By Hub Cycling
To most commuters, the word “congestion” carries with it negative connotations, and is something to be avoided at all costs. But to those that regularly ride a bike, it doesn’t carry nearly the same weight, being perhaps the only mode of transportation where running into traffic makes it even more enjoyable.
That’s the fascinating paradox offered by Charles Montgomery, author of Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, and founding principal of the international consultancy of the same name, who cycles daily from his East Vancouver home to his office in Gastown along the Adanac Bikeway in Strathcona.
“It’s one of my favourite places in the city,” he declares, noting the undeniable look of contentment, freedom, and ease on the faces of passing cyclists. “But what I find most remarkable is when there’s congestion on the bike route, it’s more fun. It’s more joyful because we’re exchanging comments, glances, and flirtations. Honestly, that route in particular has made my commute the single happiest part of my day.”
Montgomery isn’t alone in his sense of satisfaction over his two-wheeled travels. Many studies from around the world have found that those utilizing active modes of transportation report greater levels of happiness, along with much lower levels of stress.
“A growing body of research clearly shows people who commute by foot or bike report feeling more joy, and less rage, fear, and sadness than people moving any other way,” Montgomery suggests.
But if hopping on a bike is such an enjoyable experience, why isn't everyone doing it yet? The answer is both structural, in terms of how we design streets, and cultural, in terms of our opinions on biking.
“An obvious conclusion is people don’t do it because it’s perceived to be uncomfortable, dangerous, or a hassle,” Montgomery explains. “If cities want to open up this opportunity for joy and health in the lives of their residents, they have to ensure that cycling is the easiest, most convenient, and safest choice.”
Underpinning this notion of contentment is the irrefutable connection between cycling and sociability. Montgomery asserts that positive social relationships are the strongest contributor to human happiness, pointing to the research of psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Dunn at UBC.
“It turns out our superficial interactions in the city—when they’re positive—have as strong an effect on overall life satisfaction as our relationships with close family and friends,” he reveals. “In other words, those little glances, smiles, flirtations when we’re riding our bikes, they’re really good for us.”
Prioritizing automobiles also has a profound impact on the happiness and independence of our youngest citizens. “North America culture obsesses about the care of children. We declare their well-being is the most important thing in society. Yet we keep building places that steal their freedom and put them in danger,” Montgomery laments. “I often wonder, ‘what kind of place would we build if we really wanted to meet our stated ambition of caring for kids?’ ”
With significant improvements to the Vancouver’s bike infrastructure in the past decade, Montgomery’s daily journey has shifted from sheer terror to total joy. “It reminds me of when I used to bike as a kid on the quiet streets of the Cowichan Valley,” he states fondly. “It has made it so much easier to be a good citizen, and to be kind to others.”
His is a beautiful testament to how officials can build happier, gentler, and well-connected cities, simply by reconsidering the design of their streets.More