The Happy City and our $20 Trillion Opportunity

happycity-coverOne of the joys and frustrations of being an engineer who is also a hopeless dreamer, is that you can see the beauty of what the world could be, while also feeling the burden of every single thing that is in the way of achieving that beauty.

Envisioning this potential (and sometimes even having the opportunity to design some of it) is one of the greatest joys of being alive. But slamming up against the stubborn wall of society’s inertia, all day, every day, can lead to some displays of choice language.

If only we could grasp onto even a tiny fraction of the improvements that are hanging right in front of our faces, our society could bypass decades or centuries of pain, and billions of people could lead happier lives, starting this afternoon.

We can illustrate this problem perfectly with an example from right here in my home town. Take a look at this Google Maps satellite image of where Colorado Highway 287, (also known as Main Street) crosses over the St. Vrain Creek:


Colorado Highway 287 makes a lame leap across the creek.

It’s pretty boring, right? And that is exactly my point. It’s a boring, utilitarian bridge, in a blighted, shitty area of town dominated by parking lots, used car dealerships, traffic, and noise. When you drive along that part of 287, you don’t even notice you are crossing a bridge. It’s just part of the wide, flat road. And besides, you’re busy navigating the ugly, stressful terrain of dense traffic – passing through in a rush to get to somewhere nicer.

Now, I happen to bike right under this bridge quite often, because Longmont’s excellent St. Vrain Greenway path allows you whiz along through the whole town, bypassing all the trouble that the car drivers have to deal with above. Down on the bike path it’s just you, recharging your soul and your muscles, passing a few other cyclists and watching the crystal clear water as it flows over oval multicolored granite rocks, maybe a few ducks and geese building nests along the water’s edge.

In 2013, that Main Street bridge was partially destroyed, along with quite a few other things in town, by an enormous flood. So they decided to rebuild it. And I decided to follow along with the project, because hey, I’m an engineer.

What I learned is that building even the smallest, least noteworthy road bridge is a spectacular project. The engineering calculations alone cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The machinery involved would fill a football field, and the quantity of soil, steel, and concrete you need to move around is difficult to even comprehend. They have been working on this one insignificant bridge for over three years now, and I’m still waiting for the bike path to re-open.

Here's a peek under the bridge. Although you rarely look at this stuff, you definitely pay for it. Just post and beam like this consumes between 500,000 and 1 million pounds of concrete.

Here’s a peek under the bridge. Although you rarely look at this stuff, you definitely pay for it. Just that one post-and-beam support consumes between 500,000 and 1 million pounds of concrete – releasing equivalent pollution to about 150,000 miles of driving. I would need a bigger tape measure to estimate the whole bridge, but it would be many, many times more than this. Even a small bridge is a huge thing.

The total cost was estimated at 5.6 million dollars, which puts it roughly on par with, say, this 10-bathroom waterfront megamansion compound currently for sale in Florida:



And if you want a bigger bridge, like the flyovers with cloverleafs that get built every time two highways happen to interconnect, you can spend 100 times more.

How many megamansions will this cost us?

How many megamansions will this cost us?

Do you see the problem here?

This is exactly the same stuff I talk about in personal finance, except applied on a bigger scale.

The average American gets the most expensive car he can afford, and drives it as much as he can – for virtually 100% of trips out of the house. And yet he has a net worth of nearly zero, and subpar physical health, for most of his life.

The average American city builds the largest roads and parking lots it can possibly fund, maximizing the amount of available space for vehicles, in a noble attempt to reduce traffic and serve its citizens. But the result is that cities become nothing but wide, well-engineered, fast, deadly expanses of concrete. These are terrifying places for walkers and cyclists, which builds still more demand for more cars and more roads.

Let’s be clear here: I’m a capitalist, lifelong student of economics, pro-growth techno-utopian, and basically the opposite of a luddite. Efficient transportation is a huge wealth-builder for society, so we will always need bridges and fast roads. But these valuable resources will always be very expensive, so it makes sense not to waste them.

A transport truck full of factory components or food brings great wealth to Longmont when it crosses that bridge over the creek. The problem is the 400 single-occupant personal cars and trucks cramming up the rest of that road, full of people who are only driving because they don’t realize there is a better way.

Since even the most mundane bridge costs as much as a Mega Mansion, we are effectively building millions of mega-mansions mostly to to facilitate our clunky personal transport machines that are about 95% inefficient. And the whole reason we “need” cars in the first place is because we spread everything out by making our roads so big! It’s a circular problem.

Collectively, we spend almost half of our tax dollars on paving over our living spaces, or dealing with the consequences of the lifestyle created by that pavement.

The solution in both cases is so obvious, and yet almost nobody ever talks about it. In fact, many of us are still working to perpetuate and accelerate this stupidity.

Right now, as you read this, millions of people are passionately shopping around for new, better cars, and hundreds of American cities are planning enormous expansions of their road systems – new bridges, wider lanes, bigger parking structures. Politicians whine about our “crumbling infrastructure” and vow to rebuild it with emergency packages of deficit spending. Because we obviously need to build even more of it, even faster.

To Want Something Better, You Must Understand  the Core of Our Problem

Space for cars, or for people? Two ways to use a chunk of city land. (image credit: the happy city book)

Space for cars, or for people? Two ways to use a chunk of city land. (image credit: happy city)

When you’re born into a system, you come to think of it as normal. This was even true for me, growing up in an industrialized area and lusting after nice cars and motorcycles as I passed through my teens, feeling the frustration of heavy traffic jams and the joy of the open road.

But the quest for optimization led me naturally to bicycle transportation and minimizing car commutes, which led me to the study of urban planning, and the forehead-slapping realization that we’re doing everything wrong.

What it didn’t tell me, is how we got to this bizarre place. I mean, here are all of these relatively smart, wealthy people in this incredibly rich country, but our behavior is demonstrably self-defeating. What led us to this point, and how do we fix it?

Recently, I had the joy of reading a book about exactly this subject, from an author who has put much more thought and work into fixing it than I have. To put it moderately, it blew my mind.

Happy City, by Charles Montgomery, pretends to be a book about how cities are laid out, but you very quickly realize that it’s much more – a brilliant and thoughtful book about Everything that Matters – human happiness in the past, present, and future, and just how incredibly powerful our immediate environment is, in dictating this most important thing.

As you read through the book, which I have now done twice over the past six months (something I never do), you realize that city design strongly influences everything about our lives – our health, wealth, social networks, longevity, satisfaction and our tendency towards trust or violence which in turn even dictates how we will vote*.

And yet, for over 50 years we have been designing our cities in almost the most stupid, expensive, ineffective way possible. For example, did you realize that the following stuff is studied and well-documented around the world:

  • Building in the modern North American way (wide roads, big parking lots, wide lawns and plenty of space for every car) is the most expensive way that any group of humans have ever lived. We consume more concrete, water, pipes, wire, sidewalks, sign posts, landscaping, and fuel for this privilege.
  • But we don’t get any value for these dollars: we spend more time and money getting around than ever before, which leaves us with a chronic shortage of time to enjoy any potential benefits of dispersed living.
  • People who live in suburbs are much less trusting of other people than people who live in walkable neighborhoods where housing is mixed with shops, services, and places to work. This is because they have far fewer relationships with people who live nearby. And yet the overwhelming message of happiness research is that relationships with other people have the biggest influence on our happiness.
  • if 10 percent more people thought they had someone to count on in life, it would have a greater effect on national life satisfaction than giving everyone a 50 percent raise.

So we are getting a poor value for our money.

But how can it be a poor value if this is what people chose for themselves? It’s the free market at work, right?


This is the city Houten, just South of Utrecht and Amsterdam in the Netherlands. You can't get around the city by car, because the roads don't connect in the middle. You'd have to drive out to the ring road to get across town. As a result, 66% of in-town trips are by bike. Also, a central train station whisks you to other cities if desired.

