America’s pedestrians are in pain.

Every day, tens of millions of Americans waste tens of thousands of hours stuck waiting on the side of streets for car traffic to get out of their way. We estimate that the annual value of time lost waiting to walk totals $25 billion annually.

Today, City Observatory announces the launch of our latest data product: the Pedestrian Pain Index (PPI). Following the techniques developed over the past thirty years by the highway-oriented Texas Transportation Institute (TTI), PPI uses similar methods and assumptions —to calculate the amount of time pedestrians lose each year having to wait their turn to cross streets to allow cars to proceed.

Credit: Billie Grace Ward, Flickr

We attribute 100 percent of pedestrian wait time as “delay” due to automobiles for two reasons. First, our methodology mirrors exactly that used by the TTI, which counts traffic delay as any slowdown in traffic below the level that motorists enjoy at so-called “free flow speeds,” even if the free flow speed is higher than the posted speed limit. Second—and perhaps more importantly—pedestrians are only forced to wait at intersections because of vehicle traffic. In pedestrian-only environments, there is no need for “Don’t Walk” signs. In that sense, traffic lights and crosswalks are not walking infrastructure—in places without cars like inside shopping malls or in Venice, Italy, there is no need to have signals to tell people when they can walk or paint lines to show people where they can walk.

There’s little question that walking has been made a second-class form of transportation—and that pedestrians regularly feel the pain of being subordinated to automobiles. One of the best examples is “beg buttons” can delay law-abiding pedestrians up to a minute and a half in order to cross a city street—a point illustrated by Gizmodo.

Here’s how we came up with our PPI estimate. According to data tabulated by John Pucher and his colleagues from the the most recent National Household Transportation Survey, the typical American spends about 112 hours walking about 37.7 miles per year. We estimate that out of a typical walk, a pedestrian spends about five percent of their time waiting for traffic, either as they cross the street an un-signaled location, or waiting for a traffic signal. Our five percent estimate corresponds to waiting about 55 seconds during the average 18.5 minutes that each American walks on a daily basis. For those in low-traffic, low-density areas, these 55 seconds will likely be an overestimate; in urban settings with traffic lights on most corners—where a disproportionate share of walking occurs—55 seconds will be an underestimate.

We multiply our daily delay estimate of 55 seconds per person by 365 days and by the roughly 300 million Americans five years of age or older to come up with an estimate of about 1.6 billion hours of pedestrian delay experienced by Americans annually. Valuing that delay at $15 per hour—a figure somewhat lower than that used in studies of automobile congestion delay—produces a total estimate of $25.2 billion in time lost in pedestrian pain waiting for automobiles.

Credit: michael brooking, Flickr

The Pedestrian Pain Index is a first, rough approximation of the time lost by pedestrians due to automobile traffic. Constructing this index is complicated by the fact that, unlike the case for automobile travel, we have very limited data on walking travel. As Tom Vanderbilt put it in Slate, “Walking in America is a bit like sex: Everybody’s doing it, but nobody knows how much.” It’s a classic instance of the old adage “if you don’t count it, it doesn’t count.” Lacking any data about pedestrians in most settings, the costs and consequences of land use and engineering decisions on walking are simply invisible——and therefore ignored.

Traffic engineers have begun to recognize that the waits imposed on by signals on pedestrians impose major costs and discourage people from walking. The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) writes in the Urban Street Design Guide:

Long signal cycles, compounded over multiple intersections, can make crossing a street or walking even a short distance prohibitive and frustrating. This discourages walking altogether, and makes streets into barriers that separate destinations, rather than arteries that stitch them together.

According to the 2012 National Traffic Signal Report Card (yes, there really is such a thing: it gives us a D+), the United States has about 311,000 traffic signals (about 1 for every 1,000 Americans), with an estimated replacement cost of about $83 billion. Most of these signals control pedestrian travel, as well as vehicles. Pedestrians face delays not just at traffic signals, but when crossing roads at un-signalized intersections, and when crossing mid-block (as is frequently necessitated by the serpentine, uninterrupted roadways found in most US suburbs).

Those of you who regard this as a bit of early April data-whimsy, think again. If anything, the estimates presented here profoundly understate the costs travel time costs that our auto-centric transportation system imposes on those who would like to walk. Recent national survey data collected by Jennifer Dill and her colleagues at Portland State University show that walking is a highly valued form of transportation. Two-thirds of Americans of all ages agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I like walking.” Younger Americans preferred walking to driving, with the share of Millennials saying they like to walk outpacing those who agreed they liked driving by 12 percentage points.

Significantly, the most commonly cited barrier to walking (identified by two-thirds of the entire sample) was the relative remoteness of destinations——and destinations are more remote because they are scaled to the size of automobile market-sheds, and because parking requirements (coupled with bans on mixed use zoning) mean that it is uneconomical or illegal to build communities that are convenient for walking. The growing demand for walkable communities, coupled with their relatively short supply is one of the key reasons that values for walkable residential and commercial areas have been rising faster than for auto-dependent locations.

Credit: annshi, Flickr

Like last year’s Cappuccino Congestion Index, the Pedestrian Pain Index illustrated that armed with a modicum of data and a few assumptions, one can easily craft an impressive (or at least impressive sounding) estimate of the dollar cost of some delay that we face in our lives. But being able to monetize delay is not the same thing as saying it’s worth spending scarce public resources to remedy.

In a complex, crowded, and interconnected world, no system can be designed so that no user ever experiences a moment of delay. While it is possible to tally and monetize the value of time spent waiting, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the problem is a serious one, it would be—dare we say it “foolish”—to insist we ought to spend scarce public resources to lessen what are in many cases mostly private costs. That’s something to remember the next time you hear anyone quoting impressive sounding numbers from the Texas Transportation Institute—or anyone else—about the billions and billions lost to traffic congestion.