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Study says bicycle commuters are happiest

Posted by on May 8th, 2007 at 3:40 pm

More bikes = more happy.
File photo: 9/8/06

Todd Litman of the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute (VTPI) — “an independent research organization dedicated to developing innovative and practical solutions to transportation problems” — released a study yesterday that compares people’s satisfaction with their daily commutes.

Litman found that people with short, human-powered commutes were happier than their transit or motor vehicle-using counterparts.

Litman’s chart shows the likes and dislikes of various commuting methods.

His findings were released in a 37-page report titled, “Valuing Transit Service Quality Improvements: Considering Comfort and Convenience In Transport Project Evaluation” (view PDF here).

Litman found that length of commutes was a key indicator of satisfaction (shorter commutes = happier people) and that the traditional practice of increasing highway capacity to speed them up is not a cost effective solution. From the study,

“conventional analysis favors highway expansion to increase traffic speeds, while more comprehensive analysis favors alternative modes to improve comfort and convenience.”

Here’s an analysis of the report from Clark Williams-Derry of the Sightline Institute:

“…the happiest of all commuters get to work under their own power. Bikers express the highest levels of satisfaction, and least dissatisfaction, with their morning and afternoon treks. Walkers are close behind. I’m not sure if that’s because walkers and bikers tend to have shorter commutes, or because they tend to have pleasant or stress-free routes (otherwise, they’d choose another way to get to work). Either way, it seems like a good way to make people happier with their commute is — if possible — to give them a safe and quick way to get to work under their own power.”

So the answer is simple. Build safer and more efficient bikeways and we’ll have a city full of happy people.

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  • peejay May 8, 2007 at 4:13 pm

    Well, that tracks with my own exhaustive study, that found my happiness quotient at 158.7 (using a formula similar to that used by the NFL to rate quarterbacks) when I bike commute every day of the week, and falling to 22.1 when driving all five days. These are rough averages, and can vary by factors like the number of times a bike passes a car stuck in traffic, cherry blossom season, finding a quarter on the road and picking it up, etc. My quotient will be higher than average today because when they ask me to stay for that 6 o’clock meeting, I’ll say I can’t because I’m riding home.

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  • Jessica Roberts May 8, 2007 at 4:14 pm

    Whoa, that also makes it look like people hate park and rides. Maybe we should stop building them and focus that money on biking and walking connections to transit instead…

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  • Attornatus_Oregonensis May 8, 2007 at 4:32 pm

    Back when I was in grad school doing this kind of research, we used to say, “You needed a study to figure that out?” You deserve a fully-endowed Fellowship at the Institute for the Study of the Blindingly Obvious.

    I’m just kidding and don’t mean to cast any aspersions on this research. I think it’s great that this phenomenon has been documented empirically. Now we need to prove causation by pulling a set of volunteers out of their cars and showing everyone how much more happy they become by riding to work.

    Truly, more bikes = more happy. We should have t-shirts made.

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  • N.I.K. May 8, 2007 at 4:56 pm

    Now we need to prove causation by pulling a set of volunteers out of their cars and showing everyone how much more happy they become by riding to work.

    “Hey pally, ya wanna volunteer, right? Suuuure ya do.” *pull* *thwack*

    Seriously, it’s a great idea. This is the sort of thing a local paper could do…get 5 or 6 street-worthy comfort bikes with slick tires, fenders, lights, panniers, etc. and offer them up for keeps in exchange for the same number of car-only commuters riding a reasonable newbie distance (5-8? miles) to work and back over the course of two weeks and writing a story on the whole thing. It’d be great to see how each person would progress in terms of happiness, confidence-in-traffic, etc.

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  • Matt Picio May 8, 2007 at 5:10 pm

    Jessica Roberts said: “Whoa, that also makes it look like people hate park and rides”

    This is totally unscientific, but I think that people really DO hate Park & Rides. In my personal opinion the only reason Park & Ride works is because people hate downtown parking even more than they hate transit. Which might explain in part why metro areas with strong city centers have good mass transit. (or I could have problem and symptom confused)

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  • Todd B May 8, 2007 at 8:39 pm

    You rock Jessica!