This is the city of Houten, just South of Utrecht and Amsterdam in the Netherlands. You can’t get around the city by car, because the roads don’t connect in the middle. A car would have to to drive out to the ring road, and then back in the other side. As a result, 66% of in-town trips are by bike or on foot. Also, a central train station whisks you to other cities if desired. One of my life goals is that we – quite literally you and me – build a city like this here in the USA.

The book goes on to explain the history of suburbia, which I had never quite learned before:

  • Originally, we had big dense cities, small towns, and agricultural areas. The small towns were where people tended to be happiest.
  • Cities expanded to meet the desires of the workers: being close to work, but also having clean air and privacy like their small town counterparts. Housing was built at the edges in “street car neighborhoods” If you have ever walked around residential San Francisco, this is the basic feel.
  • When cars joined the picture, a consortium of GM, Firestone, Phillips Oil, Shell Oil, and Standard Oil bought up street car companies and shut them down. They also lobbied the government heavily and formed “Motorist Associations” to advocate for the rights of drivers – making driving more convenient and thus boosting driving demand for their products.
  • Cars were originally thought of as dangerous intruders in the city. If a driver killed a pedestrian with his car, it was a crime.
    The motorist associations pushed to change this balance: they sought to convince people that the problem of safety involved making sure people did not get in the way of cars.
    They invented the crime of “Jaywalking”, which is crossing a street somewhere other than a controlled crossing area.
    They pushed in the current legal arrangement, where if you kill a person with your car, it’s probably just a traffic violation. In some cases, it won’t be your fault at all as long as you were obeying the rules of the road.
  • Motorist associations also continually push for car-friendly policies like highway expansion, fighting against traffic tickets and speed traps, and even write articles like “Elon’s Carbon Con“, completely misunderstanding (or deliberately misrepresenting?) the entire purpose of Tesla – currently the world’s most influential company in the areas of clean energy storage and transportation.

That last bullet point strays into politics, because you get into a battle of freedom versus regulation. I personally feel that if in doubt, you should err on the side of freedom. And in this regard, the book brought up its most stunning point:

  • Our current city planning method is not the result of free market forces at all. It’s actually an incredibly strict book of regulations which separates functions – residential, commercial, and industrial. It also defines setbacks, lot sizes, intersections, and parking requirements. It is all standardized in a group of standard, downloadable regulations that most cities purchase from Municode, while the road design comes from the Federal Highway Association’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUCTD).
  • This is a self-replicating zombie of a system: every new town simply downloads and implements the existing book of rules without thinking about it, because “This is how things work in America”
  • But that original book of rules was built from an almost comical chain of events. The oil companies and motorist associations. Special interests and racism, like a regulation in Modesto, CA which banned clothes washing facilites from the main street, which happened to be run by Chinese people. The desire of rich people to keep away poor people (which is easy to do legally if you just ban duplexes and apartment buildings, or specify a minimum lot size as many suburbs do.
  • Highway subsidies, like the way we build roads with public money, lower the perceived cost of building a dispersed city. Mortgage subsidies from the federal housing association that made it easier to buy new houses than to restore or rebuild existing more central buildings.

This sounds pretty grim, but I look at it with optimism: if we have built this relatively wealthy society even with the boat anchor of horrible living design hanging around our necks, imagine how much wealthier we will become if we shed that useless burden for the next stage of our journey?

In fact, some people are already working on the project. A group called Strong Towns, run by a fiscally conservative engineer named Chuck Marohn, teaches cities about the folly of car-based expansion. From his career as a city planner, he has learned that the honeymoon of developer dollars and easy borrowing quickly fades to become a hangover of massive maintenance costs and low tax revenue. A densely packed city puts a lot of people, business, and money close together. With a dispersed city you get lots of maintenance costs but very few businesses per square mile.

A movement called “New Urbanism” started up in 1993 to bring back some aspects of people-friendly design. There are now neighborhoods popping up with these better design principles in every major city. In Mableton, Georgia they are actually reclaiming big parking lots to build useful islands of denser development, as shown in the earlier picture.

But it has been a long battle, because in order to make a place that is pleasant for people, you literally need to change or disobey the existing suburban building codes.

Here in Longmont, there is a street called “100 Year Party Court” and another called “Tenacity”, named by some frustrated New Urban developers who were dumbfounded by how ridiculous the existing road regulations were: “Why are they forcing us to waste space for THIS MUCH PARKING on the streetside – what are they expecting, some sort of 100-year-party?”

Thus, it is time to stop the madness and start rebuilding our ridiculous infrastructure in a smarter way.

The increase to our personal wealth may be larger than any other possible change we can make. We have about 9 million lane-miles of roads in the US, and over 5,000 notable bridges. It costs about $1 million per mile to make a single lane of road, which means we have at least $9 trillion of roads and $100 billion of bridges, before we even get into 500 million parking spaces, which cost about $4,000 each! 

By Mustachian standards, at least 90% – Ninety Percent – of this pavement is wasted. It’s just there to support the other sprawl, and because we have trained our citizens refuse to walk or ride a bike, even for short distances.

How To Fix It

The good news is that this can be fixed. The reason people keep perpetuating the pointless car model is that they are unaware there is any other option.

If you live in Orlando and want to go out for dinner, you see only a choice of driving, or a long, noisy walk alongside a six-lane road on a narrow grass shoulder. I was there last month and did the walk, noting that they had not even bothered with sidewalks. I could see how Orlandans would assume that cars are superior to walking, if this were their frame of reference.

Now that you know there is a better way, there are practical steps you can take as a citizen:

  • Stop supporting car sprawl with your money. If a potential house, job, or store is in an area that doesn’t support bikes or walking, simply don’t sign the contract.
    After all, would you buy a house in an area that was impossible to reach by road? Probably not, and in fact areas like this are generally called “Wilderness”  because so many people insist on roads.
    Reverse your priorities and insist on living somewhere designed for Humans. There are now thousands of places like this. It’s worth the small effort to find one.
  • If you’re starting or expanding your own company, do it in a walkable area. If the majority of your employees will have no choice but to drive to work, that’s a bad place to start a business.
  • Start voting against any road expansions in your region. Somewhat counter-intuitively, road expansions never alleviate traffic jams – they only make them worse.
    The only solution to traffic is to get people out of their cars. Luckily, this solution also costs less and builds the wealth of your local economy rather than draining it.  Road expansion is to a city like candy and cookies are to your body. It has also been described as “trying to cure obesity by loosening your belt”
  • Channel that money you would have spent on roads – 100% of it – into bike paths, road diets, parks, central city redevelopment and “upzoning”.
  • Fight the “Not in My Back Yard” tendencies of most people, who object to new buildings or higher-density living near where they live. What these people are probably afraid of is not the presence of more people, but the car traffic they would bring. So, support more density, but only if it discourages cars.
  • Push for the removal of minimum parking requirements for new construction. Every time somebody wants to create a new building or business, our traditional building code system forces them to waste a bunch of money and precious land on parking spaces, which sit empty most of the time.
    It makes much more sense to use that extra land for more businesses and housing, eliminating the vast distances that encourage people to drive in the first place. Car parking would be a niche market, built by private companies and charged out at market rates.
  • And of course, just start walking and biking wherever you can. In a dense city, and even in US-style suburban sprawl, a bike will get you there faster than a car most of the time. Sure, there are a few spots that are truly unsafe for bikes, but even right now, with today’s infrastructure, we could eliminate at least 75% of town and city traffic overnight.
    For example, here in Longmont, biking is safe and efficient to 100% of possible destinations, at least 350 days of the year. But bikes represent less than 0.5% of the traffic I see on the roads.
    Every time you drive within a town, you destroy a bit of the feeling of community. Every single time you walk, you build the community, and advertise the idea of walking to every person who sees you.

