19 May, 2009

Happy Places

I was amused by one recent news story and angered by a recent opinion column. Both stories have just a little to do with bikes.

Numerous papers, magazines, and sites have written about a study by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development listing the world's happiest countries. This is obviously difficult to define, but their methodology seems reasonable. The top three countries are Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands. The first thing I noticed is that all three are countries that have above average bike ridership.

Here are the top ten:

  • Denmark
  • Finland
  • Netherlands
  • Sweden
  • Ireland
  • Canada
  • Switzerland
  • New Zealand
  • Norway
  • Belgium
And here is another interesting article, this one about a world map of happiness. Again, many of the top countries are very bike friendly. They also generally have strong social safety nets, pretty good environmental policies, and well developed public transport. But the main lesson we should take from this is that riding bikes makes people happy.

On a less optimistic note, did anyone read this piece by George Will where he takes new transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, to task? Here is a bit of it:
Does LaHood really think Americans were not avid drivers before a government highway program "promoted" driving? Does he think 0.01 percent of Americans will ever regularly bike to work? Intercity high-speed rail probably always will be the wave of the future, for cities more than 300 miles apart. And as for Portland ...
So even 0.01 percent of Americans riding bikes to work is unrealistic?

Let me say right off that I don't normally read George Will and I certainly have never agreed with him. But as members of the jabbering class go, I once thought he, at least, had some intellectual chops. No more.


Anonymous said...

I think in George Wills universe riding a bike to work makes you a Green, which is just a Red in new clothing, at least acording to some nut I saw on C-span2.

Scott G.

Hank G. said...

Since the rise of the auto and oil industries there has been a well financed effort to make urban and suburban development car-centric rather then people centric.

Americans are not genetically programed to ride in 6,000 lb vehicles, be obese and consume more then they produce. A lot of effort went into creating the environment that produced that result (and it was for a while a very profitable venture). The current denizons of Wall Street are no more greedy, reckless or incompetent then their forebears but given an environment of no regulation and easy money they reacted accordingly.

People are the same every where but their behavior will differ according to the environment they must live in, just as organisms adapt to differing natural environments. Let's hope we can develop a more sane and sustainable environment which will result in more bicycles, less cars and living spaces meant to serve people not drive revenue for the oil/auto industry.

Justine Valinotti said...

Another common denominator of the happiest countries is their lack of preoccupation with status. The Danes, Finns and Swedes can just as easily (possibly more easily, given today's loan market) afford to buy cars and drive them to work as Americans can. But they are comfortable enough with themselves to ride a bike to work or shop.

Also, it must be said that Europeans, especially in urban areas, live closer to their workplaces and wherever they shop or conduct the other business of their lives than Americans do. Still, even in my hometown of New York, which is more like Europe in that sense than the rest of America is, the percentage of the population that commutes by bike is still very small.

Anonymous said...

I am amazed that we, here in Canada, have made it to sixth place in this list.

Anonymous said...

Bike commuting is currently 4X the amount Will says would be unrealistic. If he wants to make a point, he just shot himself in the foot. He also takes umbrage with my city, Portland, Oregon, apparently because too many people here use their bike instead of a car.

Anonymous said...

Yes that column by George significantly lowered my opinion of his intellectual honesty. Only liberals and Portland trailblazers fail to appreciate the "car culture"? Oh please George, the ultimate act of conservative ethos is independence from government. Few things are a better representation of that than a bike. People, not cars, should be respected. Live free, cycle on.

Anonymous said...

I was very surprised to not see New Jersey on the happy places list.

patates frites said...

George Will is losing it. I think the only respectable conservative political commentator out there is David Brooks.

Yeah, we already knew cycling makes you a happier, better person.

Brian said...

In some ways, he's right. It doesn't matter how many bike paths you build, half the country is socked in by snow every winter, and half the country is socked in by 90+ degree days and high humidity in the summer.

I live in these conditions, and I commute year round. But there are times when it's a miserable slog. I get to work with numb feet or soaked in sweat, or sometimes both.

And I gotta tell you, you'll never get anywhere with mainstream america by bagging on houses with yards. We like our yards. We like having a place to work on bikes or build furniture or boats.

I think we can develop saner policies for transportation in this country, and it will require some behavior modification to make it work- almost all change does. But as much as I'd like the bicycle to be the vehicle of that change, it won't be for much more than a handful of us.

C said...

