A few days ago my friend and blogger extraordinaire Brandon Donnelly wrote about how people in big cities walk faster. It would seem obvious for anyone who has come from a smaller town to a city like Toronto, or vice versa, that people in the big cities have a faster pace – and now data is backing that up.

But it made me think – why? I don’t have a scientific answer, but I’m going to synthesize some thoughts.Essentially, walking faster in big cities is subconsciously part of a more productive urban economy. I’ll explain below.

Proximity -> Speed -> Productivity

Edward Glaesser’s great book “Triumph of the City” breaks down how modern cities with dense, vertical living is allowing us to be more productive and increase wealth generation. Human proximity and the opportunity for collaboration in urban areas underpins this: the more of us their are closer together, the more productive we become.

This is proximity creating productivity, but I think speed is an important intermediary between the input and output. Proximity in urban areas allows a decrease in the actual time it takes to accomplish an important driver of wealth creation.

What is this driver and how are they impacted by proximity?

Learning more, more quickly

Cities allow thousands of small interactions on a daily basis that those in more rural communities would never have access to. These small interactions allow people to learn new things, test ideas, challenge perspectives, and innovative very quickly.

This is a critical aspect for mastering things in life, as described by Daniel Coyle in The Talent Code. The most successful ways of learning and mastering new skills is breaking down the skill into small, miniature components of that skill and repeating them over and over. This is what is happening on a daily basis in cities. People are talking, watching, and learning how to be more productive through bite-sized interactions that are occurring consistently around them. Compare this with their rural counterparts, who might only get a handful of these kinds of informal interactions every day – if not fewer.


This graph by Jessica Hagy cleverly explains how innovation is driven by increased communication. As Harvard Business Review explores in more detail, the success of Google and other large corporations has been their ability to grow innovation productivity by creating an environment that encourages constant idea generation and sharing.

Applied to the city, this concept reflects the ability for many people to communicate quickly, learn from one another, and increase their productivity.

Proximity (in cities) allows for speed (in learning how to do something) which in turn allows for increased productivity.

Speedy people

So what does this have to do with how fast people walk? In my view, it’s a by-product of a living environment that allows for and rewards increased interaction as I described. In a small town, it really doesn’t matter how fast you walk – you’re going to pass the same three stores, see the same 20 people, and be exposed to the same ideas. In an urban setting – that changes. Proximity allows for speed inherently, but  we continue to respond to the positive reaction these interactions generate. You see more, you learn more, you do more, you produce more.

A New York minute is fast because, well, those minutes are valuable.

Mackenzie Keast
Mackenzie is a Partner with Distl, and provides urban design and planning expertise. Hailing from BC, Mackenzie came to Toronto to help build a better cities here and around the globe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>