As I learned from this book, urban planning is far from just a geeky niche topic – it’s really the foundation of most of our wealth and personal happiness.

We can improve everything about our lives, if we all understand a bit about how to arrange our living spaces. So I’ll see you out there this afternoon, as we start making some arrangements.

* (people who have weak bonds with their immediate neighbors will trust them less – and will also disproportionately vote for things like nationalist, anti-trade, anti-immigration policies and be worried about terrorism – sound familiar?)

Here’s a cool passage on this subject from the book:

“Imagine that you dropped your wallet somewhere on your street. What are the chances you would get it back if a neighbor found it? A stranger? A police officer? Your answer to that simple question is a proxy for a whole list of metrics related to the quality of your relationship with family, friends, neighbors, and the society around you. In fact, ask enough people the wallet question, and you can predict the happiness of cities.”

  • Phillip G February 10, 2017, 10:58 pm

    Guess ill throw in some wisdom for wide road restrictions in residential areas. This could be attributed to too many cars, however, if you have ever tried driving a fire truck down a narrow residential road you would understand. Consider a scenario where its a windy day on your newly developed walk/bike only areas that has a high concentration of structures. An accident happens and fire breaks out. The wind increases the fires ferocity and it quickly spreads to the next building and the next. While this is going on fire trucks are trying to figuring out a way to navigate the narrow paths and tight turns with little success. Unfortunately, no ladder trucks can even make the tight turns around the buildings because they are too close together. In the end, the outlier buildings were all that remained while all the inside ones burned to the ground because of no access.
    Obviously this is worse case scenario, but it is something to think about. There would have to be some type of fire safety planning that goes in with the design of these types of places. I have tried to drive a 40′ ladder truck down streets with cars lined up on both sides and it is extremely tight. This is why there are restrictions in place.

    • Scio5 February 11, 2017, 8:31 pm

      Urban planner and MMM enthusiast here! I’ve heard the fire truck excuse a lot for the need for wider streets. I just googled “why are fire trucks so big?” and got pages of other urban planners wondering the same thing. Apparently American fire trucks are much bigger than their European counterparts, and different places have found ways to make the trucks fit the streets rather than the other way around. Buying a smaller truck is cheaper than building a bigger road!

    • JasonC February 12, 2017, 7:37 am

      Great point Phillip. Although I think so from a slightly different take than you posit. What you bring up is the need for a coordinated design of the city. One option would be to require automatic sprinkler systems for ALL structures built in that zone. The added cost could be offset by the reduced parking requirements (in developments I have worked on, those range from $4000 for surface lots to $25,000 for subsurface each). Not a way to make more for the developer (a problem on the proforma side) but one where the ‘Health and Well-being of the Human is thought through from all angles’. Definitely would require a paradigm shift from all angles, but our point brings up that we need to think this through with input from all those who have a contribution to the built environment, from planners to firemen to police to cable TV installers and delivery companies…a big task, but one that with a mindest change, could definitely be done…heck, we went to the freaking moon!

  • Bob Reisner February 10, 2017, 11:12 pm

    An opinion. It’s not going to happen. And it’s probably the wrong thing to do.

    First, a discussion about cities. Historically American cities have been difficult places to live for average people. Bad schools, poor city services and an infrastructure always in disrepair (roads, water, sewer, parks, trash, etc.). This was/is coupled with high taxes, high rent or home ownership costs, high cost retail and professional services. The overall environment provides people with very limited personal space, even less green/recreation space, and almost no parking space. City intrusions like noise, light/view blocking, homeless street people and gangs are but a few of the negatives of day to day life. And cities are unfavorable to good paying manufacturing blue collar jobs and large scale retail (Walmart) that can save a family huge amounts of scarce income.

    For around 70 years, American families have voted with their feet for suburban life. Overwhelmingly. Post WW2, the move was to close in suburbs of the big cities. By the 1960’s people were moving even greater distances for suburban life. From the northern and upper midwest cities to the South, Texas, Southwest and even places like Colorado. People left familiar surroundings and often large extended families. The suburban movement provided relief from all the city problems…far less crime, great schools, big homes on big lots, parking for 2 cars, etc. All with lower taxes and better infrastructure. And jobs. And Walmart, Home Depot, and multiplexes. And even nice retail malls. And lots of freedom of movement (because of personal transportation) It was a big deal to choose the suburban life…some made the decision quickly and many others came around slowly. But they came to a conclusion that suburban life was the lifestyle of choice.

    The majority of America is suburban and the continuing volume of suburban construction shows the trend continues. An attempt by academics, city planner and politicians to gather everyone up into crowded pens isn’t going to happen. The rebirth of the city is always just around the corner and always will be.


    It would be better to pick a range of options that might make some lifestyle improvements a real possibility. Yes, bike paths everywhere. But also some other measures that really could create a better work life balance. Options that supports the suburban desires of the vast majority of American families. Some random specifics for illustration:

    [] If commuter congestion in cities is a problem, then cap the amount of office space and other jobs related activity that are allowed in a city core (and have it decline over time). Down size cities and move the jobs to suburbia. It’s a lot cheaper to build office buildings in suburbia than highways and heavy rail. If cities were downsized then commuting would be in all directions, not just one direction that requires special peak capacity.

    [] Change land use regulations to allow a rapid doubling of developed land in the USA (zoning, infrastructure, EPA, etc.). It’s a big country and it would be hardly noticed. Let’s allow private industry to build a hundred new cities. A significantly less dense America will by definition be way more people friendly.

    [] Change laws that ‘restrict’ people moving closer to their work. Like school choice, limits on zoning, portability of mortgages and tax breaks, etc.

    Hundreds of cities in the 1 to 3 million population range could be the right mix of density for comfortable living with sufficient density for arts, sports and other collective activities. Think Charlotte, Tampa and Columbus rather than Boston, San Francisco or Chicago. Let the market decide (people).


    One final thought. Driverless cars will have a huge societal impact and will accelerate suburban development. But it will also allow for modest but very important density increases in suburban areas. They will create real, significant and highly visible changes in suburbia. All positive and will further pressure traditional cities.

    • Mr. Money Mustache February 13, 2017, 1:39 pm

      Hey Bob,

      I think you might be equating my rejection of car culture with an image of 1970s New York City. And that’s not it at all: I still want us all to have big, private places to live rather than being crammed into 400 square foot pens with neighbors stomping around above and criminals dumping bodies into the dumpster out back.

      Given the choice between a shitty city and today’s suburbs, of course people would choose the burbs. The choice I’m suggesting is a third one: people living in human-scale clusters (typically around 100,000 people, in maybe an area 5×5 km.) And a roughly 90% reduction in car use among able-bodied people. We’d have WAY more green space, because we wouldn’t be wasting all of our city on parking lots. You don’t need big-box retail within a city anymore, because we all shop online these days. And so on.

      You claim that people have voted with their wallets, so the car-based model must be right. I strongly disagree: for decades, half of US adults smoked cigarettes, and it took an awareness of the consequences and a change in social policies to get this number down to where it is (17%’ish and dropping).

      There are some fundamentals at work here, which are obscured to “normal” people, but painfully obvious to the numerically minded.

      – One is physics: it will simply never be a good use of resources, to use a 4000 pound, 80-square-foot machine to transport a 150 pound, 2-square-foot human. The machine is a big part of the problem, but the ROADS are even bigger. And it doesn’t even save any time: if you eliminate the car infrastructure but keep everything else, people can actually get where they are going, by walking or on bikes, FASTER. Eliminating this waste frees up wealth for humans to deploy elsewhere.

      – The other is human nature. We are simply wired to live in a village-scale environment, to build a mental map of its physical layout, to make bonds with the people who live nearby, and power our own bodies through this environment. It’s a simple recipe for human happiness, and a huge waste of human lives to ignore it.

