Better Cities Through (In)convenience

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People who live in New York City seldom travel more than a few subway stops if they don’t have to. When I first moved to the city, I thought it seemed like a stubborn habit—something New Yorkers would gripe about just because it was a New Yorker thing to do. I lived on Wall Street, Downtown, for several months and my roommates would balk at the idea of going out on the Upper West Side, about a 20-minute subway ride away. But the longer I lived there, the more of a pain it became to travel even short distances. Two of my best friends lived just one stop away, in Brooklyn, but you had to cross the East River to get there. This was as much a psychological barrier as a physical one. I felt travel-weary every time I went over there, so weeks would pass without seeing them. Call me lazy.

Living in Seattle now, I regularly drive 30 minutes to Issaquah to visit friends. What’s the difference? Maybe in New York, having so many options—restaurants, bars, culture, history, Amazon Prime Now—at your fingertips makes relatively short commutes seem pointless. Or maybe it’s that every time you step out your door you’re facing down 8.5 million people—fast-walking, slow-walking, loud-talking people—and the thought of that is downright exhausting.

However, this sort of neighborhood xenophobia gives such great character to each block of the city. Whatever causes New Yorkers to want stay local, it seems there are two ways for other cities to encourage this behavior: make it easy to stay local, make it hard to do anything else. Thoughtful higher density would allow Seattle to support more interesting local shops, restaurants, galleries, and services within walking distance of more people (no street parking, no problem). There would be so much to do nearby that just the thought of leaving your neighborhood would make you want to curl into a little ball and not move at all.

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