I can think of one other thing those countries nearly all have in common: they're very small. With the exception of Canada, most are smaller than many single US states. It's no great surprise that of the countries on that list Canada probably has the least developed mass transit systems and the highest dependency on cars in part because of its sprawling size. If you're a country smaller than the state of California it's going to be much easier for you to implement mass transit at the national level. The sheer size of the American landscape will always be a challenge to mass transit, especially between major cities and doubly so once you get west of the Mississippi. I live in Seattle and the two closest major cities to me are each over 150 miles away. That's pretty much the norm in the western half of the USA and it's going to make mass transit a staggeringly expensive proposition.

As for bikes, I think it's naively unrealistic to expect people to use them for anything more than very short (less than 3-5 miles) trips. Commuting will remain difficult for many people simply due to the lack of shower/locker facilities in most office buildings.

Joel said...

C - If you live in Seattle, 90% of your travel requirements involve going from one part of Seattle to another. Mass transit with a bike component certainly is an option there.

Intercity and state travel is going to cost more. But creating an intercity passenger rail network is not any more expensive than highway. Indeed, it is almost certainly less.

Look to private industry. Most freight moves by rail. Trucking companies are marginally profitable in the best of times. The freight rail industry is among the strongest in the nation.

Hank G. said...

I'm always hearing people say Americans will never give up this or that. Last year when the USA had a negative savings rate they said Americans will never alter there consumption habits. Well a few months later the savings rate is positive and increasing. Consumption is dropping. Miracle of miracles!

My parents generation's behavior and standards about what constituted the good life bears no resemblance to current notions - but they lived through the great depression.

You might be surprised about how adaptable to smaller and more efficient houses, cars and a less consumer culture Americans can be when the alternative is financial ruin. Better a more modest dwelling and more rational transport then a box on the street after the bank calls in your debt.

We built an unsustainable life style on credit. We will adjust because we won't have any choice.

Garth said...

Other research also shows a correlation between wealth and happiness. Apparently a bell curve applies. Too little money equals the violence of poverty, and the insecurity it breeds. But when you have enough money that your needs are fulfilled, adequate clothing, food, shelter (meaning nice clothes that fit and look good, healthy food that you enjoy, and a decent house, probably with at least a little yard) then you are most happy. But then the happiness tapers off the more you make. Priorities shift: it's not the money that makes you happy, it's being able to have a stable life, so that you can make time for community, family and doing things you enjoy and find meaningful. Apparently if you have so much money, you'll want to fulfill all of your needs by spending it, or perhaps hording it.

I can speak empirically as a teacher at a poorer school in Chicago. I have noticed that the children whose mothers have stayed home (more traditional Mexican families) are generally pretty happy. I've also worked in wealthier schools, and haven't noticed that those kids are particularly happier. Also, the kids at my school who have single parents and are in poverty struggle more.

The lesson? Enjoy what you have and when you have more than you need, help those in need (another source of meaningful happiness).

mcscholt said...

Bike commuting is currently FORTY times the amount he lists.

.4 percent nationally.

nv said...

Ahh, I miss Denmark!
Looking forward to August... Iceland, Sweden, Norway & Holland!
Maybe I'll stay away for good this time ;)

Anonymous said...

Hank G. could not have said it better! Bravo!! His take on human capabilities are in line with the latest neuroscience which is revolutionizing how we think of individual agency and social structure. (See the recent Scientific American *MIND* for a whole issue full of nontechnical relevant articles, esp. on decison-making, and related responsibility ascription...)

from John Dewey:
There are specific good reasons for the usual attribution of acts to the person from whom they immediately proceed. But to convert this special reference into a belief of exclusive ownership is as misleading as to suppose that breathing and digesting are complete within the human body. To get a rational basis for moral discussion we must begin with recognizing that functions and habits are ways of using and incorporating the environment in which the latter has its say as surely as the former. from John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct (1926), p. [I've lost the page reference!] __ .

Anonymous said...

Who is Hank G. and what does he do for a living?

Signed, an admirer -- Hank G. please email me at bicycleutopia@gmail.com

Anonymous said...

As a bicycle enthusiast and commuter, I'm a bit of a fish out of water politically. I do think that the bicycle is the ultimate in individual transportation (which ought to delight any conservative) and, anyway, the benefits to bicycling - increased fitness, decreased cost, reduced urban congestion, etc - are essentially apolitical.

As to the George Will essay - not his best. The stat he gives of .01% is, in fact, wrong. But I think he was using it as hyperbole rather than a hard fact. His point that America's car culture antedates the Interstate Highway System is true. He doesn't really explain why that makes it good, though. He also doesn't explain why Portland's transportation policy shouldn't be adopted nation-wide, except to imply that it's self evidently bad. Again, not his best work.

I'm glad that Europeans are so happy. They should be. The U.S. bailed them out of not one, but two world wars and provided their security for 60 years, allowing them to spend most of their money on social projects instead of defense. Also, their countries are very beautiful and their cultures are magnificent. What's not to like? But, as others have pointed out, their situation is very different from ours. I suspect, though I have no statistical evidence to prove it, that there are localities in the U.S. have similar levels of happiness, even if the country as a whole doesn't. I'll concede Chris' point that high rates of cycling = high rates of happiness, because, really, how could it not? Cheers everyone. Keep the rubber side down.
John B.

Bicycle Fixation said...

Most commuting takes place within cities, or between cities and suburbs, so the size of the country itself is of little relevance. The Chinese still bicycle a lot, and their country is bigger than ours. (And their government just reversed its recent policy of promoting car use as ours had.)

Almost ALL wealthy cities with high rates of bike commuting worldwide are in places with lousy weather. Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Tokyo (cold in winter, hot and muggy in summer), Berlin, Beijing, et al.

The conservatives are still dressing up to play cowboy, but of course they're using someone else's cows. (And car drivers don't pay any more for road use than transit users do in fares--usually less, in fact. Bike riders don't wear out roads but pay extra taxes to subsidize drivers.)

$60 BILLION a year in Fed subsidies alone for driving, and more from states and counties and cities.

For road cost info from good ol' Texas, see this.

Antoine said...

Does that mean that people who ride the heaviest and bulkiest bikes are happier ??

Also, what about China, India or Chile where there are millions of daily commuters ?

workbike said...

Mind you, he sounds pretty angry, and pretty silly too: He's clearly not researched his facts.
I guess a lot of people had things running as they wanted under the last administration and haven't yet understood that the majority of americans have rejected their way of thinking

Hank G. said...

Europe has a car culture as well. Ever hear of Ferrari or Porsche or Formula 1 racing? Europeans are as car nuts as Americans. The transformation of US cities and urban planning has nothing to do with our car culture - just because you like your dog does not mean you model your house after a dog house. Just like the sub-prime mortgage and credit bubble the drive to car dependence, huge trucks as cars and MacMansions was driven by companies that stood to make a fortune off of it.

Consumers are easily trained. Look at how the ads and TV shows for children have changed in the last 30 years. They are brainwashing the next generation of consumers. Don't be a l-o-o-o-ser. shop, shop, shop.

I'm a designer and photographer and you might say I'm often in the business of convincing consumers that they really, really need something that in reality they don't;)

Rick said...

There has also be an interesting kerfuffle with G. Will and global warming. I am beginning to suspect hardening of the arteries for the old boy...seems to happen with older male columnists.

Anonymous said...

What's with the photo of a bunch of (albeit happy) americans?

Joel said...

John B.: I was pretty much with your post until you started with the historical generalizations.

I am not sure how much the U.S. coming into the last year of WWI (then bailing on Wilson's visionary League of Nations concept) went to bring happiness to a continent whose major nations lost an entire generation of young men.

We were not quite so late to WWII and the Marshall Plan was pretty cool and all. However, the growth of the Military-Industrial Complex following WWII U.S. innured as much to the benefit of the domestic financial industries that grew so spectacularly after WWII as it did Europe.

Moreover, while the U.S. was always happy to pay to match Soviet miliatry spending, the burden of rebuilding Eastern Europe has been shouldered mainly by the EU.

patates frites said...

B. Fixation,

Hot and muggy in Copenhagen and Amsterdam? Puhleeze! It all depends on your perspective, I guess. Fifty five degrees farenheit is probably a sweltering summer to an Eskimo.

Chris Kulczycki said...

Annon, Those are happy Swiss folks, not Americans.

Anonymous said...

Well, Will does get it wrong to a degree and clearly so.

Still -- I have bike commuted nearly every workday for the past 21 years. It was and remains something that very, very few people do in the USA and will remain so barring complete economic collapse.

The big error Will makes as a conservative is not recognizing the huge tax subsidies suburban residents get from their governments. I suspect we would see less suburbanization and more opposition to sprawl from the right if the full cost of incremental roads and infrastructure were shifted onto users or at least made explicit the way costs of public transport are every time a tax issue hits the ballot.

George Will is still super smart. He's just been duped by his fellow travelers.

Will Rodger

NatMc said...

My favorite part of Will's article was the part where he lauds the "meatloaf and mac-and-cheese" diet. nice.

i have to admit, however, that i do understand the emotional place he is coming from: i don't really enjoy government intervention all that much myself. but i am sick of the government modifying behavior in the wrong direction (bailing out car companies and the like).

man, i wish everybody could/would just ride a bike. but i'm sorry, it's just not going to happen. i live in minneapolis and i have not missed one day of bike commuting in the last three years, but there are months during the winter where it is absolute hell. While you'd have to pry my bike from my cold, dead hands, i can totally understand why "normal" people don't bike.

Pete Ruckelshaus said...

Workbike, you're making the assumption that facts matter. People like Will rely upon the "well, I saw it on TV, so it must be true" facet of society, which is, unfortunately, a high percentage of people.

Anonymous said...

thats a racist survey- all the countries are predominately white, western/european.
So africa and South america is mired in misery?

Joel said...

Anon 2:48: Did you research before making your comment? The nations surveyed were all members of the OECD. Japan, South Korea and South Africa are members. No other Asian or African nations are members. No South American countries are members.

The survey would have included the three non-Western members. As it happens, among the OECD members the happiest nations are European. Not racist. Just survey results.

Anonymous said...

the correlation between bike ridership is not becaure bike riders are happier. It is because the countries with highest happiness levels have the lowest average annual working hours : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Working_time#Differences_among_countries_and_recent_trends

People are happier because they have time to do things other than work and since they have the time, they are able to ride more often.

If U.S. citizens spent less time at work, they might not chose to spend that time riding bicycles, they might instead chose to go to ponderosa or nascar races more often.

Different cultures, different preferences

Allan Pollock

Anonymous said...


It is interest to read your comments from my view.
I live in Sweden, from middle of February, my company closed the dept in Uppsala were I lived and moved the dept to Stockholm. I go by car every day (4day/week 40 hours working time/week), 160 km (100 miles) two way. It’s little too long to commutate by bike.
The gasoline prices are expensive, 1 liters cost aprox. $1.50. But I can’t go by train or bus because my working schedule.
Even we are “red” in our country, US is very important to the Swedes, because we are following lot of trends, and listen music, watch films, TV series from US. And American car is popular, i.e. Hot Rods, Street Rod, muscle cars, and old cars from 50: ies
, -60: ies, -70: is, so on.

Keep on riding.


Olle in Uppsala, Sweden

(Sorry for wrong spelling)

erik said...

the studies support the correlation between work time, not cycling.

of course, cyclists as such enjoy the activity but it is not the widespread reason (though i think cycling is more common in these countries in part because of more leisure/less time at work)


Justine Valinotti said...

The problem with conservatives like Will is that they're not really against the heavy hand of government. After all, they support tax cuts for the super-rich, US intervention in places like Iraq--and, by extension, the military-corporate complex.

We, as cyclists are therefore subversive. The more we pedal, the less we need petrol. In turn, that gives us less rationale for turning countries like Saudi Arabia into American garrisons.

Did you know that the US orchestrated the Saudi Royal Family's takeover of their country in the 1930's. One quid quo pro led to another: They let us set up the world's largest Air Force base and a number of other military installations in their country. In exchange for our military umbrella, they showered the US with sweet deals on sweet crude.

The rest of the Middle East doesn't care much for Saudi Arabia, which they see as our puppet and, by extension, an ally of Israel.

This is just one of the wonderful parts of the world order we support with a car-centered culture. Folks like George Will will not have it any other way.

Joel said...

Most of the nations on the list have pretty high GDP per capita and arguably more sound economic fundamentals than the U.S.

In my experience many of my fellow U.S. workers include their commute time as work time. I live a 20 minute bike ride to work. Put in 10 hours a day, stop by at the office for bit on the weekend (by bike, natch) and put in around 57 or so hours a week. My colleagues who drive are not at the office any longer than I. But almost certainly include their 2 hour daily commutes in their work week.

Hardly productive. Definitely not going to generate much happiness.

Anonymous said...