      – The final one is RESULTS. I see the results of dispersed city design on personal finance, national finance, time spent transit, health, death due to car crashes, and pollution – and I’m not satisfied with those results. They have already proven that other city designs work better in Europe – you can measure all of these parameters and see that it is a better system. So let’s change it.

      Finally, you speak of future suburbanization as if it is inevitable and city rebirth as if it is just around the corner. I’m not sure where you get this information – sure, plenty of suburbs are still going up, but almost every major city is seeing a spectacular rebound in central re-development. Smarter cities like Boulder, Colorado simply stopped expanding over 20 years ago. Now they just re-develop with mixed use stuff and yet the city keeps getting richer and richer. The overflow of wealth causes other cities like Longmont to develop their own prosperity, whereas without this policy Boulder would just be another Atlanta with many times more traffic and pollution than it has now.

      This is an entirely different world from 1985.

      Finally, it’s not some vague force of “them” that’s in control of all this, it is US. Remember, this blog is not here to observe and complain about the world as it is – it exists to DICTATE what the world will be. Collectively, we get to discuss how to change shit up, and then implement those plans.

    • Primal Prosperity February 15, 2017, 9:45 pm

      Hi Bob, I would like to point out that the 1950’s post WW2 flee to the suburbs, also coincided with the start of our steady decline from our peak happiness.

    • phred February 24, 2017, 12:25 pm

      lots of freedom of movement? Not if you were a young teenager or pre-teen. Then, you needed to be driven everywhere because things were so spread out. Mommy soon became mommy-chauffer.
      As for building more suburbs — that equates with destroying yet more farmland. Countries that can afford to import all their food — because their farmland is all built upon — don’t seem to thrive as well as countries that can still grow and raise most of what they eat. The U.S. is still good in producing high gluten grain, not as good as it used to be in fruits and vegetables.
      Please realize that the car culture spread because the early auto companies actively destroyed the public transportation in this country. Visit London some day — good public transportation, lots of green space, good schools.
      If you think city services are bad, you ought to try country services. The schools are basically dismal. Having the landfill dominate the skyline doesn’t cut it either.

  • jon February 11, 2017, 12:00 am

    Although I like the idea of walkable cities, I also like have a little distance between my neighbors and me. I also like living close to family. We walk 2 1/2 miles to my mothers with 4 young children (1 to 9 yrs old). I agree that Statism has probably caused us to live further apart then we otherwise would (government paying for roads rather than having all private roads leads to the Tragedy of the Commons). It would be interesting to see how cities and towns would form without these subsidies and regulations.

    The anti planner typically has good articles with critiques of planning. Here’s one where he criticizes “Happy City”. It doesn’t appear like he has read it though. He has read other books along the same lines so reading his blog can give interesting “contrarian” views. I think it is important to see things from many angles to get more of an accurate view of the world. Although it is hard to do since we all love reading and learning about things that confirm our natural biases. So, I don’t really have an opinion either way. I know I like to walk. But I also know that I don’t like living in apartments where I can hear the neighbors having sex at 1 in the morning.


  • Wendy Luiten February 11, 2017, 12:57 am

    From the Netherlands – a Thank you for putting a dutch village in the picture! As a Dutch person, I find the US living spaces laid out very strange – No walkways, No bike paths, and shopping malls instead of village squares or town squares – and no terraces to enjoy a drink while watching the world walk by. I never realized that the US layout is the result of planning. We also have very strict planological development but according to different rules – Overhere developing property without walkways and bike access would be totally against regulations. Unthinkable.

  • Peter Akkies February 11, 2017, 1:48 am

    Triple M,

    I loved reading this article. For several years I’ve been learning about urban planning, transit-oriented development, etc., and I’ve always thought it complemented the mustachian lifestyle well.

    You’re the blogger who has had the most impact on my life by teaching me about early retirement, so it’s great to see you share the gospel of livable cities. Kudos!

    You might also enjoy these other blogs:

    Greetings from Amsterdam,

  • Anjuli February 11, 2017, 2:00 am


    How weirdly synchronistic that I had just shared this link on facebook before reading this post! Now that we are *actually* biking and walking around our neighborhood I feel like the world has opened up to us. I’m just so stinking happy!

  • Robbie February 11, 2017, 2:05 am

    There’s a crowd in Australia called “Nightingale” that have developed a pretty cool model for residential development along pretty similar lines to what you’ve laid out. For the planners/developers/architects/engineers (and anyone interested in living in place like MMM is describing) you can check our their stuff online. It’s really starting to grow!


  • geld is tijd February 11, 2017, 3:00 am

    Houten is rewarded to be “number one bicycle-city of the Netherlands” several times. It is very funny to see that MMM’s badassity is a very common behavior in the Netherlands. You would fit here pretty well:-)

    greetings from the Netherlands!

  • Jon February 11, 2017, 3:47 am

    Great article MMM!

    As a Canadian and an engineer, the “design” that has gone into our towns/cities is absolutely infuriating.

    Recently moving to Germany has been a refreshing case of optimization! Our town has a large neighbourhood devoted to passive buildings and bike/pedestrian mobility. 80% of the families don’t own a car. Very refreshing!

  • Mutha Duck February 11, 2017, 3:52 am

    MMM you are the man!! Thanks so much for this post. I was starting to wonder if it was all in my head – my dissatisfaction with where we live. We are currently preparing to move halfway across the world to a smaller settlement in BC, Canada in the hope that we can achieve a lifestyle closer to nature, within walking distance from schools, close to neighbours whom we know, with ONLY ONE CAR WHICH WE HARDLY USE. We are frustrated here because we live in exactly that urban sprawl that you describe. Highways everywhere, friends scattered in all directions. Your post has confirmed for us that there is, in fact, a better way to live – and that our plan to move to another freaken country in search of it isn’t such a bad idea at all. Muchas gracias.

  • Divnomics February 11, 2017, 4:06 am

    Really great to read. I actually live in the city next to Houten, and had the joy of riding there on a bike quite often. The city plan is really well thought through and another plus is that it’s a real good environment to raise kids as well.

    I might think you will like the book Sapiens as well (If you haven’t read it already). I’m currently reading it and the thought throughout the book what impressed me most is that humans will keep on going to try to improve their lives and surroundings, but are destroying it at the same time in their rapid hunger for growth and wellbeing.

  • Ricky February 11, 2017, 5:25 am

    I dig the wallet test. That would definitely be a great indicator.

    As mentioned, people are generally happier in smaller cities than large, dense ones. If we extend that general truth to as the basis for building happier cities, what is the limit on density? Larger cities create more productivity, job opportunity, and social mobility. Yet, it’s almost a proven fact at this point that we’re not as happy in them.

    If you judge a city by it’s density, proximity to people, career opportunities, etc, then literally no other city in America would come close to beating out NYC. But is NYC the place for most of us? Is it a “happy city”? Does all the vertical growth detract from the potential happiness? NYC is already miles ahead other major cities in terms of their efforts in creating more bike paths (even completely separated lanes). They already have world class public transportation. Maybe NYC is a tad too big though because the city as a whole encompasses everything that’s detrimental to long-term happiness insofar as being the consumeristic capital of America.

    It’s impossible to talk about the cities of tomorrow without considering exponential advances in technology, considering the current pace. The workforce is going to shift dramatically over the coming years, dramatically decreasing the need for office space. The office space that is built and/or remains needs to exist for the purposes of humans coming together for social reasons (until VR completely replaces the physical component of socializing). To rethink the city is to also rethink our general consumption habits. There should be less need for retail space since, in the future, we’ll be able to have anything we want delivered almost instantly (we basically already live in this future, but robots and more efficient delivery options like drones or whatever else succeeds them will further accentuate the antiquity of physical storefront space). People will be working less in general too, so the primary places for socialization will come from meeting in parks, “squares” that are designed to promote interaction, and restaurants with real food.

