UMN researcher dives into transportation happiness

A man in a blue coat stands on the street
Eric Moran enjoys taking transit to work in downtown Minneapolis.
Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing authentic news reporting about Minnesota's new immigrants and refugees. MPR News is a partner with Sahan Journal and will be sharing stories between and

By Andrew Hazzard | Sahan Journal

People experience many emotions when commuting, but is happiness one of them?

That’s the question Yingling Fan, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Minnesota, set out to answer. She found that the happiest commutes were often the most environmentally friendly, and says that the best way to increase happiness in public spaces is to design them with the needs of the most marginalized communities in mind.

“Public space is where you’re going to encounter people of a different race, a different class, a different background, and it’s important to have a shared happy feeling,” Fan said. 

Human emotions are affected by the physical environment, Fan said, so it’s important for city planners to create environments that foster happiness. In cities, most public space is dedicated to transportation, Fan says, which in the United States is largely designed to move as many vehicles as possible between two different points quickly. This system leads to more greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, and ignores what Fan see’s as key questions: How happy are people while they get around? Can we make them happier?

“If you just focus on efficiency, I think it’s a huge missed opportunity for transportation planners,” Fan said. 

Fan’s research went beyond that. Using a University of Minnesota designed smartphone app called Daynamica, her team surveyed 400 people in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. They tracked every trip people made for a week and had users respond by ranking six emotions: happiness, meaningfulness, pain, sadness, stress, and tiredness. The app is able to detect how people traveled and for how long. Users shared how they felt at different times along their commute. 

The research looked at these modes of transportation: driving, bus, rail, walking, biking, and riding in vehicles such as carpooling, taxi services, and ride shares. Data were collected from residents of six metro areas, four urban neighborhoods, and two suburbs. 

Fan created the Transportation Happiness Map based on her findings, showing the ups and downs of individual journeys by different modes of transportation throughout the day. Local filmmakers Sebastian Schnabel and Cici Yixuan Wu created a short video highlighting her work. 

Is greener happier?

Fan’s findings show that biking and walking are the happiest ways to get around. Taking mass transit like bus or trains is more enjoyable experiences than longer driving commutes. Driving alone for short distances under half an hour is a fairly happy experience, but driving is more sad and stressful for longer, high-traffic trips. Driving with passengers is more enjoyable no matter the distance, the research found.

Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. While an increase in renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power have significantly reduced emissions in the past decade, tailpipe emissions remain stubbornly high, according to a 2021 state report.

Overall emissions in Minnesota are down eight percent from 2005 levels, well behind the goal of 30 percent by 2025 that was set by state law in the 2007 Next Generation Energy Act. Transportation emissions in Minnesota are down seven percent from 2005. 

Cars are polluting less than ever before, Fan said, but it’s not making a noticeable dent in transportation emissions. What’s needed, she says, is behavioral change. 

A zero-emission mode of transportation, biking, is the happiest way to get around, Fan’s research found. That didn’t surprise Fan. The problem is that only about two percent of Americans get around that way. In Minneapolis, about four percent of residents ride their bikes to work, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Minneapolis resident Amelious Whyte grew up in New York City and has never owned a car. He has a driver’s license, but always depended on public transit, walking, and biking to get around. When COVID hit he began regularly riding his bike for exercise. Now, it’s his primary way of getting from his Loring Park home to his job at the University of Minnesota. 

Amelious Whyte rides his bike to work at the University of Minnesota. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

He likes bike commuting and enjoys exploring more of the Twin Cities on two wheels. Now, if he’s going to meet a friend, he’ll hop on his bike, too. 

“If nothing else, it’s a good 25 minutes with myself on the way to work,” Whyte said. 

If it’s a nice day or he wants more exercise, Whyte takes a more scenic route. He loves biking along the Mississippi River, a  sentiment that is backed up by Fan’s Transportation Happiness Map–Minneapolis’ West River Road along the Mississippi is the happiest street in the metro for drivers, walkers, and riders. 

The least happy

Taking a bus is overall the least happy transportation mode in the Twin Cities, Fan’s research found. But a bus ride became happier than a car ride for commutes that lasted 30 minutes or longer, Fan said. 

However, Eric Moran finds happiness in their bus commute. The north Minneapolis resident hops on Metro Transit’s C Line, a rapid transit route that launched in 2019, and rides from their home near Penn Avenue to downtown Minneapolis for work. Motivated by climate change, Moran’s family chose to live in a neighborhood close to transit lines and bicycle infrastructure so they could be less car dependent. 

Metro Transit’s “Bus Rapid Transit” is a system that mimics train service by using larger buses, more developed bus stations, pre-boarding payment, fewer stops, and more frequent services. The goal is to make bus transit more accessible, comfortable, and convenient for riders.

For Moran, it’s created a trip that allows them to decompress on their way to or from the office. Taking the bus also fostered treasured family moments over the years. 

“When my daughter’s daycare was downtown, my spouse took her in the mornings, and I would pick her up in the afternoon and ride home with her,” Moran said.  “I would look forward to that everyday.” 

Designing inclusion

What’s critical for the environment is for the Metropolitan Council, the regional planning office for the Twin Cities, to develop mass transit systems that people are happy to use, regardless of income or cultural background, Fan said. 

“We need an inclusive society to address climate change,” she said

Designing a transportation system that makes people comfortable and happy can help broaden their horizons, Fan said.

Fan grew up in China, and came to the United States 20 years ago to pursue higher education. Before the pandemic, she regularly took University of Minnesota students to China for study trips.

China and the United States have different design fundamentals, Fan said. The United States has a history of car dependency that has created an underclass of cyclists and pedestrians. But both countries are dominated by engineering that favors men and the more economically secure, Fan said. 

Men and women experience public transportation, parking, and walking in very different ways, Fan said. Research shows women are more likely to feel uncomfortable or unsafe in parking ramps or waiting to board public transportation. 

“If we want to develop more positive emotions in shared public spaces, it’s important that we center the perspective of more vulnerable social groups,” Fan said. 

The commute happiness research focused on neighborhoods of varying wealth and racial diversity in the Twin Cities. Wealthier areas consistently have nicer pedestrian and bike infrastructure, she said. That trend is reflected in her study, which found that people biking in St. Paul’s more well-off St. Anthony Park neighborhood reported more happiness than those pedaling through Minneapolis’ Phillips neighborhood, a diverse, working-class area with a history of high pollution. 

Fan said she believes the Metropolitan Council and local governments are taking good steps to create better mass transit systems and improve bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. If the state’s goal is to decrease transportation emissions, planners should factor in people’s happiness, she said.