Transport policies that make people happy

A new study by the MCC finds that citizens would benefit from fast-track bike paths.

[Translate to EN:] Foto: SHutterstock / Andrei Preda


People who are regularly held up in traffic on their way to work are more irritable. “Happiness research” has shown that the moments in the day when people are the least happy are those when they are on their way to work, especially if they are driving a car. Despite such findings, policy-makers in transport planning are spurring citizens to take to the road even more, by building more roads. All the while, a different transportation policy would make commuters happier, namely one that encourages the building of fast-track bike lanes and bike paths. This is the result of a study recently published in the journal Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment.

In the article, the team of authors led by Linus Mattauch from the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC) evaluates transportation policies in the context of behavioral science. The reviewed empirical studies on mobility behavior show that people do not act as a  “homo economicus”. In that context, lead author Mattauch suggests that “Transport politicians should decide whether they want to continue supporting the existing behavior of their citizens or whether they want to make them happy.” 

If transportation planners were indeed committed to maximizing the well-being of their citizens, they would encourage more physical activity while at the same time removing the incentives to buy and use cars, for example through higher motor vehicle taxes. “Fast bike paths are the poster child for how transportation policy can increase happiness rather than being determined by what car-crazy citizens claim to want,” says Felix Creutzig, head of the MCC working group Land Use, Infrastructure and Transport.

Investments of this type in low-carbon infrastructures are also of crucial importance for effective climate protection. This is because people who grow up in a climate-friendly transportation system tend to embrace active transportation and the use of public transport over the long term. The dynamic between preferences and the built infrastructure also puts some fundamental assumptions of traditional economic theory into question. This, in turn means thatpolicy-makers should estimate the costs and benefits of infrastructure projects not only in purely monetary terms.

Beyond the transport sector, this differentiation could contribute to enriching the debate on state paternalism on the one hand and consumerism on the other. After all, a great number of very inconspicuous interventions into the context of decisions have a big impact on how people feel, not only in the transport sector.

On the other hand, the study suggests that people are not always acting in their own best interest, or happiness, even when they believe themselves to be doing so. “To the extent that some people may have objectives other than increasing their own happiness, these incentives could be seen as an attack on personal autonomy,” warns Mattauch. This argument is in fact being considered in current transport policy-making. “According to that understanding, unhappy commuters are responsible for their own misery.”

Reference of the cited article:

Mattauch, Linus; Ridgway, Monica; Creutzig, Felix (2015): Happy or liberal? Making sense of behavior in transport policy design. Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment