Subjective speed

The bus between Choa Chu Kang metro station and the Singapore Zoo is an old one. The windows are clattering and every bump in the road attempts to throw you off your seat. It feels as if we are going fast, but are we? I cannot see the speedometer, and there is not enough traffic to compare with. To be honest, I always have the feeling that old, rickety buses are going faster than the new ones. They probably don’t, but does it matter? If you have the feeling you are getting somewhere fast, isn’t that just enough?

That still leaves me with the question why it feels faster. I suggest the level of noise and smoothness of the ride are important factors in speed experience. Riding your bike over cobblestones, you easily get the idea that you are riding faster than on smooth tarmac, but your speedometer tells you the opposite. Maybe you are just more aware of yourself being in motion on cobblestones as you are ‘more in touch’ with the surface. Though I must say that the buzzing of the derailleur and tyres also give a feeling of speed, and you can hear this only when you are riding on smooth tarmac, where other riding noise is cancelled.

There is another factor I would like to draw the attention to and that is the proximity of non-moving objects. I remember coxing a men’s eight in Amsterdam during a training and being scared of the speed the boat developed when they did a full sprint for a minute. It couldn’t have been faster than 25 kph. I don’t know what this says about my nerve system, but I do know that in a rowing boat you are very close to the water, and that means that you perceive your movement over the water as relatively faster than from a higher viewpoint. That is a fact of nature. Flying with 900 kph at an altitude of 10 kilometres can seem to be slower than driving on the earth’s surface with 100 kph.

The point that I would like to make here is that how we experience speed could be more important than the actual speed. When people say they want to drive 130 kph on the motorways I think they don’t really care about the few minutes they are home earlier, but they do care about the feeling of speed they experience while driving. Now, if I would say that cars have become less noisy, have better suspension, and have been made higher to easily get in, or be able to drive offroad (which is not necessary in the Netherlands, by the way), what would you say? Indeed, we probably feel (unconciously) that we are driving slower than when we still had the old car. Speed is a subjective variable. Please keep those old, rickety buses in service!

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