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Cities, cars, cycling — and human happiness

Courtesy of MnDOT
One group of commuters report enjoying themselves. These are people who travel under their own steam. … They walk. They run. They ride bicycles.

The British newspaper The Guardian ran an edited excerpt last week from Charles Montgomery’s most recent book, “Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design.”

In the excerpt, Montgomery, who has written extensively about the link between urban planning and human wellbeing, asks the question “Is urban design really powerful enough to make or break happiness?”

His answer is (not surprisingly) a resounding “yes.”

“If one was to judge by sheer wealth,” he writes, “the last half-century should have been an ecstatically happy time for people in the US and other rich nations such as Canada, Japan and Great Britain. And yet the boom decades of the late 20th century were not accompanied by a boom in wellbeing. The British got richer by more than 40% between 1993 and 2012, but the rate of psychiatric disorders and neuroses grew.”

Research has suggested, he adds, that “the seemingly inexplicable gap between rising income and flatlining happiness” has a lot to do with declining social capital — “the social networks and interactions that keep us connected with others.”

Social deficit and the shape of cities

And that’s where bad urban planning — especially the 20th century’s singular emphasis on automobiles — comes into the equation.

Writes Montgomery (with English spellings):

There is a clear connection between social deficit and the shape of cities. A Swedish study found that people who endure more than a 45-minute commute were 40% more likely to divorce. People who live in monofunctional, car‑dependent neighbourhoods outside urban centres are much less trusting of other people than people who live in walkable neighbourhoods where housing is mixed with shops, services and places to work.

A couple of University of Zurich economists, Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer, compared German commuters’ estimation of the time it took them to get to work with their answers to the standard wellbeing question, “How satisfied are you with your life, all things considered?”

Their finding was seemingly straightforward: the longer the drive, the less happy people were. Before you dismiss this as numbingly obvious, keep in mind that they were testing not for drive satisfaction, but for life satisfaction. People were choosing commutes that made their entire lives worse. Stutzer and Frey found that a person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40% more money to be as satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office. On the other hand, for a single person, exchanging a long commute for a short walk to work has the same effect on happiness as finding a new love.

Daniel Gilbert, Harvard psychologist and author of Stumbling On Happiness, explained the commuting paradox this way: “Most good and bad things become less good and bad over time as we adapt to them. However, it is much easier to adapt to things that stay constant than to things that change. So we adapt quickly to the joy of a larger house, because the house is exactly the same size every time. But we find it difficult to adapt to commuting by car, because every day is a slightly new form of misery.”

The sad part is that the more we flock to high-status cities for the good life — money, opportunity, novelty — the more crowded, expensive, polluted and congested those places become. The result? Surveys show that Londoners are among the least happy people in the UK, despite the city being the richest region in the UK.

Stress worse than that of fighter pilot

But when cities enable us to get out of our cars and commute by slower means, such as biking or walking, our sense of wellbeing improves. Writes Montgomery:

Driving in traffic is harrowing for both brain and body. The blood of people who drive in cities is a stew of stress hormones. The worse the traffic, the more your system is flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, the fight-or-flight juices that, in the short-term, get your heart pumping faster, dilate your air passages and help sharpen your alertness, but in the long-term can make you ill. Researchers for Hewlett-Packard convinced volunteers in England to wear electrode caps during their commutes and found that whether they were driving or taking the train, peak-hour travellers suffered worse stress than fighter pilots or riot police facing mobs of angry protesters.

But one group of commuters report enjoying themselves. These are people who travel under their own steam. … They walk. They run. They ride bicycles.

Why would travelling more slowly and using more effort offer more satisfaction than driving? Part of the answer exists in basic human physiology. We were born to move. Immobility is to the human body what rust is to the classic car. Stop moving long enough, and your muscles will atrophy. Bones will weaken. Blood will clot. You will find it harder to concentrate and solve problems. Immobility is not merely a state closer to death: it hastens it.

A sense of connection

As Montgomery reports, one study, in which student volunteers were provided with pedometers for 20 days, found that the more people walked each day, the greater their energy, sense of self-esteem and level of happiness.

“The same is true of cycling,” says Montgomery, “ although a bicycle has the added benefit of giving even a lazy rider the ability to travel three or four times faster than someone walking, while using less than a quarter of the energy.  … [C]yclists report feeling connected to the world around them in a way that is simply not possible in the sealed environment of a car, bus or train. Their journeys are both sensual and kinesthetic.”

