Cities and Friction

I like and spend time in several cities which are very different from each other. Las Vegas, Hilo (Hawaii), Budapest, rural Halifax (our island), and Tokyo. On paper it would be hard to draw many links between those cities, which of course led me to think about why I liked all of them so much.

What I realized is that each of those cities has extremely low friction.

San Francisco is a very high friction city. Everything is expensive there, so unless you are wealthy, eating out for meals feels a little bit stressful. Is it really worth $25 for a non-Chipotle dinner? Getting places is stressful because you have to take ubers to most places and they are expensive and exposed to traffic. The homeless problem has grown so out of control that you are almost certain to be confronted with feces and heroin needles during your visit.

New York is also very high friction. The subway is swelteringly hot during the summer and has none of the efficiency or thoughtfulness of systems in other cities like Tokyo. Real estate is expensive, so your living situation is likely to have a bit of friction. Like San Francisco, everything is expensive. Getting to the airport can take a couple hours or $80, depending on whether you take the train or uber.

Morocco has a different type of friction. Things are cheap and cities are easy to walk, but as a tourist you are constantly peddled to and are lied to in an effort to extract more money.

None of these factors is really a dealbreaker on its own, and of course every city has some level of friction. These high friction cities hit some critical threshhold, though, where the experience of living there is stressful. Everything feels like a chore. Whenever I go to Central Park in New York I feel a huge sense of relief, because I have somewhere I can reasonably be without paying, and there’s no friction once you’re inside.

The common perception of these cities does not include the friction. San Francisco has a breezy idyllic air that, in my experience, is all but gone. Once in a while you walk down the right street with the right weather and no one shooting up heroin, and it still feels that way. If you live there, though, you are subject to a lot of friction.

I never meant to move to Las Vegas. Even when I bought my house there I would have emphatically told you that I had no intention of moving to a city like Las Vegas. Now I proudly call it home. I think it’s the nearly complete lack of friction that made me fall in love with it.

One of the things guests often notice upon visiting Las Vegas is how nice everyone is. I’m used to it, so it always makes me stop and think when they bring it up.

My theory, based only on logic and anecdotal evidence, is that it’s hard to be friendly when you live in a high friction city. The things you need to do for yourself require so much extra work that you have limited capacity for others, especially for strangers. The financial pressures bearing down on you put you in a state of stress and limit what you can do with your time.

San Francisco used to be an incredible place to live. I remember thinking upon going there the first time that anyone who wasn’t actively trying to move to San Francisco was out of their mind. Now I think something roughly opposite of that.

It’s hard to understand how the friction of a place wears on you until you’re free of that burden. I think that many of our “great” cities have a utilization that exceeds their low-friction threshhold, and that their reputations haven’t caught up to reality.

In Las Vegas, Hilo, and rural Halifax it’s easy to get around by car and you never have to think about parking. In Tokyo and Budapest it’s easy to walk and take public transportation everywhere. Meals are reasonably priced and are good quality in all five. Housing is reasonable. People are extremely nice. Though very different in many ways, each of these places is a very low friction place in which to live.

People are so stressed out these days that they’re having physical health problems. I’ve seen it. One of my family members moved from NY to Austin and their health problems largely vanished. Think about living somewhere with lower friction. It’s better for you and is a lot more enjoyable


Photo is from the teahouse in Hilo. I’m heading there this weekend and can’t wait to do more tea classes.






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