    We’re closer than ever to entering a post-scarcity environment. The question remains as to how far AI, VR/AR, robotics biotech, and various other research areas (that will eventually converge) will dramatically reshape society, thereby replacing the need to work completely. In the not too distance future, VR will be indistinguishable from reality. If your mind and body is convinced that this reality is 100% “real”, you can have anything you want instantly. We’re at an awkward stage in humanity that is a result of our growing pains. One way or another, the world is going to look dramatically different in 100 years.

  • Kate February 11, 2017, 6:11 am

    Fantastic article! Check out “Design for Ecological Democracy” by Randolph T. Hester. As a social worker with an interest in the intersection of urban design, social justice and community building – it’s referred to as “consulting the bible” when we flip through it to problem solve. With chapters like “Sensible Status Seeking”, “Social Ecotones of Mixed Use Neighborhoods” and “Naive Stewardship Meets Freedom to Withdraw from Civic Life” I’m just now realizing how Mustachian of an urban planning book it is.

  • Bram February 11, 2017, 6:34 am

    Here’s a nice mini-doc about how smart urban design was used to (very successfully) promote cycling in my hometown of Groningen (The Netherlands): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cWf5fbSUNAg. Similar approach to Houten, I think: in addition to building excellent bicycling infrastructure, make it awkward for cars to operate in the center of town or ban them altogether from certain areas. Having lived in the UK for the last 6 years or so, I’m now convinced Dutch cities tend to have a higher quality of life because of their bike-friendliness. Yes, infrastructure CAN make you homesick.

    While I cycle in the UK as well (Manchester to be precise), the differences are striking. Nearly all cyclists, of which there are far fewer, ride road bikes here, most wear helmets (and cycling is indeed far more dangerous here because of bad infrastructure and the lower volume of cyclists), children and older people are rarely among them, and there are very few decent bike paths (although the City Council, to their credit, are investing in cycling). Basically, cycling seems to be considered a way for yuppies & uni students (the yuppies of the future) to do their commute here (same in London), rather than the default way of getting around town it should be.

  • Brian February 11, 2017, 7:19 am

    Great post! If you want to read a great book in the history of suburbanization, read Crabgrass Frontiers. I think it even won some awards.

  • Dorothy February 11, 2017, 7:36 am

    Interesting read that makes me appreciate my town a bit more. It’s easy to see the effects of the growth and expansion of the city of Rochester, NY. Nearby villages were swallowed whole or were incorporated into suburban towns and lost their walk-ability and overall cohesiveness…with a couple of notable exceptions. Pittsford, a wealthy suburban village, is part of the larger town of Pittsford that is tightly focused on its “historic” designation and has zoning requirements to keep its appearance and functioning consistent. They’ve added turn lanes in places, but no 4 lane roads in the village center. Fairport, a nearby mixed-income village, has done the same despite heavy lobbying to widen the main street and add a bridge over the train tracks that cross it. There is also a lift-bridge crossing the Erie Canal in the middle of the village that some would like to see replace with a higher one to ease traffic flow. Instead, Fairport has made it a symbol of the town. The larger town of Fairport (where we live just outside the village) includes several other villages, but the village of Fairport is the only one that has retained its village character…by making it a pain to drive through the village. The canal, with its accompanying canal path adds to the commuting alternatives, especially for cyclists. It’s been a great compromise for the city boy and country girl to raise their kids. The city boy keeps an office in the village that he can walk/cycle/snowshoe/cross-country ski to depending on the weather, and the now disabled country girl can make bi-weekly trips for groceries and tend her raised planter garden. I do worry about elderly and disabled being able to get where they need to go in some of the schemes suggested. It’s tricky to discourage driving without creating barriers.

  • Giovina February 11, 2017, 8:53 am

    I love this. I live in Montreal, and I bike 8 months of the year and transit the other 4, with lots of walking all year. I choose to live close to work and grocery stores and friends and I have never felt the need to own a car. It would actually be so much more of a hassle. I have some friends who commute 40 minutes each way without traffic and I don’t how they do it. There is a slight trade off though in that I pay higher rent to live this close, but it’s worth it for the lifestyle benefits. I could never live in a place where I needed a car, I don’t plan on ever owning one.

    • Tara C February 11, 2017, 4:09 pm

      I live in Montreal too and it’s a great walkable city with lots of good public transportation and bike lanes. My neighbourhood mayor in the Plateau is very committed to reducing traffic and traffic deaths by lowering speed limits and restructuring roads. He is actively working on a project called Vision Zero to reduce traffic fatalities. I moved to Montreal specifically for this lifestyle and don’t plan to ever buy another car (sold mine when I moved here).

  • Julie February 11, 2017, 9:20 am

    What do you do if your city (small town) has already screwed up the bike path/walking path scheme? We live in Mt Vernon, IL, a town of about 16,000. A few years back the city built a 1 or 1 1/2 mile asphalted bike path for around a $1 million. I joke that it was nice of them to spend so much to build me my own personal bike/walking path. It is less than a block from my house and it is sparsely used because it kinda goes nowhere. (Not really, but it does not have good, logical access points to places people want/need to go. It does go to the middle school but most middle schoolers ride the bus.) The other walking path that the city touts is just a sidewalk around a large area of as-of-yet undeveloped industrial park.

    These paths were either the pet projects of city council members who are now gone or just something for the city to put on the website to “attract new businesses.” The prevailing view of city officials seems to be to try to get state money to build projects, “because we only have to provide X% of funding to make this happen” and “if we don’t get this state money, some other city will.” A local watchdog group has pointed out that the state funds are our tax dollars too and they should not be wasted.

    I will get the book and read it. Also, I love the idea of walking/biking being an advertisement. I haven’t biked much lately but I will go get my bike tuned up today and see what I can do for the cause.

  • Lauren D February 11, 2017, 10:05 am

    This is great! When I read the book EcoCities in high school back in 2006 this felt like such a subversive way of thinking. It was what led me to get a degree in Sustainable Development with a focus in community development. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any work in the field after graduating (mid-Recession) but now I’m trying to find a way to get back in the game.

    Some other books that might interest you if you like this book are:
    Ecocities by Richard Register – sounds very similar to The Happy City, though might have more nature in its ideal
    How Cities Work by Alex Marshall – argues a very interesting counter-point to New Urbanism, arguing that such such communities don’t take outside transportation into consideration.
    Resilience Thinking by Brian Walker – generally about a different way of thinking that can be applied to just about anything

  • ZJ Thorne February 11, 2017, 10:12 am

    I wish more areas of the country had walkable infrastructure. Especially since my girlfriend is disabled; folks driving up the costs of Uber/Lyft because it is a tiny bit cold are getting in the way of her using the source of transportation she actually needs. The greatest thing about my apartment is that I can walk to my office. I’m not into biking myself because the cars here are too aggressive and try to kill cyclists and aren’t held accountable. My girlfriend is in to her recumbent bike because it drastically improves her ability to move from point A to B. I’m happy to walk, and even happier that she can bike.

  • Shawn February 11, 2017, 10:22 am

    Agree about Orlando we visited in December and walked to local chains for dinners out, the roads we wide and congested sidewalks narrow and often ended with grass curbs. They need to rethink their sidewalk layouts and be more pedestrian friendly for sure.

  • Anneke February 11, 2017, 10:36 am

    This is a fantastic summary of urban design, so thanks! I’ve been thinking about this ever since I moved from sprawly Calgary (Alberta) to walkable downtown Toronto. My quality of life is definitely better here and I walk over 6km each day to and from work :) I recommend the documentary Urbanized if you haven’t seen it–it’s great! I’m a bit confused though that you’re so pro-efficiency and low environmental impact, yet you recommend high-meat diets… Have you looked into how inefficient and unsustainable meat production is? Intensive livestock operations are an even worse blight than parking lots… plus, you know, the cruelty. Anyway thanks for all your badassity!