Time to switch to a ‘new mobility’

A growing number of people — urban planners, environmentalists, health experts and others — are, in Montgomery’s words, calling on “cities and corporations to abandon old mobility, a system rigidly organised entirely around one way of moving, and embrace new mobility, a future in which we would all be free to move in the greatest variety of ways.”

“We all know old mobility,” one expert tells the Canadian reporter. “It’s you sitting in your car, stuck in traffic. It’s you driving around for hours, searching for a parking spot. Old mobility is also the 55-year-old woman with a bad leg, waiting in the rain for a bus that she can’t be certain will come. New mobility, on the other hand, is freedom distilled.”

You can read this provocative excerpt from Montgomery’s book on The Guardian’s website.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Brian Simon on 11/12/2013 - 01:39 pm.


    Anecdotally, I can say this mirrors my experience exactly. When I was driving every day II noticed the length of my commute correlated inversely with happiness / life satisfaction. Now that I bike commute frequently, it is even more frequently it is more obvious how driving has a strong negative effect on happiness.

  2. Submitted by Todd Adler on 11/12/2013 - 04:08 pm.


    I can’t say for sure that biking to work makes me happier than driving, although I certainly enjoy the ride more than taking the bus in. The bike commute is a lot shorter than the car though as the afternoon commute would typically take 45 minutes to get out of downtown and I can travel the same route by bike in 30 minutes. Plus the bike gives me a good dose of nature along the Cedar Lake trail rather than stewing in 394 traffic.

    Well, here’s hoping we invest a couple more dollars into biking and walking infrastructure so we can ace out that evil Portland for the top biking spot in the country.

  3. Submitted by Todd Adler on 11/12/2013 - 04:11 pm.

    Electric Bike

    Oh, and for you biking geeks out there, here’s a new electric wheel that’s under development. The $550 suggested retail price is a little steep for my pocketbook, but I’m hoping the price comes down a bit once they get into production.

  4. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 11/13/2013 - 09:25 am.

    I think one of the biggest things that could increase this trend is to get buy-in from employers. If secure lockers are are made available to store running/biking clothes, and clean showers are there at the end of the run/ride, people would be much more interested in this. My work provides a small locker room and 2 showers (not fancy, but functional), and 3 of the 6 people in my immediate area regularly commute by foot or bike. Incidently, I’m the only one under age 50, so this is not just the domain of the young urban hipster on a single-speed bike. I’ve also looked into car insurance that would give a discount since my car is only driven on weekends, but no luck so far. Plenty of ways to encourage this that don’t involve the creation of more pedestrian friendly roads (which are certainly welcome too).

  5. Submitted by mark wallek on 11/14/2013 - 09:56 am.

    much happier

    I would be a much happier commuter were I to see the sort of responsible biking that is now an exception to the rule rather than the standard. The slap dash implementation of the road network, the allowance for running red lights “when it’s safe to,” the lack of requisite illumination for night riding all work against a happy commuter experience for those needing to accomodate bikers. And accomodation is such a happy experience when everyone is demonstrating competence on the road. So bikers, if you ride sans illumination at night, expect the guy who almost hits you to swear at you for putting him at risk of a major hassle.

    • Submitted by Todd Adler on 11/14/2013 - 11:48 am.

      Happy Camper

      I hear ya there, man! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve nearly run into a biker on the trail who

      a) Doesn’t have a light
      b) Is on the wrong side of the trail

      I don’t swear much, so they usually just get a “dude! What were you thinking?!”

      While we’re on the same subject though, I would like to put a shout out to all the car drivers who run with burned out headlights and tailights or don’t bother to turn them on at all. I saw several on my way home at dusk yesterday who were running with no lights on at all, even though it was getting quite dark out.

      And the number of drivers who are red light and stop sign runners? Too numerous to count! It’s easier to count the people who do stop at signs as there are only a handful who make the effort. Why just this morning I watched a lady blow through a stop sign in front of an elementary school! She didn’t do a slow and go either–she barely tapped the breaks as she breezed on by.

      So drivers, if you drive without illumination at night or run stop signs and red lights, expect the guy you almost hit to give you some choice words you’re guaranteed to hear even with your windows closed.

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