Yeah, I guess my statement was a little too sharp tongued; I didn't really intend that. During WWI, the U.S. really did tip the balance in favor of the Allies in 1918, when both sides were utterly exhausted. Without U.S. intervention, Ludendorff's Spring Offensive would likely have succeeded and resulted in a German victory. After WWII, both the Marshal Plan and U.S. military presense allowed the western Europeans to recover much quicker than they would have otherwise and ushered in an absolutely unprecedented 60 years of peace in Europe that led directly to the very high standard of living they enjoy today. I think its safe to say that Western Europe would be a VERY different place today if the U.S. has simply gone home after WWII like we did after WWI. I guess all that hasn't made US any happier, apparently. :)

John B.

Kilroy said...


I don't own a car, can't afford one and don't want one. I realize I'm forturnate to be able to walk and bicycle. Others and certain cumstances necessitate motorized transportation.
My first reaction was to ignore Mr. LaHoods' comments. But such comments are needed to bring about a positive change in policy. A reaction is needed to bring about an action.
As for happy places. Again, I'm there. Maybe too many hills. If we could just eliminate the cars and trucks,......

Anonymous said...

I always roll my eyes when reading articles that paint America/Americans with a broad brush. The USA is a huge country. My travels and time spent living abroad has reinforced my belief that generalizations are as wrong as often as they are right. Those who compare America and American's to other counties and their people would be better off using comparisons of individual American states to counties abroad. Take a person who's never been to the USA to one of the following places: The Hudson Valley in New York, San Francisco in California, Miami in Florida, or Albuquerque in New Mexico. They will return home with very different experiences/opinions of what America and Americans are like.

oranckay said...

It would be worth noting that OECD usually only studies OECD member states, a rather exclusive club, so a lot of places are not even considered. Bhutan, for example at least considers the issue of national happiness with its GNH index, and might be worth thinking about (even for the silliness of the idea, coming from a monarch) in any discussion of the topic.

Naturally I also noted the relationships... there's just GOT to be one, between happiness and cycling.

I myself wonder, however, if it's more a matter of riding bikes more because they're happy, than being happy because they're riding in those happy countries. I often wonder whether those who buy unnecessarily large automobiles (Hummer, large trucks) are trying to compensate for certain inadequacies. Certainly a man who needs to have a huge vehicle just to feel like he's a man could probably be happier. A "real" man doesn't mind wearing pink wool, for example.

Anonymous said...

annon at 10:23 - you are so right

Anonymous said...

John B is right on the money. If these happy Euro countries had to pay for their own defense instead of fielding these window dressing armies, things wouldn't be quite so rosy. If we left we could do a lot of good here with that money and the continent would be shot to hell within 10 years.

angelo trivelli said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Le Cagot said...

Anon 9:52,

US military spending is primarily driven by politicians in the pockets of the defense industry. The US accounts for 48% of the world's total military spending. Russia, UK, France, each spend about 4%-5%. China spends 8%. In fact the next 22 countries combined don't spend as much as the US does on it's military.

European defense spending is in line with every other country in the world, every country, but the USA that is. The reason the Europeans don't have massive military budgets is because they are not frightened into them by fear-mongering politician and industry propaganda.

Think of all the bike paths, high speed rail, schools, hospitals that could be built by the money that is given to the US defense industry. Some say that half the amount spent on the US military could wipe out all world hunger.

Happy memorial day.

angelo trivelli said...

Sorry, messed up my hyperlinks, here is with working links:

Here are a couple of eye-opening podcasts that illustrate two possible visions of urban life. One is a walking tour of Paris (link), the other is a walking tour of Detroit (link). Follow along using the google maps links. When will we (Americans) ever learn how to lay out a city?

Tom said...

Before the car came into existence, we Americans did just fine in terms or urban design and laying out cities- even Detroit, LA, and Seattle. Look at NY, chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, etc in the early 1900's: Walkable, compact, multi modal. human scale.
Most of that design was borrowed from European cities.

Chris Kulczycki said...

This piece from The New York Times caught my attention. I was particularly struck by how different Rousseau's views on happiness is from the modern Western view. Though I might exchange his rowboat for a bike.


bikelady said...

Canada has some fantastic biking places. In fact Montreal has a biki program which allows tourists to rent a bike for an hour and deposit it in one of the 200 or so Biki deposit sites.

Ottawa, where I live, has got a lot of bike trails and there is an effort to put a bike lane on most if not all roads.

One of the most interesting places I toured with bike was Cuba. Cuba has an almost non existant system of public transportation and so the bike and the horse are in use everywhere.

Because there is no road traffic to speak of, you can cycle across hills, mountains and vast countrysides unimpeded by car traffic. The only cars that are rude are the ones rented by tourists.