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?

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