    Yes P+R car facilities in this region are for the most part a costly effort at getting suburban drivers to minimally consider supporting urban transit investments.

    Imagine spending this $5M on a public facility for storing 1000 cars for free each day without checking if these drivers have a transit pass. This same investment could build 5 miles of bikepaths or provide single user bike lockers for 5000 bicyclists or shared on-demand bikelink lockers for +15,000 bicyclists.

    Other options would be to spend $5M on upgrading sidewalks with 4000 ADA ramps (500 to 1000 intersections) so that less paratransit and more fixed route transit services could be used by more title 9(?) users when appropriate. (Each paratransit trip costs CTRAN about $30 vs. > $5 a bus trip, so additional savings could then be put into shorter headways.)

    Or better yet spending this $5M on a housing jobs bank/ match maker service…lets get folks to live closer to where they work – thus bicycling and walking could be an option. ‘For the love of’ …happier commuters and not “epic commuters” or [cars].

    (In the end the ONLY real value of P+R facilities is the land that is under them…in the form of land banking for redevelopment or rent to subsidize transit amenities.)

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  • […] …people with short, human-powered commutes were happier than their transit or motor vehicle-using counterparts… […]

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  • Jeff May 8, 2007 at 9:12 pm

    These kind of statistics always seem a little flaky to me… since the “normative” modes of commuting involve either a personal car or a bus, most people who ride or walk have consciously decided to use these “alternative” means. I know they’re equally valid, but they’re perceived as a little offbeat… and, so, if you DIDN’T enjoy walking or riding to work, you’d fall back into one of the normative groups, rather than staying in the alternative groups and dragging their numbers down…

    I don’t mean to rain on the parade, and I certainly advocate biking or walking to work… but these numbers seem a little foofy.

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  • PJ May 8, 2007 at 9:37 pm

    “Whoa, that also makes it look like people hate park and rides. Maybe we should stop building them and focus that money on biking and walking connections to transit instead…”

    @Jessica: IME park & ride feels like double commuting.

    I had friends in Berlin who used to keep (rusty old) bikes at both ends of the train line. Ride yr. bike to the train, take the train to work, ride yr. second bike to work. Reverse in the evening.

    I’m living in China right now which is rapidly marginalizing all transit other than cars (because scooters and bicycles are for “poor” countries). But I was in Taiwan last week and saw a lot of people on the MRT (metro) with folding bikes, which are popular all over Asia.

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  • That guy May 8, 2007 at 9:55 pm

    Throughout the year I alternate between biking, driving, and taking the bus the 5.5 miles to work and I completely agree with the study. The more I drive, the more surly I am when I get to work or come home. The more I bike to work, the happier I am. The bus ride is a toss up, but I have to walk 3/4 of a mile home from the bus stop. The walk mellows me and that’s the happiest part of the bus commute.

    It’s true, “more bikes = more happy”

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  • Martha S. May 8, 2007 at 10:13 pm

    I’m glad that there’s a study showing this, and I too would be interested in some kind of program to get drivers to give cycling a shot as a serious mode of transport. I think it would really help to have the participants keep some sort of simple journal of their experiences, to help reinforce things that they learned through the experience and also to help them notice the difference in their own mood. It would also really help to have an experienced cyclist ride with them the first day, to show them the best route by bike and teach them how to ride in traffic ect. (and yes, I’m totally volunteering)

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  • nuovorecord May 9, 2007 at 8:35 am

    Flexcar held a month-long event last year to help show people how they could use their cars less and use alternatives more. Participants turn their car keys over to Flexcar for the month. Bike Gallery was a major co-sponsor of the event.


    I believe they’re planning on holding it again this year. It’s not a cycling-only event, but maybe that’s OK. For most people, shifting a majority of their trips from car to bike would be a pretty radical change. This event encourages people to use ALL the various alternatives to their car, and then use Flexcar for those trips that absolutely need a car.

