone Considered looking into Chair lift Technology instead ?? (If you all desire I will right up an artical if you desire.) It can cover simular distances and speed, at lower costs. ** I shall Investige a few French and Italian Skiresort websites ;) ** Regards Michael
  5. I am a bit skeptical about this perceived times. Of course in a survey i will state that wait times are annoying. After all i hope the service provider will increase the frequency so i will chose my answer accordingly. The only way to find out whats better is to actually run two systems. One with no interchange needed and one which needs a interchange and some wait time but its always a few minutes faster than the slow more pleasant line. An then count the persons traveling between both stops.
  6. Matthias, I'm not sure that test would work, because you're assuming that people know about each potential option, which they may not. I agree some experimenting would be useful, but it would have to be in closed conditions with all the usual experimental checks, balances and monitors. Here's a question: Why don't transit planners conduct actual experiments? Why isn't there a transit laboratory?
  7. Michael, I think gondolas as bizarre enough, chairlifts probably wouldn't be too appropriate. People falling out of chairlifts onto the street is probably a bad idea.
  8. Brian, I think the points you raise are valid. But if one's schedule is so time sensitive - say reaching your daycare at 4:55 instead of 5:05 - I doubt the person in your example would choose either option. Transit is simply too unreliable for either to be an acceptable choice. My guess is they'd opt for a car.
  9. "People falling out of chairlifts onto the street is probably a bad idea." Yet people are fine falling out from hight, onto snow. LOL. It would definatly be a much cheeper option :)
  10. Steven, Again, that might be true of most people with kids in daycare, but we should be focusing on the marginal users. Maybe they can't afford a car or aren't allowed to drive. Maybe they are OK with building in a margin of error, so to get to daycare at 5:00 they will find a schedule which gets them there by 4:45 acceptable, but not if the scheduled arrival is 4:55. And so on. Of course this is just one scenario, but my general point is that we should be very cautious about introspection/common sense on these issues, because it is a common issue that most of the people on either side of the relevant choice are not particularly representative of the marginal people, and it is the marginal people that we need to be concerned about.

Leave a comment

You can add images to your comment by clicking here.