The (in)efficiency of cities

The simple beauty of the city can be expressed in miles per minute. The average person can walk a mile in 15-20 minutes. Thus anything (read: everything) within a mile and a half radius is reasonably accessible by foot without much consideration. The added health benefits are obvious.

San Francisco map with a 1.5 mile radius circle

Update: that same circle, when viewing all of San Francisco (roughly a 7 by 7 mile square):

San Francisco County with a 1.5 mile radius circle

In a less dense, more suburban city, often the same amenities are accessible within a similar diameter, except that the space in between is comprised of suburbs, highways, and parking lots. Walkable in theory, but mundane (there’s nothing to see or do along the way) and borderline dangerous—if not impassable. Because of suburban planning, no one else is walking. Thus no health benefits.

Santa Rosa map with a 1.5 mile radius circle

By surveying people in a variety of neighborhoods, [Lawrence Frank, a professor of urban planning at the University of British Columbia,] learned that people who are less inclined to be active tend to live in less pedestrian-friendly locales—evidence that people are sorting themselves. But he also found that, no matter how much people like or dislike being active, they are more active when they live in compact, walkable areas than when they live in sprawling neighborhoods.

In the city, if the end result of a 1.5 mile excursion is a shopping errand, some planning may be in order. Taking a bus home might be the best way to bring back two new sets of sheets, pillow cases, a duvet cover, and two bags of groceries from Trader Joe’s (thank goodness we didn’t find a new comforter).

Without fail, though, the bus will be heading towards its terminus. We don’t know this, so we’re surprised when we hear we’re at the “end of the line” and have to lug our bags off the bus and stand on a random street corner for 10+ minutes until the bus we were just riding is ready to make another run, pulls up, and we get back on.

This is all part of the problem of not knowing. Should I get on bus A because it’s here but knowing it’ll deposit me at the bottom of a hill four blocks from home, or do I wait for Bus B, not knowing how long after bus A it will come, but knowing that it will deposit me half a block up from where I live. I could care less about free wifi throughout the city. What I want is some simple and free way to know how long I have to wait for any given bus at a particular stop.

I struggle with this (in)efficiency of cities. So much within walking distance, yet one can carry only so much. Carts help, but they significantly impede the joy and freedom of walking. Buses help, but they often create a last mile problem (in the city, the last mile problem gets recast as the last 4 blocks with heavy shopping bags). Cabs I suppose are the stopgap.

I still associate cabs with the necessities of traveling abroad for work and the luxury of urban holidays. I have yet to fully integrate cabbing into my mental model of personal transport. That said, at $6 from Whole Foods or $8 from Trader Joe’s, it’s becoming the-way-we-get-groceries-home. And somehow they’re always less expensive than I think. I just have to get used to relying on a service that is unpredictable by its very nature.


Katie M.

Not to be very dull by bringing the dayjob in on this, but this is why design isn’t just architecture: it’s also planning infrastructure like buses, and making sure streets are attractive and safe to walk, and zoning so that shops are close to where people live and work.

I walk much, much more now that I live in a cute little city than I did out in the cornfields of Iowa. When I was surrounded by a thousand acres of corn, I never walked anywhere. Hell, I even drove my jeep up to the pond when I felt like swimming. Now I walk to work, the store, the pub, the dentist… it’s much healthier.


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