Will ‘Happiness’ Be the Next Key Transportation Metric?

Could “happiness” become a Key Performance Indicator or KPI tracked by state departments of transportation very soon?

[Above photo by the Minnesota DOT]

Dr. Yingling Fan, professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, believes it is inevitable that state DOTs across the country will eventually benchmark “happiness of the people” for whom they build infrastructure as a KPI, right up there with on-time, on-budget, and safety metrics.

“Traditionally in transportation, it’s always been about getting you from Point A to Point B quicker,” Dr. Fan explained in an interview with the ETAP Newsletter. “And when you over-emphasize efficiency, you kind of minimize the human experience. So, I would say happiness should be a new performance measure for our transportation systems where we can maximize the human experience.”

Fan has tested this idea with a pilot program in Minneapolis-St. Paul, where she developed a Transportation Happiness Map. A GPS-based mobile application captured commuters’ routes and their transportation modes (car, bus, bike, rail, or walking). After the commute, they were asked which emotions they experienced on the trip, including happy, meaningful, painted, sad, tired, or stressed.

The study concluded that people commuting along a scenic riverside route were the happiest with their commute, while bicycling won out as the happiest mode of transport.

Traditionally, biking and walking have been considered “inferior modes” by transportation officials because they are slower means of travel, Dr. Fan said. But that type of analysis does not factor that “the biking and the walking are happier than the driving.”

“We know that our built environment can affect our emotions,” Dr. Fan explained. “So, from an urban planner and a transportation engineer perspective, I feel like there is a responsibility for us to understand the impact of our infrastructure on people’s emotions.”

Dr. Fan pointed out that public transit agencies routinely measure its customers’ levels of satisfaction, which Fan argues is really a measure of how happy the service makes the customer. “They don’t call it happiness, but it’s a pretty close concept, right?”

Dr. Fan has found a willing partner in the Minnesota Department of Transportation, where Nissa Tupper is the director of transportation and public health planning. Although Tupper did not participate in the happiness map project, she did appear in a documentary about Dr. Fan’s work and is an enthusiastic supporter of the research.

“I think that focus on emotional experience is new for most of us in transportation,” Tupper said. “We talk about levels of service and modes, but people talk about picking up their kids from daycare and not driving over potholes,”

It may take some convincing to get some state DOTs to measure something as subjective as people’s happiness, but Tupper said the research is showing “a lot of promise” and should be taken seriously.

“Yes, we need measures to understand how we’re doing,” Tupper said. “We also need the flexibility not to quantify everything all the time.”

Dr. Fan believes the research she and others are doing on happiness eventually could be incorporated into the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA process. “If you look at the current shifts in the transportation industry, previously, we didn’t even count the pedestrian traffic as traffic,” Dr. Fan said. “Now, there is this movement, this momentum, to recognize the benefits of those greener transportation modes, and I hope that happiness could be one of the benefits associated with it.”

NCDOT Highway Right-of-Ways Win Wildflower Awards

Each year, awards sponsored by The Garden Club of North Carolina are given to the best-looking flower beds along highways in every region of the state – awards that recognize the efforts of North Carolina Department of Transportation staff who carry out the agency’s wildflower program, which for 37 years has enhanced the overall appearance and environmental quality of North Carolina’s highways.

[Above photo by NCDOT]

The 2022 Wildflower Awards were presented to NCDOT teams during the April Board of Transportation meeting by NCDOT Roadside Environmental Engineer David Harris. And a Flickr album with photos of the winners is available here.  

“Our wildflower beds wouldn’t be successful without the hard work put in by our staff. Their commitment to creating detailed flower beds for everyone to enjoy deserves every recognition,” he explained in a statement. “The Wildflower Program is a long-lasting initiative, and we can’t wait to see the beautiful blooms that are due to grow in 2023.”

State DOTs across the country are not only involved in a variety of wildflower- and pollinator-support efforts, many also use special teams to help preserve native animals and plants during infrastructure projects, which also in some cases using natural vegetation to aid in safety projects, such as the construction of snow fences.

On the pollination side, in October 2021 the Georgia Department of Transportation and the Georgia Association of Conservation Districts or GACD began installing 15 pollinator habitat sites in designated locations as part of a joint effort to educate state residents about the important role “pollinators” such as bees, butterflies, and other insects play in Georgia’s agricultural sector.

“This partnership provides Georgia DOT with the unique opportunity to create a safe and beautiful place for families and travelers to get up close and personal with the wildflowers and grasses [to] learn about how they impact the world around us,” explained Felicity Davis, a landscape architect manager with the Georgia DOT.

“We carefully considered the locations for these gardens and with pedestrian safety in mind, we determined the best option would be at rest areas and Welcome Centers across the state,” she said.

Meanwhile, in March 2022, the Minnesota Department of Transportation began “rejuvenating” seven so-called “living snow fences” in southwest Minnesota as part of a month-long effort to ensure the 20-year-old plantings can survive for another two decades. The agency noted that a “living snow fence” is comprised of trees, shrubs, native grasses, and/or wildflowers to trap snow as it blows across fields, piling it up before it reaches a bridge or roadway.