  • Nick February 11, 2017, 11:28 am

    Fantastic article MMM. You have touched on a passion of mine. I’d like to share a community design idea that has been on my mind recently. I love the design of Houten, but we should also be thinking of a simpler, baby step approach to apply here in the US for many of our existing communities.

    So imagine a typical community with a 2 lane road, sidewalks on both sides of the street and nice front yards. This typical community also has an alley that runs through the backside of the homes, with garages off this alley. What we need to do is:
    -Remove the road and sidewalks. In place imagine a green space with a meandering walking/bike path. Grass, trees, vegetable gardens become meeting places for neighbors. Kids can run across the green space to their friend’s house, across where the busy roadway once was. The walking/bike path connects to a larger grid so people can get to town for groceries etc without having to use their cars.
    -The cars stay where they belong, in back away from people. The alleys become the main road for cars.

    I have seen this done, in part. There is a neighborhood nearby that has an annual festival. The roads are closed off to cars, so they instead stick to the alleys. The roads become a giant playground for people. Kids tear through the neighborhood on their bikes and skateboards without having to lookout for cars, neighbors set up chairs and blankets in their front yards and greet others as they walk by. It is amazing to see how happy people become.

    This setup seems so obvious and acheivable…

  • John Fotheringham February 11, 2017, 11:35 am

    Thank you for the inspiration and actionable tips. My wife and I just read this together and both nodded our heads and pounded our fists in unified agreement. We are new Mustachians, busting our bums to shake off the bee swarm of debt (almost have credit cards paid off and then on to family loans) and happily share one paid-off car. We are fortunate to be able to work from home but could definitely walk more than we do (e.g. for trips to the grocery store).

  • Stewart Cattroll February 11, 2017, 11:42 am

    After reading the entire blog, this is the first time I’ve been moved to comment on an article. I currently work in a suburb of Ottawa known as Kanata North, which I believe is an area that MMM knows particularly well from his past life. I’ve been dismayed over the past 10 years as Kanata has ruthlessly expanded outwards and its roads have become choked with never-ending lines of SUVs. What used to be a very pleasant suburb is now a traffic hell, and the amount of money that the city spends on new roads and parking spaces and bridges every year is astronomical. Meanwhile, biking infrastructure, such as separated bike lanes, is almost completely absent on the major arteries in Kanata, which for beginners like myself, is a pretty strong incentive not to bike.

    A major problem seems to be that walking/biking infrastructure is never seen as the first priority, but more of an afterthought in Kanata. In fact, a minor local scandal occurred recently when a major bridge that had been under construction for a few years, at major cost, finally wrapped up construction, only to promptly have the sidewalks on the bridge closed throughout the winter. The problem was that the builders made the sidewalks so narrow that the city’s sidewalk snow plows were unable to traverse them, thus resulting in an unsafe level of snow buildup on the sidewalk. The city had to spend thousands more to fix the mistake by widening the sidewalks. This was an oversight that could have easily been avoided by designing the bridge with sustainable transportation (i.e., walk/bike) as the top priority.

    I also lived in Kanata for most of my life (I currently live in downtown Ottawa, and commute using public transit) and can relate to the lack of neighbourly feeling amongst its residents. Unfortunately, I don’t even know the name of the neighbours on either side of my parent’s house in Kanata, which my family still lives in, despite the fact that my parents, and their neighbours, have lived there for 20 plus years.

    The whole concept of Strong Towns and better urban planning is something that I hope that I can bring to my hometown before it is too late. Thanks for a great post MMM.

    • Mr. Money Mustache February 11, 2017, 7:27 pm

      Thanks for representing Kanata, Stewart! I agree – that town is pretty sprawled out, although I managed to stick to 100% bike transport for my in-town trips during the summer I lived there. There are great off-street bike paths, and last summer I even biked from Dunrobin to Gloucester (70km) almost entirely on paths!

      • Stewart Cattroll February 12, 2017, 8:59 am

        Yikes, it sounds like I need to get to know my own town a little better and find those off-street bike paths! I guess my concern was primarily related to getting around in Kanata North and along March Road in particular, which seems a bit daunting on a bike, but I never even considered trying to explore the paths in the wooded areas surrounding Kanata North (although I am not sure of the state of those paths in the winter). The paths don’t seem to show up as a suggested route on Google Maps and I’ll be honest, I haven’t really explored that area or thought of it much since I was a kid. I’ll look into it. Thanks for the suggestion MMM!

        I’ve also thought of just biking on the sidewalks along March Road, which are almost never used by pedestrians and are at least cleared during the winter, unlike some of the on-street bike lanes, but I’m worried about running into some overzealous police or by-law officers.

  • Mark February 11, 2017, 12:11 pm

    This is my favorite MMM post – and that is saying a lot, because I have enjoyed them all. May I suggest additional reading that complements “Happy City” –

    (1) “Suburban Nation – the Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream”;
    (2) “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” – the classic book published in the 1960’s by Jane Jacobs and more relevant than ever;
    (3) “Walkable City” by Jeff Speck;
    (4) “Street Fight” – Janette Sadik-Khan (outlining her efforts and battles as NY City’s Transportation Commissioner)
    (5) “The High Cost of Free Parking”; by Donald Shoup (outlining the true cost of our our insane parking regulations and love affair with free parking)

    There is a wonderful opportunity for the MMM community to energize action on the issues of sustainability and making cities more livable, walkable, bikeable. Great idea to have actionable items on the blog post. Some of the current zoning laws need legislative action (i.e. why are there parking minimums for new condos/apartments?, why are corner stores illegal?) but it really comes down to shaping cultural norms and expectations about how our collective public spaces should be utilized. The MMM community can have a powerful role in leading this incredibly worthy effort.

  • jwheeland February 11, 2017, 12:17 pm

    Thanks for the post, MMM! Another great one. I loved Happy City. A great addition to the urban planning landscape.

    Local politics really matter to our everyday lives. It easy to get caught up in the national drama, but local politic is definitely within your circle of control. Calling you council person (or whatever elected officials is called) mayor, etc. can really change their minds. Also, attend the planning and zoning meeting. Speak up. Local support of a project is a huge deal here in Philly. And while community groups may not always get everything they want, if you they don’t speak up, usually the developer just pushes through with their car centric development.

    Have any here had successful advocacy for pro people development?

  • Maurits February 11, 2017, 12:32 pm

    Hi MMM,

    Great example of the City of Houten in the Netherlands, one of my best friends lives there and if you ever need a place to crash there, you are more than welcome to study the behaviours of all those crazy people that rather uses bikes instead of cars :).

    Look at this video to see bike rush hour in Utrecht (15 mins cycling from Houten):


  • Kendra Lois February 11, 2017, 12:37 pm

    Great ideas Mr. Money Moustache. My problem now is that while I am a mobile 91-year old, I cannot ride a bike at this stage of my life and also walk only shorter distances. What is your proposal for sensible transportation for us and for people who have mobility problems?

    • Marcia February 12, 2017, 8:24 am

      I know a number of people your age who live in retirement communities in the city center. For longer trips they have vans (Grocery shopping). For night time, Uber.

      The is 91 year old woman who swims at 530 am at my YMCA. She walks there, with a cane. Several blocks.

    • Alps February 12, 2017, 3:14 pm

      I live in Switzerland, and people have started to build “residences” for elderly people in the middle of cities, which means that everything important is at a distance of 100-200m (plus great opportunities for people watching from your window!). Some of those buildings have a supermarket and a pharmacy on the ground floor. This sounds like a great solution to me and this is where I’d be looking to live in old age, since you can keep your autonomy the longest in those places.

      And honestly, I don’t like the idea of 80+ year olds driving. That just seems like a recipe for disaster to me – not talking about you personally of course!

