People experience many emotions while commuting, but is happiness one of them?
That’s the question Yingling Fan, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Minnesota, wanted to answer. She found that the happiest commutes were often the most environmentally friendly, and says the best way to increase happiness in public spaces is to design them with the needs of the most marginalized communities in mind.
“In public spaces you meet people of a different race, a different class, a different background, and it’s important to have a shared sense of happiness,” Fan said.
Human emotions are influenced by the physical environment, Fan said, so it’s important for city planners to create environments that promote happiness. In cities, most public space is devoted to transportation, Fan says, which in the United States is largely designed to move as many vehicles as possible quickly between two different points. This system leads to more greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles and ignores what Fan sees as the key questions: How happy are people while they are moving? Can we make them happier?
“If you only focus on efficiency, I think it’s a huge missed opportunity for transportation planners,” Fan said.
Fan’s investigation went further than that. Using a University of Minnesota-designed smartphone app called Daynamica, her team surveyed 400 people in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. They tracked every journey people made for a week and had users respond by ranking six emotions: happiness, meaning, pain, sadness, stress and fatigue. The app can detect how people have traveled and for how long. Users shared how they felt at different times during their commute.
The study looked at these modes of transport: driving, bus, train, walking, cycling and driving in vehicles such as carpooling, taxi services and shared rides. Data was collected from residents of six metro areas, four urban districts and two suburbs.
Fan has the . created Good luck card based on her findings, which shows the ups and downs of individual travel using different modes of transport throughout the day. Local filmmakers Sebastian Schnabel and Cici Yixuan Wu created a short video highlight her work.
Is greener happier?
Fan’s findings show that cycling, walking and taking public transport such as bus or train for longer journeys were more pleasant experiences than driving. Driving alone for short distances of less than half an hour is a fairly happy experience, but driving is sadder and more stressful for longer journeys with heavy traffic. Driving with passengers is more fun, regardless of distance, the study finds.
Transport it is largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. While an increase in renewables like wind and solar has significantly reduced emissions over the past decade, tailpipe emissions remain stubbornly high, according to a 2021 state report.
Minnesota’s total emissions are down eight percent from 2005 levels, well behind the state law’s target of 30 percent by 2025 in the Next Generation Energy Act of 2007. Minnesota’s transportation emissions are down by seven percent. decreased compared to 2005.
Cars pollute less than ever before, Fan said, but it won’t cause a noticeable dent in transportation emissions. What is needed, she says, is behavior change.
A zero-emission mode of transportation, cycling, is the happiest way to get around, Fan’s research found. That didn’t surprise Fan. The problem is that only about two percent of Americans move that way. According to the US Census Bureau, about four percent of Minneapolis residents cycle to work.
A native of Minneapolis, Amelious Whyte grew up in New York City and never owned a car. He has a driver’s license, but has always relied on public transport, walking and cycling to get around. When COVID hit, he started riding his bike regularly to exercise. Now it’s his primary way of getting from his home in Loring Park to his job at the University of Minnesota.
He likes commuting by bike and likes to explore more of the Twin Cities on two wheels. Now when he goes to meet a friend, he also jumps on his bike.
“If nothing else, it’s a good 25 minutes with myself on my way to work,” Whyte said.
If it’s a nice day or he wants to move more, Whyte takes a more scenic route. He loves biking along the Mississippi River, a sentiment supported by Fan’s Transportation Happiness Map – Minneapolis’ West River Road along the Mississippi is the happiest street on the subway for drivers, hikers, and riders.
The least happy
Taking the bus is generally the least happy mode of transportation in the Twin Cities, Fan’s research found. But a bus ride turned out to be happier than a car commute that took 30 minutes or more, Fan said.
Eric Moran, however, finds his happiness commuting by bus. The northern Minneapolis native jumps on Metro Transit’s C Line, a rapid transit route launched in 2019, and drives from their home near Penn Avenue to downtown Minneapolis for work. Motivated by climate change, Moran’s family chose to live in a neighborhood close to public transit and cycling infrastructure so they could be less car dependent.
Metro Transit’s “Bus Rapid Transit” is a system that mimics train service by using larger buses, more developed bus stations, advance payment, fewer stops, and more frequent services. The aim is to make bus transport more accessible, more comfortable and more convenient for passengers.
For Moran, it has created a journey that allows them to decompress on their way to or from the office. Taking the bus has also fostered cherished family moments over the years.
“When my daughter’s daycare was downtown, my husband would take her in the morning, and I would pick her up in the afternoon and drive her home,” Moran said. “I would look forward to that every day.”
What’s critical for the environment is that the Metropolitan Council, the regional planning agency for the Twin Cities, is developing public transportation systems that people enjoy using regardless of income or cultural background, Fan said.
“We need an inclusive society to tackle climate change,” she said
Designing a transportation system that makes people comfortable and happy can broaden their horizons, Fan said.
Fan grew up in China and came to the United States 20 years ago to pursue higher education. Before the pandemic, she regularly took students from the University of Minnesota to China for study trips.
China and the United States have different design principles, Fan said. The United States has a history of car dependence that has resulted in an underclass of bicyclists and pedestrians. But both countries are dominated by tech that favors men and is economically safer, Fan said.
Men and women experience public transportation, parking and walking in very different ways, Fan said. Research shows that women are more likely to feel uncomfortable or unsafe in parking ramps or waiting to board public transport.
“If we want to develop more positive emotions in shared public spaces, it’s important that we center the perspective of more vulnerable social groups,” Fan said.
The study on commuting happiness focused on neighborhoods of varying wealth and racial diversity in the Twin Cities. Wealthier areas always have nicer pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, she said. That trend is reflected in her research, which found that people who biked in the more affluent St. Anthony Park neighborhood of St. Paul reported greater happiness than those who biked through the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis, a diverse working-class neighborhood with a history of high pollution.
Fan said she believes the Metropolitan Council and local authorities are taking good steps to create better public transport systems and improve cycling and pedestrian infrastructure. If the state’s goal is to reduce transportation emissions, planners should consider people’s happiness, she said.