Return Home

It's Alive?

Back to Episode

walking boots walking boots (LexnGer/flickr)

Reporter Aaron Scott brings us the story of Sxip Shirey who avoided New York City most of his life. But as an aspiring musician, he decided that moving there was a necessary evil. Then, one night on a roof overlooking the skyline--he had an epiphany that completely changed the way he saw the city.

Meanwhile, every city has its own unique feel -- but where does that feeling come from? Bob Levine, Professor of Psychology at California State University, found a way to take the pulse of a city...and get a little bit closer to locating its heart.

Then, physicists Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt argue that the pace of a city has an underlying logic--a logic they believe they've unlocked with one tidy mathematical formula. Jonah Lehrer helps explain what the math reveals -- and misses -- about cities.

Read more:

Robert Levine's A Geography of Time


Luis Bettencourt, Jonah Lehrer, Dr. Robert Levine, Sxip Shirey and Geoffrey West

Produced by:

Aaron Scott

Comments [24]

B Beckmann

Please post links to relevant data/websites (from a former New Yorker now in the frustratingly slow American Southwest).

Apr. 17 2016 03:00 PM
Gregory Slater from east palo alto, ca

Sample sizes? Distribution functions? Error bars? etc? Publish the raw data, so we can see if this is unmitigated horse----, or not.

"In God we trust. Everyone else has to show their data." - Deming

That's what a real laboratory has to do.


Greg Slater

Apr. 17 2016 02:10 PM
stef weaver from Vancouver, WA

I am completely absorbed by this concept, it's incredible! I do humbly suggest that human stress may play a role in the speedy pace of a city, possibly that electric feeling may even be a biochemical footprint of passers-by?

Apr. 16 2016 09:38 PM
Katie from Chi ca go

Is the fact that Dubliners walk faster than New Yorkers, although their population is much much smaller an anomaly or due to some other characteristic of the two cities? Or did I not understand that part right?

I also agree with the other comments that it seems really important that you guys let us know where your research is published, so that we can look more closely at it ourselves. It seems like you want to promote inquiry and analysis, so listing your sources seems like it should be a really important part of your work. Do you list it somewhere that I haven't seen yet?

Thanks for all of these stories--I love thinking about them.

Jun. 13 2015 11:02 PM
Steve P from Arizona

I have one problem with all of this. What we're really discussing here is city centers. When people say NYC, I think most of them are really talking about Manhattan. I grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, near Brooklyn College, and the pace of life there was miles different from Manhattan. People going about there daily lives, i.e shopping, playing, etc, at nowhere near the pace of Manhattan. In some ways getting on the IRT (I'm dating myself) at the "Junction" and getting off in "the City" was like going to a different world. I don't think the pace of life is very fast on Staten Island either. How can you be in a rush going to work on the ferry?

Dec. 23 2012 11:09 AM
Scott Alberts from Philadelphia, PA

I can't believe that nobody's asked the most important question - What is the name of the band that was playing in the church that Jonah called "the best music in the world?" What church is that?

Nov. 30 2012 12:05 PM
Ray Audette from Dallas Texas

Kleiber's law, named after Max Kleiber's biological work in the early 1930s, is the observation that, for the vast majority of animals, an animal's metabolic rate scales to the ¾ power of the animal's mass. Symbolically: if q0 is the animal's metabolic rate, and M the animal's mass, then Kleiber's law states that q0 ~ M^¾. Thus an elephant, having a mass about 200,000 times that of a mouse, will have require only (roughly) 10,000 times calories than the mouse to maintain weight.

After all, aren't cities biological entities?

Nov. 29 2012 02:33 AM
Franco Campanello from Boston

Listening to this segment about cities on the radio today reminded me of a short article in the New Yorker a few years back. I seems that the city has engaged a company out of Denver to produce a GIS "map" in 3-D stored in Cyberspace, or the Bronx, that has every building, light pole etc in the city on it. Every object nailed down. The anatomy. Presumably it is updated. I thought, how neat it would be to see this map over time, like a film, and see how the city evolves. Over a century's would take on a unique growth pattern, and life.

Dec. 03 2011 04:59 PM

I'm trying to do a project on mathematics in nature, and this radiolab is the basis. The only problem is, I can't actually find the formula that is mentioned so I can't finish. Help?

May. 25 2011 09:43 PM

There's a new paper on the arXiv that rebuts Bettencourt & West:
Re-analysis ... shows that the data cannot distinguish between power laws and other functional forms ... and that size predicts relatively little of the variation between cities.

