Study Finds High-Speed Rail Increases Happiness

The study found Chinese people were two percent happier on average living near high-speed rail, but I’d be one million percent happier if we just had one in the United States.
VCG / Contributor via Getty
Screen Shot 2021-02-24 at 3
Moveable explores the future of transportation, infrastructure, energy, and cities.

I live near a portion of the New York City subway that goes under an overpass. Every once in a while, I’ll see a child perched atop its parent’s shoulders, peering through the chain-linked fence as the train passes underneath. More often than not, this child is beaming with delight, because they understand the simple fact that many adults grow up and repress. The fact is that trains rule. Once upon a time, that child may have been dissuaded from liking trains once they became a teen or young adult. But now there is a rich online community of millions of railfans around the world to nurture that joy for that child’s entire life if they so choose.


However, it is clear that none of those millions of railfans were among the sample of 28,646 Chinese people considered in a recent study of whether high-speed rail causes happiness. That study found the answer was a very limited yes. It can increase happiness, especially for people who live in regional capitals, rural areas, men and the elderly, but only by an increase of .076 on the happiness scale of one to five. To put it another way, as the study does, “The coefficient accounts for 1.997 percent of the mean of happiness.” This is statistically significant, in the strict definition of whether results are due to chance, and therefore a publishable scientific finding. But it is hardly meaningful in terms of how much high speed rail influences the happiness of Chinese people. I mean, come on. Two measly percent?

As someone who lives in a non-high-speed-rail-having country, I can affirmatively state that not having high speed rail blows. I can further state with a scientific degree of certainty I am more than two percent unhappier living in a country without any high speed rail. On some days, such as last week when I was contemplating taking the train from New York to Montreal—a 375-mile, six hour drive that takes 11 hours by train—I was roughly 78 percent unhappier due to the lack of high speed rail. On other days, when I simply contemplate the deplorable state of American rail infrastructure, which I do a lot because it is my job, I am merely low-level peeved about it. Let’s call it eight percent unhappier. As I write this, I have worked myself up over the matter and will need to go outside during my lunch break to calm down, and so am probably floating around 25 percent unhappier.

And if I actually had high speed rail? Whoa boy. It’s scary to even contemplate how happy I would be. My job and my bank balance would cease to matter to me except insofar as I could purchase high speed rail tickets. I’d be like the kids watching the subway from the overpass, grinning like an idiot every time a train whizzes by at 180 mph or more, getting blown over by the gale force winds created by its air displacement, lying on the ground and whooping with pleasure. 

In the “policy implications” section, the study authors pose a tantalizing question: “What is the significance of economic growth if it cannot effectively improve residents’ happiness?” While the two percent happiness finding may be marginal, they’re at least asking the right questions.