The Value and Efficiency of Small Block Structure

Tom Vanderbilt has a great series on the pedestrian over at Slate (part 1, part 2, and part 3). Vanderbilt has been doing great work since I first discovered him with his book Traffic (and presumably earlier as he’s a great writer and diligent researcher). As time permits, I’ll unpack other parts from this series, but for now I want to focus on a few nuggets from part 2, which digs into some of the computational and empirically observed physics of pedestrianism, walking. ht to Mike Dunlop for alerting me to this series.

Within this piece, Vanderbilt speaks with several experts on pedestrians, one of which has created a logarithmic modeling program not dissimilar to vehicular traffic modeling. The person he speaks to at the company who developed “Legion,” the modeling program, drops two incredibly poignant and significant nuggets. The first:


At the heart of the company’s algorithms is the idea that a “person, when they walk, is seeking to minimize their dissatisfaction.”

When I read this I nearly jumped out of my chair. Before I could express myself (to myself), Vanderbilt beat me to the punchline, “like life itself.” Yes. This is an inescapable truth. To understand cities, understand people. To understand complex systems look for the simplest rules operating the system. In the case of people, it is emotion. Minimizing dissatisfaction.