Commuters who take scenic West River Parkway in south Minneapolis during weekday morning rush hours — whether by car, bike or foot — are among the happiest in the Twin Cities.
Conversely, nearby Hiawatha Avenue between Fort Snelling and downtown Minneapolis “is not a happy road,” said Yingling Fan, a professor in urban and regional planning at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
Fan took data from a smartphone app developed at the U that recorded the emotional responses of nearly 400 people to their transportation activities in real time to create what she calls the Transportation Happiness Map. It’s her latest effort to explore the notion of happiness — which she defines as one’s well-being — as a useful metric to assess transportation systems and guide policymaking.
“If we don’t improve the experience in public spaces, we miss opportunities to make cities more livable and happier places,” Fan said.
Americans on average spend 70 minutes a day getting from place to place. Amenities such as bike lanes, better bus stops and lighting, safety features and aesthetics to improve the experience are just as important as roads that move lots of traffic, she said.
“We need to bring happiness into the equation to make it pleasing and improve the experience for those who use the transportation system,” said Fan, whose research was funded by the U’s Center for Transportation Studies.
Traffic jams can sour any commute, one reason Interstate 35W and Interstate 94 in Minneapolis might not be happy places, Fan said. But traffic is hardly the sole factor in determining happiness.
Other factors include how one travels and the purpose of the trip. Fan found that biking brought the most happiness when compared with other modes of transportation. Trip length and traveling companions influenced commuters’ emotions. Trips for dining and shopping brought higher levels of happiness.
Aesthetics and the condition of infrastructure play a role, she said, noting that those factors likely contributed to lower happiness ratings by study participants traveling in parts of north Minneapolis and along Hiawatha Avenue.
Conversely, people on leafy roads such as West River Parkway and the boulevards around Minneapolis’ Chain of Lakes reported some of the highest levels of happiness.
Ben Nicka, 40, who lives in Minneapolis’ Seward neighborhood, and his son, Eugene, 6, frequently walk along West River Parkway south of Franklin Avenue and explore trails leading into the woods and down to the Mississippi River. Nicka said he wasn’t surprised the parkway was found to be a happy place.
“You have beautiful homes and scenery,” Ben said. “It’s peaceful, other than the roar of the [nearby] freeway. We want to have more people out here enjoying it.”
Sharon Powell, who also lives in Seward, agreed with Fan’s findings. She said she likes West River Parkway because it’s a good place to watch for hawks and eagles and there isn’t a lot of traffic — especially now that the city has closed the road to vehicles to give walkers, runners and bikers more room to practice social distancing.
“It’s beautiful,” Powell said while out for a walk Thursday.
In downtown Minneapolis, 2nd Street and 3rd Avenue were found to be the happiest streets. Only a few blocks away, 4th and 8th streets were among those with the lowest levels of happiness, the study found.
But 8th Street’s low marks came before Minneapolis embarked on a massive redo of the bustling corridor between Hennepin and Chicago avenues to enhance comfort and safety for pedestrians, transit users and vehicles. The project, which wraps up this summer, includes new pavement, wider sidewalks, better lighting and landscaping, enhanced crosswalks and improved bus stops.
The city is spending $23 million over three years to upgrade Hennepin Avenue from Washington Avenue to 12th Street. Bus stops will be moved back several feet from the street to improve sight lines for pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers. Bike lanes will be routed behind transit shelters rather than along the curb to reduce jams between cyclists and pedestrians. Greenery will be added and lighting positioned so it doesn’t shine in people’s eyes, said Don Elwood, director of transportation engineering and design for Minneapolis.
“Those are subtle things you don’t notice, but they are things that make it feel better,” Elwood said. “It looks better and it feels safer.”
Minneapolis also plans to reconstruct a portion of 4th Street downtown. Elwood said the city has a goal of making things better for pedestrians, cyclists and transit users, and “it’s starting to show.” They’re the kind of improvements Fan said are needed to provide a better transportation experience.
The Transportation Happiness Map is a tool that can be used to identify road segments that trigger negative emotions, and where things can be better, she said.
“For policymakers interested in improving people’s transportation happiness, the map provides important insights on road and street segments that may need closer investigation for future improvements,” Fan said.