Why cyclists are the happiest commuters

A new University of Auckland study reveals that reliability, sensory stimulation, feelgood factor and social interaction are why cyclists are the happiest commuters.

You know that warm, happy-inside feeling that often comes with a bike ride? It’s not just you; academics have known about it for some time. Now, a new piece of research out of the University of Auckland has thrown more light on it.

Why are cyclists the happiest commuters? 'Health, pleasure and the e-bike' is a paper by Dr Kirsty Wild and Professor Alistair Woodward from the School of Population Health. It combines earlier research into transport mode satisfaction with Dr Wild’s 2018 Electric City study to explain why cycling makes us happier than driving, public transport and other modes.

The new research, published in the Journal of Transport & Health, is available free of charge for a limited time.

Dr Wild’s interest in cycling’s ability to enhance moods was piqued by a month-long trial she conducted in 2017 with Auckland Hospital staff who adopted e-bikes for their commute to work.

“We interviewed them about their experience and what a lot of people wanted to talk about was how awful their driving experience had been, and particularly about the improvement in their mood after they switched to an e-bike,” Dr Wild explains. “There’s an emerging body of research into travel satisfaction which shows that active transport users are the happiest transport users, by far, but little in-depth work into why cycling improves moods. So I decided to look at it more closely.”

The study notes that cyclists are the happiest commuters in spite of sometimes inhospitable road conditions, traffic stress and near misses, and suggests this may be due to the “survivor effect”.

Looking at it entailed a review of learnings from ethnographic research, transport psychology and exercise science, and distilling 24 interviews with Auckland e-bikers conducted for Electric City. The results boil down into four key reasons cyclists are the happiest commuters:

Commuting control and arrival-time reliability: The realisation that your ride time is predictable, you’ll arrive at your destination when you expect to, and that you can park where you want. It’s control, and it’s almost the opposite of the anxiety many drivers feel about congestion and the uncertainty of finding a park at the end of the journey.

Sensory stimulation: The internal sensation that comes with using your muscles combined with the heightened awareness of your surroundings.

The feel-better effects of exercise: The study says there’s no scientific consensus about why exercise has a feel-good effect, but there’s no doubt about the effect itself. Moderate exercise is pleasurable and motivating, and is associated with mental alertness and improved moods.

Social interaction: Again, a radically different experience from that available to a driver. Cyclists have more opportunities to create eye contact with others and to observe what’s going on around them. A quote from one of the study’s e-bikers: “Me and my friend, we had a lovely ride last week. We just meandered along and talked, and all these different people were out there, someone was walking a dog and someone was jogging, and you just say ‘hello’.”

The study notes that cyclists are the happiest commuters in spite of sometimes inhospitable road conditions, traffic stress and near misses, and suggests this may be due to the “survivor effect”. In other words, those for whom the discomforts of cycling outweigh the benefits tend not to continue cycling.

So where does the research take us? The study notes that transport planning prioritises efficiency and treats travel as “dead time” that should be minimised. Why not, the study suggests, increase the focus on the happiness of cycling? That could mean designing cycling infrastructure that goes beyond safety and access, and both protects and enhances the pleasures of everyday cycling.

Dr Wild is keen also on finding ways to give non-riders a chance to experience those pleasures for themselves because, as she says, it is the kind of happiness that is not easily imagined in the abstract.

Used with permission from Bike Auckland Why you are the happiest of all commuters, published on 3 July 2019.

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