Meta: This is a personal post. Almost like a journal entry, but also loosely intended to be enjoyable and/or useful to other people.

(Cross-posted on my personal blog.)

Why do people live where they live? Everyone's got a different answer.

I lived in Vegas for about five years. Why did I live there? My answer was pretty simple. My girlfriend went to school there. So she needed to be there for school. And I wanted to be with her. So I lived in Vegas.

But she graduated at the end of 2021. I work remotely, and she's open to whatever, so we were no longer tied to Vegas, and it was time to decide where we want to live.

Well, there are a lot of cool options on the table. So at first our plan was to live for something like three months at four or five different places to try em out and see what we think. But then, instead, we decided to just move to Portland, the top place on our list. Well, we're currently about five months into a year-long lease and are probably going to buy something in the next year or two.

Why did we decide to do this? To start, let's go over what we were looking for.

The big thing is walkability. There are so many reasons for this.

  • Cars are expensive.
  • Having to walk places is makes it easy to be active, which is good for both health and happiness.
  • Walkable areas are awesome for a bunch of reasons.
  • Cars are one of the most risky things when it comes to dying early, and I am weird and prefer to avoid that risk.

Unfortunately, walkable places tend to be quite expensive. Think: big cities like New York, Boston and SF. Places that expensive would really make it harder to retire early, something I'm pursuing, so I'd like to avoid them. But when you filter for cities that are both walkable and not crazy expensive, well there actually aren't a lot left! Here is the list I came up with:

  • Portland
  • Philly
  • Denver
  • Miami

And then as a ~second tier:

  • DC
  • Austin
  • Pittsburgh
  • San Diego
  • Boston
  • Smaller towns

Then there are also places outside of America, like Mexico, Costa Rica, Amsterdam, Berlin and Thailand. Perhaps we'll revisit that in the future. It'd make seeing friends and family really difficult, and my job requires me to be in America. Plus language barriers would be annoying.

Oh, and my girlfriend likes to smoke weed, so we want to be somewhere where she can do that.

Working backwards from the end of tier two...

There are some smaller towns (as opposed to real cities) I've been to where you'd sorta be able to get by without a car. Huntington on Long Island in New York is an example I stumbled across recently. They have a main street, and a few other streets that are effectively main street with a bunch of cool stuff. You'd probably be able to get by without a car in a place like that. And I have when I lived in Gainesville, Culver City and Vegas in the past. It's just inconvenient. I think it's worth paying more for a place where you are less constrained.

Boston is a pretty cool city. I visited it a few times. But it's pretty expensive. And it gets quite cold. That's a pretty big deal I think! Weather isn't as big a deal if you have a car since you'd just be spending your time inside when the weather is bad and using your car to go from point A to point B. But since we're going car free, it's a lot more annoying when the weather is bad. You don't want to be spending 20 minutes outside in the cold walking somewhere.

San Diego is beautiful. But it's not the most walkable. The downtown area is solid, but if you want to go beyond that they don't have subways to get you around. Plus it's expensive.

Pittsburgh I have a special place in my heart for. I went to school there. At Pitt. And I love the Steelers. And it's super cheap! Awesome! But it also just doesn't seem like it'd make sense. The downtown area is super small and ~all commercial, not residential. Moving outside the downtown area, they don't have subways to get you around. So it's not walkable. And it's very hilly. And it gets pretty cold. So it doesn't seem like a place where you'd be too happy without a car. Which is too bad. I love Pittsburgh.

Austin is intriguing. I hear it is just a really cool place to be. And the downtown area seems pretty walkable. But there are some issues that knock it out of tier one. It's hot. I really hate the heat. Like with the cold, it'd be annoying being without a car in bad weather. There aren't trains taking you outside of downtown. So if you want to venture beyond downtown you need to take the buses, which isn't great. And it's not as expensive as places like San Diego and Boston, but it's still on the expensive side.

DC is also intriguing. They say amazing things about the public transportation there. That's very appealing. I feel like that's something that'll really make us happy in the long run and might be worth paying more money for. The weather can get cold in DC, but I think that's mitigated at least somewhat by the fact that we'd be spending more time on subways and less time on foot there. The thing that keeps it out of tier one is that it is a bit pricey. But it's close to tier one I think.

Miami is pretty cool. And it's surprisingly affordable there! Midtown and Miami Beach, it seems like you can get a place for something like $300-400k. Pretty cool for such a beautiful place to live! It's also surprisingly walkable there. It's pretty urban and concentrated with cool shuttles. Well, it's walkable within a given neighborhood. Going between neighborhood seems rough. In eg. NYC you can utilize the fantastic subway system to go from Greenwich Village to Harlem in about a half hour. But if you want to go from Miami Beach to Little Havanna in Miami, it'd be an hour and a half and you have to take the bus. Plus it gets quite hot.

Denver seems like an awesome place to be. I like the vibes there. But like too many other places, the public transportation just doesn't really cut it if you want to live there without a car. It's more geared to get commuters into the city than to help people who are already in the city get around. The downtown area itself seems reasonably walkable, but venturing beyond that you either need a car or be willing to sit on the buses for a while. And it's cold.

Philly took me by surprise. Being such a big city, I initially just assumed that it would be similar to something like Boston or Seattle as far as being expensive. But no! Somehow it's super cheap! Center City, Fairmount and Fishtown are the three areas I looked at, and average prices are around $300k with it being plausible to find something nice in the mid $200ks. Wow. And it's pretty walkable with solid transit. Something that hit me is that it'd take as long to get from Philly to NYC (via an Amtrack) as it would to get from Miami Beach to Little Havana. So then: what's the catch? My college friends who are familiar with the area said it's dirty and can be dangerous. I'm not the type of person who is bothered by either of those things much though. So for me the downside that stands out is the cold, but given the other benefits, we can probably live with the cold.

But Portland is just so great. Philly would be good too, but Portland is just better.

To me, and to a slightly lesser extent my girlfriend, the weather is just perfect. The temperatures range pretty much from the 40s to the 80s, which is moderate enough to be comfortable outside. