Slowing things down

Slowing things down

Who doesn't love a good top 10 list? They're short, easy to read, and for the sake of us not having to think too hard, have already decided the answer for us. A favorite top 10 genre of mine is the top 10 cities list. We've all seen them - cheapest cities, most outdoorsy, booming tech scenes, etc... We search for our city in those lists and feel great when it is listed. When it isn't, we question the lists validity. Perhaps even our own. But, I would never base where I'd want to live solely on some list since more likely than not, a generic list will miss certain criteria that are important to me.

I bring this topic up because as many of my fans know, my wife and I are moving to Durham, NC in a few weeks. But what they don't know, what keeps them up at night, is why?

So instead of pointing them to some random top 10 list that Durham happens to be on, I outlined a number of considerations that are important to my wife and I in determining where to live. These will be inputs to my Overall Best Urban Center for Ilan and Ruti Index, aka OBUCFIRI, aka BCIR.

There are plenty of great cities in the U.S that we would consider living in, but for the sake of brevity, I narrowed it down to Austin (AT), Durham (DH), San Francisco (SF), Denver (DV) and New York/Brooklyn (BK). Since Durham is much smaller than the others, to even it out, I included the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area (RDU) as a proxy. It's totally legit. Also, since these cities have a lot in common - think farmers’ markets, young & liberal people, coffee shops with Edison lightbulbs, diverse neighborhoods, tech opportunities, etc... some criteria is a wash and I skip over it.

On to the inputs...

1. Fitness - "easy access is the best kind of access" (Man, Ilan; September, 2010)

For us, easy access to nature is important: we like to run and bike outside - so good weather and quick access to low-traffic areas are huge. A varied elevation profile and a swimmable body of water are both wins.

As it relates to interesting places to hike and bike, Brooklyn draws the short stick. To get to the nearest quality ride, I need to leave Brooklyn, head North West across Manhattan and enter Jersey via the GWB! Just getting there takes me over an hour, and to bypass crazy traffic this needs to be done no later than 7 AM. There are only so many loops you can do around Prospect or Central Park before you start getting dizzy, and while New York has tons of bike lanes, that doesn't mean that everyone adheres to the rules. But I digress…

San Francisco certainly has a bike friendly culture. And a swimmable body of water. However, sans wetsuit, the ocean is really cold!

The Mile High City, on the other hand, is a haven for these types of activities, especially bikeability and cycling in general, since it has a few hills not too far away. And I think skiing is a thing. Durham has a surprisingly large number of hiking and running trails and at least makes the list for bikeability. And for weekend trips, it has access to mountains and a body of water. Austin has a large number of rides around the city, of various elevation and distance.

Related to fitness (and culture, and transportation) is a city's walkability. New York wins (no need to look this up), but how do the others rank? I used this site to figure it out. It's pretty neat because you can input the zip code of your city to get neighborhood level results. Durham, for example, has a walk score of only 28, but the zip code around the downtown has a score of 83 - very walkable. The same is true of sprawling cities like Denver and Austin.

Fitness ScoreBike score + # of mountains and swimmable water within a 1 hour drive + # of hiking/biking trails (per the respective city website) + some arbitrary amount based on what I think.

Fitness Score Fitness Rank
Austin 75 4
Brooklyn/NY 80 3
Denver 100 1
Durham 85 2
San Francisco 80 3

2. Cost of living - "it's fun when things cost less"

This site provides a detailed breakdown of various cost of living items, and allows you to compare cities. For example, 16 oz of local cheese in Durham is $4.83 compared to $10 in New York, and $9 in San Francisco. Obviously the hipsters are driving up the prices.

In Denver, you can get a pair of Levi's for about $8 less than in New York. Also, compared to New York, beer in the supermarket is slightly more expensive in Durham, but a bottle of beer at the bar is cheaper. And milk seems to be more expensive in Durham. 

Another important factor - the price of a bowl of ramen. Here in Brooklyn, we go to Chuko for our fix, where the ramen is $13. Turns out that Dashi Ramen in Durham also has $13 ramen. In Austin, however, it's closer to $9.

It's all a bit moot, however, when you consider the difference in rent. Monthly rent for a furnished 900 square foot apartment in a so-called expensive area: in Durham is $1,580 and in Austin $2,100. In New York? $3,600. That's my first sign of suspicion in this data - there's no way the rent's that cheap in New York.

COL Score: Accounting for the expenses above with averaging some other sites, the COL scores are (lower is better):

Cost of Living Score Cost of Living Rank Fitness Rank
Austin 110 2 4
Brooklyn/NY 200 5 3
Denver 165 3 1
Durham 90 1 2
San Francisco 185 4 3

3. Friends - "facebook friends don't count."

Friends are an absolutely integral part of our lives. Friends make everything better. Technically they make things exponentially better.

 Because we need a data chart.

Because we need a data chart.

Living outside of New York or Toronto would force us to make new friends. Luckily, we already have friends in San Francisco, Denver and Durham. Sorry Austin, you lose.

Friend Score: 1 + the natural logarithm of the # of friends we have in that city, rounded up.

Friend Score Friend Rank Cost of Living Rank Fitness Rank
Austin 1 4 2 4
Brooklyn/NY 5 1 5 3
Denver 3 3 3 1
Durham 3 3 1 2
San Francisco 4 2 4 3

4. Culture - "funk parties, farm shares, liberal people, performing arts, history, community"

As far as I'm concerned, it's near impossible to beat NYC/Brooklyn on this. I know that it's full of transplants and hipsters and many say devoid of its own culture, but according to the way I define it, it's the bees knees (1920s slang - perhaps the only thing we have in common).

We all know about SXSW and Austin's burgeoning farmer's market scene. Ok I kinda made that last one up, but apparently its true

Durham has a recently built performing arts center, a music scene and good southern food. DH also ranks pretty high on the farmers market list.

I'm also pretty biased towards the East Coast, with its older history and more diverse communities. Having said that, I'm sure Denver has its own culture. And San Francisco is a cool place too.

Culture Score: # of music & art venues (easily Google-able) + (20 ÷ ranking on some "best of" foodie list) + the "city-wide diversity index" + 10 points if the state went for Obama in 2012 (+5 if a swing state).

Culture Score Culture Rank Friend Rank Cost of Living Rank Fitness Rank
Austin 87 5 4 2 4
Brooklyn/NY 133 1 1 5 3
Denver 98 3 3 3 1
Durham 93 4 3 1 2
San Francisco 107 2 2 4 3

5. Weather - "damn you the entire North East!"

This one is pretty matter-of-fact. New York blows wet, dirty and useless snow.

Durham is nice, albeit too hot and muggy in the summer. Austin has great weather - though it too is considerably hot in the summer. Denver is great because of the sun and seasons. San Francisco is perpetually almost really good.

Weather Score:

  1. +1 for every month between 50 and 90 degrees, -1 for every month below 50 and above 90
  2. (100 - Annual precipitation (inches))/10.
  3. 20 - # of days with new snowfalls. Denver gets pass. The snow there is amazing and functional. Though to be fair, we don't ski.
Weather Score Weather Rank Culture Rank Friend Rank Cost of Living Rank Fitness Rank
Austin 31 1 5 4 2 4
Brooklyn/NY 15 5 1 1 5 3
Denver 25 4 3 3 3 1
Durham 30 2 4 3 1 2
San Francisco 26 3 2 2 4 3

6. Vocations - "we work in tech"

Since we couldn't live in a city without some tech, this category is pretty straightforward. San Francisco has the most, New York has a ton, but it appears so do DurhamDenver and Austin. Note that the rankings are less of a commentary on tech opportunities and more of a commentary on where to live (COL, jobs, lifestyle) if you happen to work in tech.

Vocation Score: (30 - the average ranking from these two lists) + 20 points for every top notch university with a strong CS or Statistics program within an hour (sorry Boulder, you're too far in rush hour).

Vocation Score Vocation Rank Weather Rank Culture Rank Friend Rank Cost of Living Rank Fitness Rank
Austin 42 5 1 5 4 2 4
Brooklyn/NY 56 2 5 1 1 5 3
Denver 45 4 4 3 3 3 1
Durham 51 3 2 4 3 1 2
San Francisco 61 1 3 2 2 4 3

7. Transportation Infrastructure - "cars bad, bike lanes good"

We also love to travel. Austin and Durham make this list for best airports. New York, on the other hand, has 3 huge international airports, but for a number of reasons, all 3 make the 10 worst airports list. 

Car traffic sucks. Many weekend destinations are decided, in part, upon whether I could get there without having to enter Manhattan. If you've ever had to go into the city on a weekend and found yourself in lower Manhattan, you know what I mean. However, it appears that Austin is just as bad, along with San Francisco, and Denver isn't far behind. Raleigh-Durham definitely has the least amount of traffic. Benefits of being smaller.

Lastly - public transit. Again, New York is the clear winner with its very accessible subway and bus system (except for the G - but who really needs to shuttle from South Brooklyn to Williamsburg anyway?) San Francisco has the BART, and Durham barely edges out Denver, both of which easily beat out Austin on this list.

Transportation Score: +10 for every international airport. +5 if it's on the "best airports" list and -5 if it's on the "worst airport" list . +(100 - composite traffic index). +(Trips per capita/5)

Transportation Score Transportation Rank Vocation Rank Weather Rank Culture Rank Friend Rank C.O.L Rank Fitness Rank
Austin 79 5 5 1 5 4 2 4
Brooklyn/NY 147 1 2 5 1 1 5 3
Denver 103 3 4 4 3 3 3 1
Durham 108 2 3 2 4 3 1 2
San Francisco 100 4 1 3 2 2 4 3

Formula time

Now with all of the considerations out of the way, time to calculate the Overall Best Urban Center for Ilan and Ruti Index, aka OBUCFIRI, aka BCIR. 

BCIR = (Fitness - COL + Culture + Weather + Vocation + Transportation)*Friends

Before we tally it up, you'll notice that Friends are multiplicative. Remember, they matter a lot. But since where you live will likely be skewed too high, I'm going to ignore that for the final tally. Just know, however, that Friends would have been very important.

Final tally:

  • Durham: 277
  • Brooklyn: 231
  • Denver: 206
  • Austin: 204
  • San Francisco: 189

Pretty tight! Durham is the clear winner, with Brooklyn taking first runner up. Interesting that Denver and Austin get essentially the same rating but are quite different places. Sorry Silicon Valley, maybe if I counted Oakland it would've shook out differently.

And with that, we bid farewell to Gotham and get ready for new adventure down South!



P.S. This is absolutely not how we decided where to live, but it's vaguely similar. Getting into Grad School also helped.

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