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Cities and Scale

One of the obvious things about cities, especially those of the dense and very urban variety, is that they scale. It’s such an obvious point I wonder if it’s even worth pointing out; but then, we haven’t really learned that lesson yet in America.

I’m just wrapping up my fourth trip to New York in an equal number of months. As I’ve gotten older, and have travelled more and have more cities to compare it to, it has become more obvious that the city just works. Particularly the subway and train systems (some resident New Yorkers would surely grumble in hearty disagreement with me).

Compared to other cities, it’s a breeze to get around. In the last five days, I got in a cab just once. The rest of the time was on subways and trains. And it all just worked (it delighted, even). The #2 or #3 express uptown and your at your Midtown meeting from Tribeca in 10 minutes. The combination of express trains and locals. The LIRR train and AirTrain combo that gets you to JFK in 50 minutes, with trains leaving every 10 minutes from Penn. Station.   All of this possible because of the sheer scale of the city.

London (where I lived for 3 years) has this, too (without the brutal and awe-inspiring efficiency of New York). Tokyo and Paris as well.  These cities are a delight to visit because they’re easy to get around. They operate at scale, taking advantage of their densities and burgeoning populations. Cities like San Francisco (and I include the Bay Area), Chicago, Washington and Berlin are the next level down — good, but not yet great, because they dont’ quite have the scale of these bigger cities.

Contrast those to LA, Atlanta, Houston — all horrible places to get around, and which diffuse the power of scale through their sprawl. Do our urban planners and transportation planners think of it this way — the advantages of scale? Are there books that push this theme? If you know of any, would love tips in the comments.

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