• 99 cents for better focus

    Get a stack of blank index cards, like these from amazon. First thing in the morning take one and write down three things to get done today. It’s best if these things are steps needed for some larger goal.

    Then do these things first before any other work, including email. Use a big sharpie, and leave the card in plain sight so that it’s visible all day long.

    This is low tech, but it works. It’s pleasing to check things off. It’s also pleasing to throw the card away at the end of the day, and start fresh tomorrow. 

    As a bonus, keep the back of the index card blank. If you notice yourself taking too long to make a decision, write it down. Make the decision before moving on to the next thing.

  • Building bigger buildings

    Say you want to buy two buildings next to each other and replace them with a bigger building. Suddenly you need two people to sell, not just one. And because only a small fraction of buildings are on the market at any given time it’s unlikely to find two sellers adjacent to each other. 

    Sure, you can ask people to sell. And sometimes offering more money fixes the problem. And sometimes it doesn’t. ”This is my home” is a hard emotion to overcome. 

    For more on this topic, see how this affects Los Angeles.

    As always, there is another option, like accepting the constraints of existing lots. See this impressive development in San Francisco for an example.

  • Trains and Cars

    A coastal train has dedicated stops, with settlements gathering around the important station. Travellers wait together at the station, an automatic community. Arrive 5 minutes late and the train is gone, the event over.

    A coastal highway is a continuous strip. A few more miles is almost as easy to get to as right here. And so development tends to spread outward from the road, concentrated around a line rather than a point. And it’s easy to leave now, or in 10 minutes, or in 10 hours. 

    A train arrives on schedule. Cars might arrive early, or late, or perhaps never. 

    Choose the primary type of transportation, and the community will follow.


  • Rush Hour

    What happens during rush hour?

    • Transit gets better, it has more frequent service

    • Cars get worse, backed up in traffic

    • Crosswalks get less dangerous. It’s hard to get hit when there are a dozen other people around you.

    • Buffets taste better, because the food is replaced more often and therefore is fresher

    Speed matters . A 15 minute wait might be desirable while eating at the restaurant, but it’s a deal breaker when trying get takeout before a train.

    Consistency matters . If the coffee unexpectedly takes 3 minutes to brew, a cafe has just failed a regular customer who expected the usual 1 minute.

    As a professional (this includes not just the restaurant owner but also the civil engineer) you might feel overwhelmed by serving your customers during rush hours. If this is the case, consider offering a type of service that gets better during rush hour. 

  • Self driving cars and congestion

    Time spent in the car has an opportunity cost. Those 20 minutes spent driving to work could be 20 minutes more sleep, or breakfast, or any number of useful things. The value of commuting might be a cheaper home, or a better workplace, or the ability to live (or work) near your friends and family. 

    Self driving cars don’t change the opportunity cost, but they do add to the value of commuting. Suddenly, you get your entire commute to do something else in because the car drives itself. To make things even better, it reduces the cost of commuting by removing the need for car ownership (self driving cars will work like uber).

    For people who know a little about microeconomics, this has a similar effect to shifting the demand curve up. And as the system equalizes, that 20 minute commute might become 30 or 40 minutes.

    I expect this increased congestion to accelerate the transition to self driving cars once we see the first cars on the road. After all, the person in the self driving car is both spending less and getting more done than the driver. 

  • What happens to cities as technology improves?

    What will happen to our cities as technology, especially virtual reality, improves further?

    Except for a detour with cars which enabled urban sprawl, new technology tends to help cities become more dense. Skyscrapers let us build up, air conditioning saves us from the heat, electric lights and new materials reduce the chance and impact of fires, pipes bring in water and bring out waste. The list goes on.

    Apps and machine learning often work better in cities. More people means more reviews and more data. Games like Pokemon Go work better in cities. The denser the city, the better.

    Upcoming technologies like self-driving cars are harder to predict. Will they be more like traditional cars, which enable suburbs, or more like Uber, which further compounds the advantages of living in a city? Hard to tell.


  • What is a city?

    In one sense, a city is a place where we have decided to put people closer together than normal.

    This crowd of people creates problems, clearly it’s impossible to have enough farmland within walking distance to feed a city. So we bring food in and ship waste out.

    The opportunities created by this crowd are staggering, and we have entire services like Yelp, Meetup, and and Google Maps dedicated to collecting and organizing them. This abundance is magical for anyone who thrives on connections with other humans. 

  • Background Noise

    Sometimes background noise is desirable. A marketplace, trade show, dance club. The noise signals value, that this event is worth going to because other people are there. 