The striking appearance of scaling in previous work is largely artifact of using extensive quantities (city-wide totals) rather than intensive ones (per-capita rates).

Feb. 27 2011 01:09 PM
Serena from Queens, NY

Just listened to the segment about footsteps in cities. As a resident of NYC, I couldn't help but wonder if time of year was accounted for in this study. I myself walk much faster in the winter since it is freezing out and I want to get indoors as quickly as possible...

Just a thought. RadioLab rocks--thank you so much for always putting out such a valuable, informative & oftentimes touching show

Feb. 12 2011 07:35 PM
Peter MacPherson

You are driving me mad with your "I will be brief intro" asking for a donation... This intro is showing up every new podcast and even must have been added to old podcasts... after I downloaded them last year.
OK I give up. What do I have to pay and where... (What URL can I go to ) to get a clean podcast without your constant need to sell yourslf for another contribution...?

Dec. 31 2010 12:57 PM
tanner from LA

Please, please post links to relevant works of Drs. West & Bettencourt (can't believe you don't do that already ... sheesh).

Dec. 21 2010 06:59 PM
BradyDale from Philadelphia

Ah-ha! Here's the credentials. That was a little hard to sort out.

I had the question about density, too. I mean, from the "organisms" perspective, does St Louis really stop at the city lines or do the inner ring suburbs count? What about the next ring of suburbs?

Dec. 10 2010 09:40 AM
Mikey K from Chinatown

Does population density matter? How does Los Angeles compare to New York?

Nov. 23 2010 05:32 AM

The whole idea of walking speed and other statistics being a function of population density seems rather specious--surely we have more degrees of freedom than molecules in a closed system.

Nov. 07 2010 12:19 PM
dchilds from Portland, OR

As an architecture student I was hoping to hear a bit more about city creation, and perhaps a word or two from some urban designers or planners. To overlook their impact on city form and activity seems to me a major oversight with this episode.

While I seek out everyword and episode these guys put together, I found it hard to understand how they completely missed the boat on this episode in talking to "experts" who extrapolated their conclusions from how fast people walked. I think the questions as to what makes cities unique and special are the pertinent issues here and I finished this episode wishing they gave us more...

Nov. 06 2010 06:24 PM
Jake T from Decatur, IL

Listening to this segment today in the car, I had to yell at Jad on the radio when he said he found it unbelievable that the differences in cities make up a relatively small percentage of their characteristics.

Jad might find this unbelievable, but those of us who don't hail from big cities (and here I'm talking about myself in the plural to sound more authoritative) don't find it unbelievable at all: most big cities seem largely the same. Lots of interstates, traffic, a big airport, a downtown area w/ tall buildings, probably one or two sports stadiums there, too. The nitty-gritty specifics, the things that make each city unique, well, they're a lot harder to pick out when you don't spend all your time in a city.

Nov. 06 2010 12:58 AM

Thank you Tony! I spent forever listening for this song, can't believe I missed it!

Oct. 26 2010 04:15 PM

Lisa B, i agree with your call for Radiolab to credit the music used in the show. The Iron & Wine song you are looking for is "Sixteen, Maybe Less" from the "In the Reins" album... a collaboration between Iron & Wine and Calexico.

Also, the song from 4:00 - 4:40 is from the band Flying Saucer Attack.

Oct. 25 2010 11:20 AM
Ted Lattis from Brooklyn

I'm going to cry "small sample size" on that walking speed experiment. :P

Oct. 25 2010 10:30 AM
Lisa B from South Carolina

Hi RadioLab. The sound and music you include in your shows is the major draw. You used to include the names & artists of songs you included in your episodes. But with this new design, I can't find it. Specifically, I'm looking for the name of the song you played in this episode, I believe it is a song by Iron and Wine.

Oct. 22 2010 04:28 PM
Alex Alemi from Ithaca, NY

I'd appreciate if you could link to relevant papers that you discuss. I think it would be the right thing to do, and it would save me some time, since I tend to look up the papers anyway.

Oct. 17 2010 04:44 PM
RyeBob from NYC

The idea that there is a correlation between pace and development / size of a city has an intuitive feel of being right. However, on the way to work in NYC today, I observed more than a few people using their PDAs/Blackberries/iPhones while attempting to walk. Clearly, they were seeking to stay in touch and keep work rolling, but by dividing their attention, the were forced to walk slowly, thereby reducing the average speed of the crowd around them. Any thoughts on how this fits with the macro pace/development theory?

Oct. 15 2010 11:03 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.