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  • Kirsty May 9, 2007 at 9:45 am

    Park & Rides have become extremely popular in the UK. They play an enormous role in the commute routine of the populus of my hometown of Cambridge these days, particularly now that hefty congestion charging has been introduced into several major British cities, and Cambridge is seriously looking into implementing it too.

    And yes, it’s true. I see far more smiley bikers than I do car drivers!

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  • Matt Picio May 9, 2007 at 10:22 am

    I’d be real interested in talking to the 40+ set in the UK and seeing how they feel about the post-war changes that have occurred and the current state of getting around in that country. England, Scotland & Wales have a much different arrangement of roads and housing than the US, and indeed, from each other – due to the high variance in topography.

    I know that other european countries are also very different from the US, but people are greatly influenced by their language and historical context, so I am especially interested in the differences in the country closest historically and (arguably) linguistically to our own.

    (I know, closest to us would be Canada, but Canada is arguably *too* close to the US, especially since much of the topography closely corresponds with that of the US northern states)

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  • Cecil May 9, 2007 at 10:55 am

    AO is right that to us this comes across as one of those “Wow, someone gave them a grant to prove THAT?” studies, but that is only because we are all, to one degree or another, bike commuters. I can guarantee that the majority of my co-workers, if asked, would say that bike commuters are not happy because we (1) apparently can’t afford a bitchen’ SUV; and (2) can’t go straight from our kitchens to our attached garages to our parking garages to our office without once ever having to see what the temperature is outside. I wish I were kidding, but most of my co-workers assume I ride to work because I have to and not because I want to.

    Sadly, I am presently contemplating a job that would increase my daily one-way commute from 6-12 miles (depending on the weather) to 48 miles. Although I could, in theory at least, do that by bike, it would mean leaving home at 5 AM and not getting home until after 8 PM. The dogs would complain. So it’s soon to be multi-modal time for me. Bike to bus, bus to work, bus to bike, bike to home. Shower, rinse, repeat . . .

    As for the Park & Ride concept, I ofetn see people park their cars on the street outside my house in Ladd’s, take their bike off a rack and pedal in to work from there. There are also some people that park on my street and then hop on the #10 bus. Weird.

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  • chelsea May 9, 2007 at 11:16 am

    cecil, i totally agree. people i work with pity me and assume i do it out of poverty. and i pity them for their indebtedness, lack of perspective, and cookie-cutter lives.

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  • Attornatus_Oregonensis May 9, 2007 at 11:37 am

    Cecil, bummer about your job move. Have you considered moving house rather than going with the 48-mile commute?

    On the workplace thing, I want to say that I feel extremely lucky. I work for the biggest private law firm in Oregon with a bunch of people who do renewable energy and environmental law and they get it. They understand it’s an informed choice based on my values. So that’s nice. And I want to share that to say that the regressive attitudes are not universal (and progressive attitudes are found in places you perhaps wouldn’t expect). Most of them still drop $165 each month on a downtown parking spot, but it’s slowly changing. Many of the younger people are at least part-time bike commuters.

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  • Matt Picio May 9, 2007 at 12:54 pm

    A_O, I work for a public accounting firm, which has a lot of similarity with attorneys. I think a big part of the $165 parking space is the ability to leave the office to go to client sites on the spur of the moment, without having to stand in line, wait for a bus, or wait to pay leaving the parking garage.

    In a job which requires frequent trips on the spur of the moment, frequently with immovable deadlines that cost the client (and sometimes your own firm) money if they’re not met, the exigencies justify the mode of travel.

    OTOH, If you’re clientele is within 5 miles of downtown Portland, and your office, car travel isn’t so much of an advantage.

    Cecil, hope everything works out the way you’d prefer, rather than the way others prefer. It’s hard to balance benefits and costs when considering a new position, and I hope that whatever you choose brings you an equal or greater amount of joy in your life.

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  • Cecil May 9, 2007 at 12:59 pm

    “Have you considered moving house rather than going with the 48-mile commute?”

    Not a chance.

    Anyway, I figure that at least one day a week I can do the ride, at least in good weather. I can stash a bike at the office for noon-time jaunts and all will be good. Besides, an hour on the bus each way would give me time to read something other than the latest appellate decisions . .or, more likely, give me more time to read the latest appellate decisions . . .