“A living snow fence is more than landscaping and highway beautification, it serves a purpose,” explained Dan Gullickson, Minnesota DOT’s blowing snow control shared services program supervisor. “We use nature to control blowing snow and rejuvenating these living snow fence sites will safeguard the health and vitality of the plantings.”

Where native plant preservation is concerned, the Arizona Department of Transportation uses “biomonitor” teams from Northern Arizona University or NAU to help the agency’s work crews find and relocate endangered species – including snakes, birds and fish – from construction sites.

Specifically, the biomonitor teams train construction workers and other involved in transportation projects to identify any endangered species and what to do if they come across one. The teams also monitor construction activity and help safely remove any endangered species out of harm’s way.

Environmental News Highlights – April 19, 2023


Millar Named a Resilience Roads Roundtable ‘Luminary’ – AASHTO Journal

EPA Proposes Stricter Federal Vehicle Emission Standards – AASHTO Journal

FHWA Seeks to Improve Project Environmental Reviews – AASHTO Journal

U.S. judge blocks Biden clean water rule in 24 states – Reuters

EPA used the climate law on cars. Power plants are next. – E&E News

Cities Put on Notice to Install Signals to Help Blind Pedestrians Cross Streets – Route Fifty

A Fork In The Road: States Will Determine The Future Of US Transportation Pollution – CleanTechnica


Ithaca’s Crazy Plan to Be Our First All-Electric City – Rolling Stone

Seventeen States Could Accelerate U.S. Electric Vehicle Sales To 75% By 2050 – Forbes

Utah’s first inland port appears ready for construction, but it’s not in Salt Lake City – Salt Lake Tribune

Virginia transportation advocates call for infrastructure with bicyclists, pedestrians in mind – Virginia Public Media

Port of Oakland Has a Problem, and Its Name is Mud – Transport Topics

Port of San Diego approves $8.5M plug-in electrification project for idling ships in National City – San Diego Union-Tribune

South Carolina Emerges as a Leader in Electric School Buses – Government Technology

MnDOT looking to upgrade infrastructure for climate resiliency after record snowfall – West Central Tribune

Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport Reopens After Historic Deluge – WTVJ-TV


NCDOT Issues Final Statewide ‘Clean Transportation Plan’ – AASHTO Journal

UCLA team launches ocean carbon capture project at Port of Los Angeles – Los Angeles Daily News


Pa. officials seek environmental justice concerns to shape climate planning – StateImpact PA

Blind Vermonters share their challenges with public transit and the struggle for independence – VTDigger

Traffic Engineers Learn How It Feels To Be Blind At Texas Tech Event – KCBD-TV

IndyGo Removes Barriers by Introducing New Accessibility Settings on Website – INDYGo (media release)

New Policies Expand Access to Opportunities at Port of Seattle – Port of Seattle (media release)


Oklahoma Department Of Transportation Partners With Non-Profit To Help Clear Litter Off Roads – KWTV-TV

This 3,000-Mile Trail System Is Benefiting Communities In 15 States – Bicycling

Meet the Americans who live in their vans, buses and cars in pursuit of a simpler life using less energy. – Bloomberg

Virginia Takes Novel Approach to Preserving Historic ‘Green Book’ Locations – CityLab


Illinois hands out millions for bike, pedestrian trails and bridges in suburbs and beyond – Daily Herald

On Broadway, New York City’s slow march toward pedestrian-focused streets – City & State New York

The EPA Faces Questions About Its Approval of a Plastic-Based Fuel With an Astronomical Cancer Risk – ProPublica

Micromobility is Just Getting Started – Metro (blog)


TRB’s 2023 Automated Road Transportation Symposium – TRB

How deadly are dust storms? – NOAA Research News

Online Course – Why Serving Everyone Doesn’t Serve Everyone – National Aging and Disability Transportation Center


Renewed and Amended Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) Assigning Environmental Responsibilities to the State of Utah – FHWA (Notice and amendments and request for comments)

FTA Fiscal Year 2023 Apportionments, Allocations and Program Information – FTA (Notice)

Safety Advisory 2023–02; Train Makeup and Operational Safety Concerns – FRA (Notice)

Sport Fishing and Boating Partnership Council; Call for Nominations – Fish and Wildlife Service (Call for nominations)

Notice of Competitive Offer and Notice of Segregation for Solar Energy Development on Public Land, Nye County, Nevada – Bureau of Land Management (Notice)

Meeting of the Regional Energy Resource Council – TVA (Notice of meeting)

Public Hearing for Greenhouse Gas Emissions Standards for Heavy-Duty Vehicles – Phase 3 – EPA (Notification of public hearing)

Local Government Advisory Committee (LGAC) and Small Communities Advisory Subcommittee (SCAS) Meeting – EPA (Notification of public meeting)

Hazardous Materials: Request for Feedback on Recycled Plastics Policy Pipeline and Hazardous
Materials Safety Administration (Notice; request for information)

Notice of Submission Deadline for Schedule Information for Chicago O’Hare International, John F. Kennedy International, Los Angeles International, Newark Liberty International, and San Francisco International Airports for the Winter 2023/2024 Scheduling Season – FAA (Notice)