  • Dan February 11, 2017, 12:54 pm

    I know this is going to be a very unpopular comment, but I LIKE living in a world with nice streets and the ability to drive where I want, when I want. More importantly, I HATE living in places with high density. I can’t breathe. I don’t want to hear someone’s dog 10 feet from my window. I don’t want to hear the neighbor’s party. I want to have a pool in a nice big backyard. I’ve lived in high density housing and although ours was upscale so we didn’t have rude neighbors, we certainly didn’t have the privacy that I would have liked.

    Yes, if traffic movement is managed incompetently, like so many cities (Portland is a perfect example) then yes, I’d rather live in a city like you’re referring to. It’s as frustrating as hell to drive somewhere in Portland because roads are considered evil so they don’t make enough roads for people to get places efficiently.

    However, I live in Gilbert AZ (well, I live in South Africa at this moment… but my home town is in Gilbert.) It’s a city of over 46 square miles that builds roads (HUGE roads) before the demand is even there. Because they know transportation is the key to desirability. It’s a city of over 200K people and I can get from one end of the city to the other in under 15 minutes without using one freeway or highway. During the height of rush hour traffic, no less. Most places you go to takes about 5 minutes as there are several “centers” where one can get what they want.

    They have built out their infrastructure with auto transport efficiency in mind. And the utopian world that you’re referring to isn’t desirable when it’s not 72 and sunshine. I don’t want to ride a bicycle and I certainly don’t want to walk more than 100 feet when it’s 115 degrees outside. Or in many places in the country, where it’s 20 degrees below zero.

    I think the sweet spot in future suburban cities will be automated car transport where no one actually owns a car but you can call one up and it picks you up 10 feet from your door and takes you to within 10 feet of your destination. This will allow for almost unlimited scalability without having to add infrastructure over time. And you can have a piece of paradise without a neighbor living 10 feet from your front door.

    But having a choice is key. Let there be cities like what you’re referring to. And I’m sure they’ll be popular. But meanwhile, Gilbert is growing like gangbusters. Because there’s always going to be a need for the lifestyle that cities like Gilbert provides.


  • Roger Paul February 11, 2017, 12:55 pm

    Jeff Speck is an articulate spokesperson and writer for New Urbanism. He has a couple of TED talks about “walkability” that are both entertaining and compelling:

  • Ev February 11, 2017, 1:23 pm

    Fantastic post, but:

    > living somewhere designed for Humans. There are now thousands of places like this. It’s worth the small effort to find one.

    Small effort? I live in San Francisco which is fairly walkable, but still pretty heavily infested by cars and the noise they make can be tiring: it’s hard to spend too much time outside, only NYC is truly walkable in that regard. And it just so happens that these two cities are the most expensive places to live.

    MMM writes there are thousands of places designed for humans and it takes a “small effort” to find one. Well… I’ve been searching non-stop for 5+ years and have not found anything other than NYC, with 2br apartments going for $2MM+. I haven’t been to Longmont where MMM lives, but similar towns I have visited all were dangerous for bicyclists because you have to share the roads with cars.

    So what’s the secret to finding a place designed for humans in the US?

  • Sabbatikeando February 11, 2017, 1:35 pm

    After leaving for almost 5 years in the US, with 2 cars for a family of 2 we moved to Amsterdam, with zero cards and 2 old bikes that take us everywhere in max 30 min.
    I’m impress of the all the side-benefits of “having to bike”, from a fitness perspective but also the power of clearing your mind in few minutes!
    I guess being in a place where EVERYBODY in EVERY weather condition bike helps a lot.
    There are also few share cars services in town that you can rent by the minute if you really need a card.
    So far a great experience!

  • Helen Bussink February 11, 2017, 1:46 pm

    Great article – come and visit us in Copenhagen some time and we’ll show you how it’s really done.. ;)

    In my part of the city only 13% of households own a car – it’s one of the most densely populated municipalities in Europe but it’s also clean, with lots of green space and activities for all ages and great amenities. Hard to imagine living anywhere else really.

    (This is also incidentally one of my frustrations with PF/FI blogs – almost always the top advice is eitherget rid of your car or drive less – but we’ve never owned a car!)

    You might be interested to hear that the C40 group of cities (actually a loose organisation of the mayors who lead the 95 biggest cities in the world and who have come together to counter the effects of climate change) have just opened a sustainability office here – they want to see how Copenhagen has reduced pollution, encouraged green energy use (we aim to be CO2 neutral by 2025) and developed infrastructure to adapt to extreme weather events in order to see what lessons can be ported elsewhere. It’s also about making liveable cities.


    Maybe ironically, Copenhagen isn’t big enoguh to be formally part of the C40 group but it’s a vibrant city with lots of political will for better planning and a population that likes trying new things to see what works…

  • LennStar February 11, 2017, 2:19 pm

    A must-read on this topic, it includes several things MMM wrote in the post:

    Its from an Canadian I think was it city planer.


  • Frapa February 11, 2017, 2:37 pm

    I am really sad to see this, especially in a country which such a low population density where there would be place for a lot of nature.

    Luckily I live in Europe (Italy and Germany) and I think most of our cities (in north Europe they tend to be really well organized, usually) are much better in design (or by chance, since they were built long ago when cars weren’t everywhere) than the American counterparts. Here in Germany there are lots of cycleways and the train station is almost always the heart of the city. But in exchange we don’t get all the capitalistic awesomeness of America ;-).

    Unfortunately the American ways seems to be the future, especially in Asia but maybe even here. Hope we can change this!

  • Dave February 11, 2017, 2:49 pm

    Your smart city images remind me a lot of Copenhagen. Have a look at an aerial view of it, then think of (as I recall), 180% tax on cars, trains, busses and taxis that will take bikes, every shop, venue, station work place has parking for bikes, the building design where you have a central court yard will have racks for bikes and a shed for strollers / prams. Damn I miss it, meanwhile visiting my sister-in-law in outside of San Antonio what would be a 10 minute walk to some cafes and restaurants has to be car trip as it’s impossible to cross the highway on foot.

  • Tyler Young February 11, 2017, 3:27 pm

    I immediately had to look up some examples of New Urbanism cities… The Wikipedia article (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_examples_of_New_Urbanism) and the Congress on New Urbanism’s projects page (https://www.cnu.org/what-we-do/build-great-places) were helpful.

  • FredP February 11, 2017, 3:30 pm

    Another great article from MMM. The concepts here remind me of one of my favorites university courses, Environmental Design Analysis (EDA). While many students referred to that class as “E-Z-A”, because it was not considered a terribly challenging one (admittedly also partially why I signed up for it), I was completely floored by the concepts I learned in that course and how I still reflect upon them in my daily Seattle life or visits to other cities and towns. It is where I first learned about The True Cost of Commuting, poor urban planning and pretty much why I hated growing up in suburban NJ.

    25 years later, as I lock in my mustachian FI plan phase 2 (intrastate geographic arbitrage), part of my plan is to sell my house to developer who will build 2-3 units on the property. The romantic in me initially was against tearing down 100 year old buildings to build 2-3 modern luxury townhomes, but over time I am constantly reminded that higher density is better for so many reasons. The neighborhood was already quite walkable, but with increased housing density, the number of services in easy human-powered proximity has increased as well (rough accounting on increases: 2x coffee shops, 10x microbreweries, 2x grocery, 2x bike lanes, etc.). And the economics are scaling with it: the land price a developer is willing to pay is as high as I can expect on the house sale if I put in about $30K in cosmetic upgrades (plus lots of my own labor). The demand indicates that people (the future townhouse dwellers) are definitely willing to pay top dollar for a neighborhood with high walkability and an easy commute to downtown (dedicated bike or transit lanes!).

