People are happier when they are healthy and connected with others.  When babies and young children are deprived of attention, they scream and cry until they are cared for, when connection is reestablished for them.  In the adult world, the divorce rate is 40% higher for those with a 45-minute commute or more, according to a Swedish study, because driving in traffic is stressful and there is valuable family time lost, putting strain on relationships.  Furthermore, suburb dwellers have been found to be less trusting of others than urban residents.  When people live in large, single-use neighborhoods where driving is the only way to get around, they are cut off from the world around them. The happiest places in the world are those where people are connected to the larger world outside their homes by bicycle and walking paths leading to parks, civic amenities, and transit.

We Are Born to Move

When Copenhagen, Denmark was crowned the ‘happiest city in the world’, it was in no small part because the city has the highest bicycle commuter rate in the world among major cities.  Moreover, its people live longer because of the daily exercise from cycling or walking.  Exercise and motion are critical factors in the human experience, as a body needs to move to prevent atrophy.  When we have pleasant walking and cycling tracks connecting us to high quality public transit, we have urban mobility and we are more connected to the larger world around us.  In the outdoors, there is fresh air and reflection, as well as encounters with others, and there is more collaboration and creativity.  Much of this is attributable to regular exercise, including walking and cycling, which stimulates the circulatory and respiratory systems of the body, which act to enhance human happiness.

Urban Mobility and Happiness

The greater our mobility choices, the greater our own freedom.  If we live in a tiny village with no rail service, at least we are well served if there are parks and an oft-running bus to the nearest city.  When we live in a larger place that will support rail-based transit, can we cycle most or all of the way from our homes to the train station without sharing the road with cars?  Can we walk or cycle our way to parks, grocery and other stores, and schools and other civic buildings?  The very places in the world that were ranked the happiest were also the locales where the citizens enjoyed a type of social support that manifested itself in bike and pedestrian friendly public environments.  Moreover, the way our towns and cities are built, whether they are built for their human users or for our space-hungry automobiles, is a major factor in our level of happiness because of how our urban mobility and freedom are affected.

Lessons from Bogota and Copenhagen

Beginning in the early 1980’s, Copenhagen began a decades-long transition to becoming the most bike-friendly city in the world.  A ‘Field of Dreams’ effect took hold when more traffic-segregated bike lanes were built or widened, and people took to this mode in significant numbers.  When city planners realized cyclists would like to be able to chat while they rode to work on their bikes, they widened the busiest bike lanes.  Today the city has a 55% bike-commuter rate, which contributed to its being the judged the happiest city in the world by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network.   Worlds away in Latin America, the Columbian capital city of Bogota has achieved international admiration for its extensive network of traffic-separated bike lanes and car-free Sundays. Through better urban mobility and the de-prioritization of cars, the citizens of this large, Columbian city have benefited with calmer streets and easier access around the city.

Low Risk Urban Policy with Benefits

As cities mature, they must look for new solutions to problems like traffic congestion and lack of urban mobility if they are to continue prospering in the future.  Around the world, cities are constrained by financial and political blocks from snapping their proverbial fingers to produce comprehensive subways or other, high-quality transit.  Today, effective planning often begins with temporary policy, whereby places try new ideas which are easier to implement once proven successful.  To this end, dozens of North American cities have events each year which are centered around creating safe streets for walking or cycling, if only for a day.  Through baby steps like this, perhaps one day more cities will be happier because they saw the light and invested in their people by building high quality bike and pedestrian infrastructure.