Few would likely say their daily commute brings them much joy. Some might describe it as a slog. A necessary evil. An experience to be endured, certainly not enjoyed.

Yingling Fan knows this to be true. The urban and regional planning professor at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs has studied the concept of incorporating happiness into transportation and infrastructure planning for more than a decade.

The idea is not as farfetched as it may seem. The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is taking Fan's research to heart.

"We should be thinking about it," said Nissa Tupper, MnDOT's principal transportation and public health planner. "It's a good opportunity to focus on the human experience when we plan our transportation infrastructure. It's more than moving cars. We need to think about people."

The Redford Center, a California-based nonprofit co-founded by actor Robert Redford, recently released a short documentary featuring Fan's work, part of a five-part series on clean transportation alternatives.

Fan's research involved deploying nearly 400 Twin Citians who used a smartphone app developed at the U to record their emotional responses while commuting over a week's time.

The research, which was released in March 2020, found that commuters who use West River Parkway in south Minneapolis during weekday morning rush hours were among the happiest in the Twin Cities, whether they were in a car, riding a bike or walking.

Conversely, Hiawatha Avenue between Fort Snelling and downtown Minneapolis was among the least-happy thoroughfares for local commuters.

Fan and her team found that biking prompted the most happiness among commuters when compared with other modes of transportation, a fact that figures prominently in the nearly four-minute film.

Fan used the data to create a Transportation Happiness Map for much of the Twin Cities. The map, she says, can provide policymakers with "important insights on road and street segments that are in need of closer investigations for future improvements."

Minneapolis-based filmmaker Sebastian Schnabel said he was instantly fascinated by the map. Looking at transportation through a prism of emotional well-being, he said, "really resonated" with him and filmmaking partner Cici Yixuan Wu.

The pair received a grant to document Fan's work from the Redford Center, which uses film and media projects to highlight environmental and climate change issues.

The Redford Center chose to feature Fan because it was interested in "how mobility, transportation, and infrastructure make us feel, how it impacts our emotional health," Executive Director Jill Tidman said in an email.

Tidman said Fan's research asks whether one's commute is safe and beautiful, whether it has crosswalks and is shaded by trees. "Most people are rarely, if ever, asked about how they experience their commute and transit options, so it doesn't often show up in policies or planning processes," she said.

Other short films in the Community Power series focus on residents in New Jersey, Indiana, Arizona and Nevada advocating for safe and healthy transportation alternatives. The U is planning a screening of the documentaries and a panel discussion in coming months.

The film about Fan's research fulfilled the Redford Center's goal "to get people thinking differently about what clean transportation means, beyond electric cars and buses, and how to get more people to buy into the value it plays in our lives and daily experiences," Tidman said.

Beyond MnDOT, a few other government agencies are starting to take notice.

The Los Angeles Department of Transportation, for example, launched a pilot study to gauge what it's like to move around the city, regardless of mode. A commuter's happiness depends on reliability, accessibility, safety, comfort, equity and transparency — no matter what mode is used to get around, according to the L.A. department website.

"Happiness is not now the center of transportation planning. It has not taken center stage," Fan said. But she's hopeful it eventually will be, provoking a broader discussion about creating "more empathetic cities, where we have more shared experiences."