    • Catherine Johnson February 13, 2017, 8:17 am

      Don’t do it. This is nonsense development. Keep the existing buildings – don’t you know the greenest building is an existing building? There are plenty of parcels you could develop instead for townhouses. Investigate making another unit within the existing buildings if you are just dying to make more of this existing property.

      • Primal Prosperity February 15, 2017, 10:08 pm

        I agree with Catherine. I used to be a Sustainability Program Manager and Energy Engineer for a high performance building program. The carbon payback from building a brand new LEED platinum is still something like 70 years, compared to if an existing building was just rehabbed.

  • Carl Sergio February 11, 2017, 4:21 pm

    If you want to take it to the next level, two people I’ve seen speak in the last couple years: Peter Kageyama wrote “For the Love of Cities” which is pretty accessible. For militant urbanism (every word of which I agree with), check out Vishaan Chakrabarti’s book “A Country of Cities”. It’s exquisite in content as well as packaging!

  • The Vigilante February 11, 2017, 5:19 pm

    “[H]e has learned that the honeymoon of developer dollars and easy borrowing quickly fades to become a hangover of massive maintenance costs and low tax revenue.”

    “But it has been a long battle, because in order to make a place that is pleasant for people, you literally need to change or disobey the existing suburban building codes.”

    These two quotes ring so true to me. The first is precisely the selling point that needs to be made clear to small towns and cities everywhere. So many have made this mistake, which resulted in unlivable cities with incredibly high taxes that remain desperately strapped for cash. I believe this rush to “freebies” combined with the poor city planning and senseless zoning has more to do with the failure of American cities than any other factors. You can’t force the market to make good decisions!

    Also, interesting history of the development of suburbia! Very understandable and believable…unlike that hack job on Elon Musk, which upset me more than I’m proud to admit.

  • RecoveringCarClown February 11, 2017, 5:24 pm

    I have often dreamed of creating a city like this myself. In my dream, there would always be a fast direct way for normal people to bike and a crazy, fun, banked turns, hills, trees and wood bridges way for the adventurous (like me). I may grow out of this in my 80’s and have to take the direct paved path, but for the next few decades it sounds awesome to get to my destination while enjoying the journey much more.

  • Jeff February 11, 2017, 6:14 pm

    I recently encountered a fantastic documentary on this subject on Netflix, called Bikes Vs. Cars and watched it like 5 times. Los Angeles used to have an elevated boardwalk style bike-only superhighway and the best mass transit system in the world. Then the car manufacturers, through shell companies, bought up and dismantled the transit system in favor of the automobile.

    I live in what I used to think was a very unbikable, very unlivable suburb of Atlanta called Kennesaw. After a couple years of frustration with the traffic, and as an aspiring mustachian, I finally moved to a place right on a dedicated bike path, that goes right to my work, about 4 miles each way. I now bike for all trips under 5 miles, and have discovered many new things about this place. I live across the street from pretty much any kind of store I would ever need including a costco, etc. It is surprisingly walkable, and wonderful for biking, something I never would have believed before I investigated. Just sharing this so others might be inspired to take a good close look at how a well-informed minor relocation could change their reality in meaningful ways. Suburbs don’t necessarily have to suck.

  • Dr-in-Debt February 11, 2017, 7:01 pm


    Jane Jacobs book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” is a classic great read. She was ahead of her time. I highly recommend it.

    One of the only reasons I haven’t sold my overpriced house is that we can walk or bike everywhere. Kids to school, grocery, pharmacy, parks, work and afterschool activities all within 4 miles.

  • Mrs. Picky Pincher February 11, 2017, 7:08 pm

    Very true. The way our cities/roads are laid out in the U.S. is very different to say, Asia or Europe, from what I’ve seen. It’s incredibly wasteful to spread everything out so much and make vehicles such a necessity. Mr. Picky Pincher comes from an architecture background, so things like this always fascinate him. We were talking about the necessary infrastructure that would be required for fully-autonomous vehicles to be on the road. In many ways I think this could fit into a people-first concept like you’re talking about here: roads would be safer, vehicles could be maximized for occupancy (less vehicles), and traffic would flow more quickly.

  • LeoSwag February 11, 2017, 7:14 pm

    MMM, we are clearly of a similar mind in many areas and so I feel obliged to mention a pretty fun computer game called Cities Skyline to check out in your spare time and play around with actually being a city designer. The game is essentially a simulator and very well designed. I’m not sure if bike transportation is built in, which could make your grand design difficult but it’s still a fun sandbox to explore ideas.

  • Linnie Bird February 11, 2017, 7:53 pm

    I use a wheelchair to get around, and mostly, there is no-one else around on the footpaths. I can go for a Sunday roll in good weather and see no-one else on the footpath, no children playing out in the yards, nothing but me and the occasional bird flying over. It saddens me greatly – as an “old duck” who likes striking up conversations with strangers, much like my grandmother did, I find there is mostly nobody about. If it were not for the traffic zooming past, I could even believe that I live in a ghost town these days. When I do come across another person they are often not even aware of the surroundings because they are on the phone or listening to something with headphones. It strikes me that the end of civilisation may be right upon us and we haven’t even noticed. RIP humanity – who faded away, when they weren’t looking…

  • CapitalistRoader February 11, 2017, 8:06 pm

    Planners are closing their eyes to autonomous vehicles which will dramatically change our relationship with the automobile. The cost of car transport should drop by at least half by eliminating the most expensive component, the driver. Consider what else you could be doing rather than piloting an automobile. My bet is that the vast majority of us will subscribe to a car service rather than own an car. There will be all kinds of plans with many different levels of service. I’m guessing that most of us will choose to share rides on our daily commute, with people we vet on social media, and save private cars for the weekends and/or traveling with the family.

    The good news, in the context of this article, is reclaiming all that space now reserved for parking. The downside for planners like Mr. Montgomery is that people will choose to live even farther away from dense city centers. The average commute in the US is something like 25 minutes each way. All of that time is wasted. But what if your commute doubled but you didn’t have to waste your time driving? That hour each way would be a profitable part of your work day. The automobile simply becomes a mobile office. Or restaurant. Or entertainment center.

    For a completely different take on planning, you may want to visit Randall O’Toole’s website The Antiplanner.

  • Michelle February 11, 2017, 8:37 pm

    This is a great article. I recently moved from a walkable neighborhood to a non-walkable one in order to get a bigger house for less money and I really miss my old neighborhood. I’m curious how this would work for the disabled however. My boyfriend recently had hip surgery and if he wanted to go anywhere we had to drive. Walking was out of the question for several weeks.

  • Andrea February 11, 2017, 10:30 pm

    I live in a gentrifying neighborhood of one of the most stereotypically in-love-with-cars cities on the planet: Los Angeles. This city is a stupendous mish mash of roadways, from Euro-narrow two-lanes that are functionally one-lanes because everyone parks on both sides, to 30% grade nail biters, to avenues in old residential areas wide enough for four lanes. We have everything and we have traffic and parking issues aplenty.

    But here’s something I’ve noticed. I see people in their cars, alone, parked, a LOT. This was not the “skeevy looking person passed out in car” kind of deal. This is all kinds of people, all ages, all kinds of cars. On any kind of street. I started thinking about this. I started looking to see what they were doing. Often, they were reading. Or smoking. Or napping. Or listening to music. Finally, it dawned on me. They are INTROVERTING.

    25% of people are introverts. And if you work with people and live with people and are surrounded by people people people, what can you do in a few extra minutes of time each day, without going up into the mountains or checking into a hotel, or taking WAAAAY too long in the private bathroom at work? You get your solo time in your car. It’s safe, it’s yours, and you can take it anywhere. In New York the other car costs might be just too much for this to be an option, but in Los Angeles I believe that solo car occupancy is one way that folks are filling a psychological need.

    It’s an inefficient solution, to be sure. But it’s one to ponder. I do.


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