    Other times we seek to avoid it, like in a library, a bedroom, and in the wilderness. In these spaces we seek to be alone, or pretend that other people don’t exist. 

    In city life some people want noise and at the other time others do not. How to offer both? Some examples from real cities:

    Beijing has silence in the narrow, winding hutongs. Noise picks the shorter path from A to B on the busy main streets. Furthermore, household noise is kept inside the walled courtyards.

    New York’s tall, adjacent buildings create a noise barrier that leaves a silence in the shared backyards.

    In San Francisco, noise rolls downhill. Climb higher if you want quiet.

  • "Tiny homes that fit in garages"

    Garages are an untapped source of reclaimed space in the city. But how to use this space effectively? One option is tiny homes.

    On second thought, these already exist, except they’re parked in the open and we call them RVs. 

  • Subsidized Transportation

    Many cities have programs that give free or discounted transit passes to people in need. Unfortunately, many cities don’t have frequent enough transit to rely on. 

    Can subsided Ubers fill this gap? If you’re only picking up 3 passengers an Uber is far more efficient than a bus. And if these roads weren’t densely traveled enough to warrant frequent transit they probably have extra capacity. And better than subsidising cars directly, because of efficiency gains. 

  • Shared spaces

    A cafe patio is also a backyard.

    An office is the perfect place for a pop up tea cart

    A street made for cars is also fertile ground for bicyclists, pedestrians, transit, deliveries, as well as makeshift playgrounds, street furniture, and green canopies

    Smaller apartments mean more public space

    A restaurant kitchen is perfect for a cooking class

    A home is also a hotel

    We simply don’t have enough space in the city to completely isolate each space, let alone give it dedicated parking spots and a grassy front yard. Finding creative ways to share space is essential. And yet it’s not completely straightforward. The company and the tea cart are complimentary uses. Homes and hotels are not. Except, of course, for the two weeks of vacation when the home is empty which Airbnb aggregates and turns into a distributed hotel. What else is traditionally separate, just waiting for someone to figure out how we can share?

  • Playbook for a community cafe

    A cafe owner wants to build something meaningful, more than just another average experience. She understands her most valuable customers live or work nearby. What can she do?

    • Develop a backyard patio that is free to use for everyone who lives above. As a bonus, when they get hungry her cafe will be more convenient than anywhere else.

    • Better yet, offer free access throughout the cafe for people in the neighborhood. Again, assume they’ll get hungry.

    • Hire local, and discover that employees personally want the business to succeed.

    • Offer overnight bike storage.

    • Bring a tea-cart of desserts to nearby shops and workplaces to introduce people to the brand.

    • Be the local polling station for elections

    • Offer cooking and baking classes

    • Sell rare ingredients that are used in the dishes

    • Offer a produce box subscription. Fill it with excess ingredients and creative ideas. This both helps smooth out her own supply, and also introduces people to tastes in her food. 

    • Get to know her customers personally, and then make introductions across similar interests

    • Once she knows her customers, recommend them to other local businesses.

    Focusing on the community isn’t enough to have a successful business. A cafe still needs great food for reasonable prices. But this focus will help a business be a strong part of the local community, rather than simply another average shop. 

  • Garages

    I hope I never need to own a car in my life. In a dense city, most things are a short walk away, and Uber and Zipcar take care of the few remaining needs. 

    But what happens to all of the garages? Each home for two cars occupies about 400 square feet, 30% more than this tiny New York City apartment that rents for $2500/month. And yet these garages rent for only $600, 75% cheaper.

    What if we put tiny homes in garages? The home could be built elsewhere, then driven directly into the garage. Sure, it wouldn’t be the most glamorous living, but affordability is critical too.

    Another use could be for shops and services. Imagine pop up restaurants, farmers markets, and more that moved garages every few months. This modularity could do for urban space what containers did for shipping. 

  • Ecosystems

    The goal of an ecosystem’s leader is not to take the biggest possible cut, but rather to grow the ecosystem as much as possible, knowing that this is the best long term option both for them and for everyone else who participates.

     For example, Google benefits more from growing the web and thus inventory than from taking more of a cut from existing advertisers. A city benefits more from growing the incomes of its residents than from taxing them at a higher rate. And while some sellers will disagree, Amazon really is trying to take as small as a cut as possible if that’s what grows the business. 

     An interesting question. Does a small player in a larger ecosystem also benefit from growing the ecosystem rather than maximizing their short term cut?

  • Charity

    The fear inherent in giving to any charity is that they’ll just line their pockets with your money rather than giving to those in need. This fear cripples organizations, limiting their ability to hire the best people and spend money on infrastructure to increase their impact.  

