Cities, Cars, Cycling -- and Human Happiness

Article excerpt

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. …