Write Happiness into the Transportation Plan

Yeah, Portland is a national leader in transportation and land use planning. Early visionaries set the pace: Governor Tom McCall, Neil Goldschmidt, Ernie Bonner, followed by recent stars: Charlie Hales, Elsa Coleman, Mia Birk, and my favorite Rex Burkholder just to name a few. (Extra)ordinary citizens also shaped the vision of a lively, 24-hour downtown and neighborhoods with destinations worth the trip and the trip worth taking by foot and bike: blank walls right next to a sidewalk are outlawed, public art is plentiful, wide sidewalks and town squares allow us to linger and interact, bike lanes mark the way to sustainable transportation and physical well-being. We understand we must make the route pleasant and convenient or few will choose active transportation over driving. And recently, we have made the connection between public health and transportation, but at the Second International Conference on Gross National Happiness in Nova Scotia, Canadian Catherine O’Brien Ph.D. is asking us to make the connection between happiness and transportation.

Let’s incorporate the H word into transportation planning in Portland. Remember when livability rhetoric included transit and pedestrians, but it was hard for leaders to say the B word? Now bicycling is mainstream. Catherine O’Brien says we need to include happiness in the planning process. Plan for children “talking to friends, kicking pebbles, negotiating snow banks, jumping in piles of leaves or puddles.” The Bicycle Transportation Alliance and the Willamette Pedestrian Coalition in partnership with the City of Portland and other communities around Oregon are increasing the opportunities for children to walk and bike to school and kick a few pebbles along the way. Instead of children’s safety perhaps we should make children’s happiness a planning goal.

Consider spiritual wellbeing and transportation. If you ride a bike on a tree-lined avenue or interrupt your walk to admire a neighbor’s blooming passion flower with your child in hand, you know what O’Brien means by spiritual well-being in relation to transportation. O’Brien’s paper quotes Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogota.

We had to build a city not for businesses or automobiles, but for children and thus for people. Instead of building highways, we restricted car use. …We invested in high-quality sidewalks, pedestrian streets, parks, bicycle paths, libraries; we got rid of thousands of cluttering commercial signs and planted trees. … All our everyday efforts have one objective: HAPPINESS (conversation with Peñalosa in Ives, 2002).

In Portland, we’ve reached planning goals other cities covet, but how much more can we achieve if we consider happiness first in transportation planning? Can we actually write the H word into the Transportation System Plan?

6 responses to “Write Happiness into the Transportation Plan”

  1. This comment is more applicable to statewide bicycle travel. How about some small campgrounds specifically for bicyclists situated along the lengthy trails? Perhaps in areas not accessible by car, but only by foot and bicycle. With hot showers, a large covered shelter, air pump, telephone, maps and guides, wooden lounge chairs, besides the firepits, tables and tent spots. Cross-state bicyclists have tremendous exposure to the elements and having spots where they could rest and recover could promote more recreational bicycle travel.

    Unfortunately I am not cogent about the existing trails but some potential ones could be: Lower Columbia Valley, Willamette Valley to Coast, Central high desert.

  2. Justin: On the contrary! The point of planning for children’s happiness is that every street would be safe for kicking pebbles. Bring on more kids! Let’s build lot of parks, but streets are also part of the public realm and provide opportunities for exchange. Shouldn’t we design streets that are darn hard for anyone to get killed? that unite not divide communities? where drivers always expect a child to run into the street? where the elderly are shown respect and patience when crossing the street? Street design is the major factor in changing driving behavior. So bring out all the devices we can to slow traffic and let kids play in the street again.

  3. One route that comes to mind with Rons’ comments about have rest areas only for the main cross state routes would be along the Springwater Trail as it is planned to finally reach Estacada.

    If we had that route set up, the route to the coast could also be worked on. It seems the Vernonia route gets some good bike traffic (there is already a rail to trail section out that way).

    I have thought that in the future having a place near the Springwater Trail that served hot and cold drinks to the campers/riders would be a great way to retire, stay home, and meet new friends.


  4. I think any of the state park campgrounds provide a good example of what happens when you tame automobiles to be part of the environment rather than dominating it. People walk, ride bikes, kids play and the traffic looks out for them. Our neighborhoods should work that way.

  5. Yea, but you don’t have commuters in a hurry and stupid young kids (hey – I’m actually one here, not picking on anybody) with little sports cars pretending they are race car drivers out in the woods.

    In Southwest portland, there are lots of streets without sidewalks. The neighbors also go on a lot of walks with their friends and dogs, and I’ve never heard of anyone being hit before. The roads tend to be really narrow, with blind corners and sometimes 10-dropoffs right on the edge of the road, which is probably why there are no sidewalks in some areas.

    Oh, and before I was just pointing out that there are some areas that are extremely dangerous to pedestrians to the point of I would never want a kid to be out walking along a busy road – let alone to be designed as a happy place. I think there are little steps we need to take, especially in pedestrian-unfriendly areas.

    I’d love to see some tiled walkways with interesting designs/patterns on them… we’ve gotta have some whimsical starving portland artists who want to do pathways and stuff??

  6. Karen’s idea is timely and essential (existential?). What if our cities were designed to make sure citizens were happy? We would start with analysis of why people are unhappy. Some things i could think of include: inadequate housing and education; fear of crime; lack of time with friends and family; sense of isolation… you get the picture.

    Instead of using public funds to build arenas, we would build neighborhood plazas ringed with places where neighbors could meet each other while their kids played. Instead of superhighways where “harried commuters” race, we would build urban villages where one’s work was within walking or biking distance of one’s home. We would tax land instead of buildings to encourage more investment. We would tax carbon emissions instead of income to encourage more energy efficiency and let people keep what they earn.

    As Karen says, in the area of transportation we have a lot we can do to increase the happiness quotient. First is to see all that space we call streets is really public opportunity space. We can open our imaginations and really think about how we might use these long and wide public spaces in a way that makes people’s lives better. How about widening all sidewalks in business areas to 20 feet so sidewalk cafés are feasible? It would only take a few feet from the driving space (which is really in full use a miniscule part of the day, maybe 6 hours out of 24) and create an incredible boost for community interaction and business activity.

    Think of it if every residential street was only wide enough for one car to pass through at a time, going slow, sharing the road with kids and dogs and soccer games. Is there any reason traffic on a residential street should go faster than 10mph???

    Even this last modest proposal would ease parents’ minds immensely about the safety of their children. It would also reduce one of the biggest complaints about city life: the noise of the internal combustion engine. And, with all the streets so nice to walk along maybe everyone would get out of their cars more often.

    Next we can tackle housing and poverty.

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