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  • Cecil May 9, 2007 at 1:20 pm

    Ack – something happened with my last post, so I apologize if some half-written screed shows up – I was trying to add that the job to which I would be going is one that I really want, and that the commute is the ONLY negative, especially now that Salem actually has a couple decent restaurants at which to eat lunch. So thanks, Matt and AO for you kind words – be assured that apart from less biking, I will still be a happy commuter!

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  • Attornatus_Oregonensis May 9, 2007 at 1:21 pm

    “I think a big part of the $165 parking space is the ability to leave the office to go to client sites on the spur of the moment.”

    We have a handful of firm cars, and we’re in the process of converting them to ethanol/biodiesel. We also have a deal with Flexcar. That might be something you could encourage your firm to adopt, but perhaps your travel needs are substantially greater than ours.

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  • Matt Picio May 9, 2007 at 4:18 pm

    A_O – That’s a great idea – I’ll suggest that to my firm and see what happens. Thanks.

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  • » Blog Archive » Commute May 10, 2007 at 8:05 am

    […] Go bikes! I know that when I worked in Denver and stayed with my cousin I found it way more enjoyable to ride.  Unfortunately, it was 20 miles each way, so I only rode twice a week.  But honestly, comparing a half-hour morning commute and 45-70 minute afternoon commute by car to a 60 minute commute each way by bike, I’d rather be on my bike.  In my car I drove about 15 miles on the interstate, was isolated from the outside, it was stuffy, I got frustrated with Greenies, and I was often moving at less than 15 mph (in the evening).  When I rode, I was on my bike, I got to feel and breathe fresh air, I was on the Platte River bike path (where the trail ducks under most streets that cross the river, so I hardly had to stop in that 15 mile stretch), I was on my bike, I was getting plenty of exercise, I wasn’t spending a bunch of money on gas and the eventual breakdown of my car, I got to chat with people, I really got a better sense of community, and I was on my bike.  I think one of the best sections of the Platte River trail is where it comes right up alongside Southbound I-25.  In the evenings that section was always at a standstill, and I’d just cruise by, sometimes waving at all those suckers stuck in their steel and glass cages. […]

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  • Lazlo May 10, 2007 at 12:25 pm

    I’m definitely happier when I commute by bike. I notice on days that I drive how stressed I am before I even get to work. Cars are isolation capsules in which we vie with others for road space. Bikes put you in touch with your environment, creating connection with the world. Best part is reversing the stress of the work day on the ride home, especially passing cars northbound on Interstate & Greeley.

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  • vespabelle May 10, 2007 at 2:59 pm

    My daughter and I ride to work when we can. One of her classmates asked me why I was wearing my helmet. I told him it was because I rode my bike today. He then asked, “Is your car broken?” This kid is six and already thinks that the only reason you’d ride a bike to work is because your car is broken! I told him we rode our bikes becuase it’s fun.

    The ride home from picking up my daughter from school is a lot more fun on a bike than in the car. We do more talking that way.

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  • HH_in_LA May 10, 2007 at 3:46 pm

    “Whoa, that also makes it look like people hate park and rides…” – Jessica

    Then “@Jessica: IME park & ride feels like double commuting…” – PJ

    I did park and ride for a few month in Los Angeles area. It sucks because I had to constantly worry about catching the train on-time. It’s worst when you have to worry about finding a parking space AND/OR if you are trying to catch a bus, which runs even less frequently.
    I remove the parking part when I biked in to the transit center. I feel much better when I do that.

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  • Darren May 25, 2007 at 12:21 pm

    Their report is not structured well (methods are scattered in w/ results). However, they seem to say that the 2nd model controls for all the variable (including mode of transportation and distance traveled) when looking at each variable. Thus, cyclists who travel the same distance as car or bus commuters are more happy…it’s not that they just have a shorter commute.

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  • Why Biking RULES « The Clean Hippie April 30, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    […] Studies show that bicycle commuters are happier, healthier, more productive, and require less time-off at work. This must be why my office is so […]

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