Monday 26 October 2015

How can cycling best contribute to personal wellbeing and a better life?

Summary: Liveable city rankings are obviously flawed because quality of life varies considerably for residents based on where they live and their access to well-paid jobs and amenities. But the more damaging implications are that individual wellbeing is primarily at the mercy of politics, economics and planning, and that individuals should focus on maximising the suggested indicators (e.g. income, home ownership, private schools). A more useful exercise is to compile a list of the proven factors that significantly influence personal wellbeing, quality of life and happiness. And then to consider how you might optimise your housing, work, transport and lifestyle decisions to maximise the benefits. This post isolates many of these personal wellbeing factors and suggests how cycling can best contribute to leveraging them.

The Australian Unity Wellbeing Index

Related Posts:
> See the lifestyle choices category of this blog

1. Factors used in liveability city rankings
Prompted by Melbourne once again topping the The Economist's liveable city rankings, there were the usual valid critiques of whether life in Melbourne is actually liveable or improving for everyone:
Melbourne might have topped The Economist liveable city rankings for a fifth year in a row, but is life in the city actually getting better? Only marginally – and only for some, according to research released at a forum on Thursday. The economics and planning consultancy SGS looked at everything from income levels, Melburnians' work-life balance, their health and the quality of the city's environment over the past decade and found 10 had declined, 18 remained steady and the remainder had improved. 
But the research revealed a "happiness divide", that showed those who were paying off their own home in a good location and had secure employment had enjoyed a great past decade. "For those searching for their first job, or whose family is in a low income bracket, life has become more challenging," SGS Economics & Planning principal Terry Rawnsley said. "If these trends continue this poses challenges for the future liveability of our city."
Melbourne: a most liveable city, but only for some
Indeed, a cursory review of the 30 factors used by The Economist shows there is plenty of scope to simplify and prioritise when looking for the most relevant factors that influence the wellbeing of individuals living in developed countries:

EIU Liveability Report 2014 (pdf)

2. Is life getting better in Melbourne? City-wide statistics vs personal wellbeing factors
The SGS analysis asked the question: Is life in Melbourne getting better?  It's analysis noted that: "to understand the progress of Melbourne we must examine many aspects of people’s lives - their incomes, their work life balance, their health, the quality of their environment, their access to opportunities, and so on. These dimensions of progress are intertwined. To earn more income, people may need to work longer hours and so have less leisure time. Rising incomes can lead to greater inequity."

However, for individuals, the broad statistics (GDP, employment, household income, infrastructure spending, carbon emissions, etc) are not meaningful or relevant: the statistic may go slightly up, down or nowhere for the whole state or city, but individual and family outcomes will always vary by a much greater extent.

The SGS analysis did expose a few useful factors for individuals to consider: job access, local safety, daily face-to-face contact with family or friends, and connections with the local community.

Based on the above job access map, any city-wide shifts will be glacial; so what really matters is that people are able to move closer to where the most relevant jobs are, can afford to live there, and can access their job efficiently.

It's curious to see that this aggregate safety statistic got an improvement tick because Victoria's state-wide average has gone up by 2% from 2006 to 2014, when the real story here is that only 53% of Victorians feel safe in their neighbourhood. Yet, personal safety and a safe community were rated by individuals as among the most important factors in the wellbeing of themselves and their family.

Also interesting to note is that Victoria and Australia have rates of daily face-to-face contact with family and friends of less than 20% which are stagnant or decreasing as wealth, income and urban development and sprawl increase. These levels compare poorly with much less "developed" countries with less wealth, income, industry, formal jobs and commutes.

3. What can individuals and families do to improve their wellbeing and standard of living? And how can cycling be best used to achieve these improvements?
Based on the last 10 years of "progress" in Melbourne, politics, economics and infrastructure clearly aren't going to lead to a much better life for all residents. In fact, current macro factors will only drive greater inequalities and geographic segregation. The good news for individuals is that they can skip the liveability surveys and focus instead on the wellbeing surveys.

The most interesting elements of the SGS analysis were not its 50 state-wide statistical indicators, but the list of issues defining personal wellbeing and the local area impacts on wellbeing. This data came from The Australian Unity Wellbeing Index:

Looking at these types of factors, which really do contribute to the differences in personal wellbeing among Melbourne residents, it becomes clear that many of them can be significantly influenced through individual's smarter choices and judicious tradeoffs. This pathway isn't only for those born into the right suburbs, or wealthy families, and with high-income careers.

These individual choices might include:
- Renting closer to well-paying jobs and eliminating the cars you own and long commutes
- Renting in a safer neighbourbood rather than buying in an unsafe one
- Choosing where precisely to live with the safety and feasibility of cycling and walking in mind
- Being satisfied with making smarter use of a smaller, less expensive house and using walkable/bikeable parks, libraries and community facilities instead
- Minimising your cost of living in order to be able to work less, commute less and spend more time with family and friends
- Prioritising connecting with people over maximising income or status pursuits
- Making recreation with family and friends involve walking, cycling or simple, low-cost physical and outdoor activities that don't require a car
- Choosing to live within commutable range of the family and friends that most contribute to your wellbeing. This could include combining cycling with public transport
- Changing where you live and work as your circumstances change and you move through different life stages
- If single, opting to live in share houses rather than living alone

As this blog documents, cycling can be a key enabler of many smarter choices about housing, work, transport and lifestyle. This doesn't happen automatically though, it's possible to use a bike occasionally (e.g. for recreation) and still opt for a bigger house, far from work, with long commutes, and a high-cost, high-stress, time-poor lifestyle.

E.g. See: Working less and more flexibly is desirable and a key to going car-free

See also:
> The access and urban freedom category
> The cycling benefits category
> The lifestyle choices category
> The saving time category
> The saving money category
> The convenience category

Further Info:
The Australian Unity Wellbeing Index