Do You Really Want to Live in “Perceived Time”?

Salvador Dali, “Profile of Time” Photo by Wikimedia Commons user “Julo”.

As you may have noticed, humans don’t perceive time passing at a constant rate. “Time flies when you’re having fun,” we say, or “the meeting was only an hour but it felt like an eternity.”

This phenomenon has obvious relevance to transportation and urban design.  It’s well established, for example, that a walk seems to take less time if it’s more pleasant.  Countless studies have established this as a matter of human psychology, and you probably also know this from your own experience.

But when the behavior science literature talks about improving perceived time, we should pause before deciding that this is the kind of time that matters.

As a transportation planner who sometimes works with architects, I often have this conversation:

Me:  “If you design it that way, these people will have a 15 minute walk.”

Architect: “But it’s a beautiful walk, so it won’t feel like 15 minutes.”

The architect’s implication is that perceived time is what’s real.  If a walk is so pleasant that it feels like five minutes, then you won’t notice that it’s actually 15.

Well, maybe you won’t, but the people waiting for you will.   If you have to punch a timeclock at work, try telling your boss: “I’m not really late, because my perception of time is that I got here ten minutes ago.”  For that matter, try telling that to the friends waiting to meet you, or to your spouse or child at home.

Perceived time is a crucial dimension of the human experience, and an important source of joy.  Perhaps you have had the pleasure of just wandering, in a city or wilderness, without goal, deadline, or destination. [1] You just walk, drink in the sensations of the place, and when you come to a place where you could go one way or another, you go whichever way feels right, without regard to where you will end up.   But important as these experiences are, they always end in ways that throw you back into objective time.  The sun sets, or a business you need is about to close, or you have to meet someone.

Perceived time can be a great experience, and there’s nothing wrong with it, but it could also be called selfish timeObjective time, by contrast, could also be called social time.  Social creatures cannot all live by their own clock.  It is only by respecting objective time that humans can show up for each other in all the ways that make jobs, friendships, and families possible.

There is an obvious class dimension to this issue.  If you make a trip longer in order to make it more pleasant, you’re imposing delay on people who can least afford it.   When we decide to sacrifice low-income people’s objective time to improve their perceived time, we are measurably reducing their access to the things they need, thus measurably impoverishing their lives.  To avoid these impacts, a logical and just approach to design and infrastructure would first focus on making the best use of people’s objective time, and only then, in cases where objective time is not at stake, work to improve perceived time.

So behavior science thinking is always at serious risk of elite projection.  When someone says that a journey can be longer as long as it feels faster, I always ask, “for whom will it feel faster, and is that the only person who matters?”


[1]  The French call this activity flânerie, and the person doing it a flâneur, a word that has come over into English in literary and urbanist contexts.

15 Responses to Do You Really Want to Live in “Perceived Time”?

  1. Scott April 5, 2022 at 6:22 am #

    Fascinating post.

    I might call it “personal time” instead of “selfish time”. While it is possible for personal time to have a selfish implication, it is not necessarily always so and the connotation could be more neutral.

    I wonder how to think about this in different cultural settings. In North America we generally seem to value objective time more, and a lot revolves around it. In many warm-climate cultures (like the Philippines), time is much more fluid and “be here at 8” is understood to mean something more like “be here between 8 and 10”, depending on the setting. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily affect the transit point you’re making.

  2. Desmond Bliek April 5, 2022 at 8:24 am #

    This comes up a lot in conversations about cycling infrastructure, with people opposed to reallocating space on streets that make direct connections often suggesting that a more leisurely route (whether on a meandering pathway or disconnected local streets) would be more pleasant and thus not feel like a detour.

    • Murray April 7, 2022 at 1:42 am #

      I know from research in Australia that (most) people are willing to ride an extra 30% distance if it means a better / safer route. I don’t know how much the perceived time makes a difference though.

      (That said, I know of people who will deliberately go further and over hills on their commute in order to get the exercise.)

    • F. Nagel April 22, 2022 at 5:55 am #

      In that situation the optimum seems to me to leave both paths open. Offer a safe and direct route for bicycle commuters and more winding scenic route for pleasure cyclists. These two routes have diffferent purposes so it makes sense to keep them both.

  3. Alon Levy April 5, 2022 at 10:14 am #

    The flip side is that perceived time helps showcase which groups find a space hostile. For example, women in high-crime neighborhoods perceive the wait for a bus as longer than men in any neighborhood or women in low-crime neighborhoods.

  4. Kyle Marshall April 5, 2022 at 5:27 pm #

    “Perceived time can be a great experience, and there’s nothing wrong with it, but it could also be called selfish time.” – Not all work has to just be anti-pleasure. Like this response, for example. I very much enjoy the opportunity in working to thinking through ideas and spending effort exchanging them with people to find the truth. I wouldn’t call it pleasure or work.

    In regards to being selfish, current Kyle has to make sure to take care of past Kyle and future Kyle. In learning how to want the best for the community of Kyles, I can apply that same muscle to other people. Hopefully others find it meaningful to use that muscle for others too, when they have the means to share.

    Is the reason for perceived time in analyses just arbitrary wind blowing from one source of power, especially to exploit a powerless victim? It’s possible. However, perhaps too the arbitrariness of direction is perceived from someone unknowingly subjective. It is indeed much harder to convert limitation into opportunity with limited resources, like time. However, too many options could also require some arbitrary or random decision if on the same teir of value and that decision can become costly when splitting hairs. To be clear, freedom and having time is valuable. For example, I don’t mind yielding to cars turning right at an intersection when I bike in the bike lane, because it’s not that much more time for me to do so and if it gives me the opportunity to love people driving too. However, I do appreciate the freedom of having a bike land on the road.

  5. Nathan Davidowicz April 5, 2022 at 6:59 pm #

    In the old days( prior to GPS on buses and various apps ) most riders would estimate their waiting time way more than the actual waiting time.
    Some would even double ie. I waited 10 mins when they actually only waited 5 mins.

  6. Yash Mishra April 6, 2022 at 3:15 am #

    This post is Fascinating.

  7. Murray April 7, 2022 at 1:44 am #

    I think you and the architect both have a point.

    Yes, I like quality design so my journey feels more pleasant.
    But also yes, I want my travel generally to be quicker.

  8. aleske April 7, 2022 at 3:32 am #

    Yet, some detour journeys are worth the time price, eg. : by bike on the Seine bank in Paris than through the boulevards, or by “vapur” boat to cross the Bosphorus in Istanbul.

    • Sailor Boy April 10, 2022 at 4:41 pm #

      So, only when you are a tourist?

      • F. Nagel April 22, 2022 at 5:44 am #

        Yes Pretty much only if you are a Tourist. This includes being a Tourist in your own city.

  9. Wanderer April 10, 2022 at 4:59 pm #

    It seems like “perceived time” should be used only after a reasonable actual standard has been met. The development is 1/2 mile, or 10 minutes’ walk from the station. But we’ll make it nice and it will feel like less.

    • F. Nagel April 22, 2022 at 5:40 am #

      I agree, first focus on actual time. If you have hit the optimum there change your evaluation function to perceived time. Now optimize the area while making sure that the changes do not affect obective time.

  10. asdf2 April 17, 2022 at 8:41 pm #

    The emphasis on “perceived time” is partly driven by an elite assumption that any time-sensitive trip will always be done in a car. So the fact that a person is even considering transit to begin with implies that the trip is not time-sensitive, so it’s perceived time, not objective time, that matters.

    Makes sense from the perspective of a rich suburbanite, much less so for people in more urban areas or in a lower financial status.