    Humans of New York sidesteps this problem by separating the business and the charity.

    The drip, drip, drip of honest, real, and intimate stories creates a strong emotional connection for readers. This emotional connection is leveraged in two ways. First, to sell books which provide a source of “normal” income. And second, to encourage donations for specific causes, like pediatric cancer, inmates, and refugees.

    The vast majority of the money gathered for these causes can go directly to the causes, because Brandon has other sources of income for keeping the website up and his family fed. 

    This is a model I hope others will follow. 

  • Clues

    • Sidewalks are a clue that people should walk here

    • Painted yellow dashes suggest a two way street

    • Bike lanes at street level say bikes are like cars, and bike lanes at sidewalk level say bikes are like people

    • Train tracks tell us that a train travels by

    • A street full of garages indicates that cars are necessary

    • Shopfronts with open doors invite us inside

    If your goal is more bus ridership, what clues will you give? Bus shelters say “wait here”, more frequent busses say “your time is valuable”, bike racks say “it’s ok to be multimodal”. What other clues could you have?

    • Painting bus routes on the pavement would instantly allow anyone to know if a bus travels on this street and which direction it goes in.

    • Painting bus connections on sidewalks shows which corners are junctions

    • Giving free rides during off peak or after people have spent $50/month reminds people that mass transit is more efficient

    • Matching bus size to expected ridership says that efficiency is a goal (side question: could we have 4-passenger busses? Might they look more like cars?)

  • Speed of collision

    If a car is traveling 20 mph and hits a pedestrian the pedestrian has a 5% chance of dying. If that same car is traveling 30 mph the pedestrian has an 45% chance of dying. If you’re looking for a new home, it might be worth looking on streets that move slowly.

    A corollary to this is that if you’re traveling 20 mph on your bike and you hit a parked car you might have around a 5% chance of dying, because what matters is the relative speed. But if you’re traveling 30 mph your risk might be closer to 45%. Same goes for the snowboarder who hits a tree.

  • Slack

    Seth Godin says

    The magic of slack (a little extra time in the chain, a few extra dollars in the bank) is that it gives you the resources to stop and avoid a problem or fix it when it’s small. The over-optimized organization misunderstands the value of slack, so it always waits until something is a screaming emergency, because it doesn’t think it has a moment to spare. Expensive.

    Slack also comes in handy as a way to encourage the new. The first time you try cooking at home instead of ordering takeout it will cost more–spice jars are expensive!–and take more time. Trying a new route to work, folding your laundry in a new way, hiring someone to do a task you currently do, these all need slack. 

  • Urban Luxuries

    What are luxuries in a dense city?

    • A grassy front yard

    • A single-unit building

    • A garage connected to your apartment

    • A garage, period

    • Parking

    • A car

    • A view of the city skyline

    • A 3000 square foot one bedroom apartment

    • The means to avoid interactions with strangers (but then, why are you living in a city?) 

    Unfortunately there are also some luxuries that really shouldn’t be luxuries

    • Groceries and other essentials within walking distance

    • Mass transit within walking distance

    • An affordable apartment

    • A great school

    • Walking distance to a public space like a park or plaza

    • A space (perhaps public, perhaps outdoors) for exercise

    • Safe streets

    Notice that some of the luxuries and essentials take physical space. Consider the fundamental problem of allocating scare city land. When is it appropriate for one person’s luxury to prevent another person’s essential?

  • Cable Bundles and Cities

    If you pay for a cable bundle (antiquated, I realize), you’re paying for hundreds of channels you’ll never watch. If only you could pick the 5 most important channels or shows, surely you could pay less. Yet the “must watch” anchor shows are different for everyone. People pay for great bundles, sometimes kicking and screaming, because there is no substitute for ESPN or Game of Thrones.

    The same applies to great cities. A great city typically has one or more anchors. These anchors can be built by humans, like a great school or successful business, and can also be more natural like a beautiful view or proximity to a beach or mountain.  You might grumble at the laundromat, bike lane, and funeral home you never use, but at the end of the month still shell out the rent.

    What does this mean for cities who want to become irreplaceable? One strategy is to woo existing anchors, like a famous business. Another is to develop them yourself, which means nailing a remarkable experience.

    A bonus feature of bundles is that they remove barriers to discovery. You don’t need to pay to stumble upon Narcos after watching Orange Is The New Black. Similarly, it’s cheap to try out a new bar when you already live in that city. 

    One final note. It’s not just cities that are bundles. Neighborhoods like the east village and regions like the bay area have the same opportunity to become indispensable.