Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Are bicycling commuters statistically happier?

June 24, 2011 - 03:00 PM
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Have you ever met a grumpy bicyclist? Me neither, and the data now supports the notion that bicyclists are, in fact, happier people overall.

The size of a city's bicycling commuter population positively correlates with its diversity, affluence, and most interestingly, well-being, according to the statistical analysis of researcher and author Richard Florida. Commuting to work also makes people fitter, Florida notes in The Atlantic (where, in full disclosure, I helped produce his articles before coming to TBD), and seems to harmonize with greater creativity. 

 How did Florida come to these correlations? He took a look at the city data from the government's American Community Survey (specifically, how many of the cities' residents reported biking to work), and then compared those figures with the cities' stats for fitness, affluence, diversity, and well-being. Florida's assessment of cities' sense of well-being comes from Gallup surveys, and this measure strikes me as the most interesting.

Collectively, the measures make enough intuitive sense. Biking commuters would typically be a little richer, a little fitter, and perhaps--as a result of both prior factors from as much as the biking itself--be a little happier than the rest of us. Regular bikers tend to be more aware of the social and health benefits that biking can bring, and it's as much leisure as convenience. Although the analysis falls far short of suggesting that biking to work causes these other benefits, the numbers are a positive sign for bikers.

And where does the capital fall among the nation's top biking towns? D.C. sadly doesn't fall too high on the list of bike-commuting cities. Let's look first at some of the census transportation data for D.C.

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D.C.'s transportation data (Image: U.S. Census Bureau)

Here's a link to a clearer version of the chart above. As you can see, not a huge number of people bike to work in D.C.. Most people either drive alone to work (36.5%) or take public transit (37.1%). Only 2.2% of D.C. residents take a bike to work, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's study, with a margin of error of +/- .05%. What's most interesting seems to be the gender imbalance among D.C.'s bike commuters. 2.8% of men bike to work in D.C., according to the data, compared to 1.6% of women.

But D.C.'s bike options are expanding. The Capitol Bikeshare hit half a million rides last month, and as the recent bike-repair clinic in Anacostia showed, an enthusiasm for biking persists across all of the capital's neighborhoods. D.C.'s not a huge city, and the number of bike commuters could potentially increase drastically in the coming years, I'd guess.

The real question: Would such an increase also mean D.C.'s growing happier? One can only hope. Check out Florida's Atlantic piece for a gallery of the top 15 cities. Eugene, Oregon tops the list of cities, with 5.6% of the city's population biking to and from work. Not too shabby.

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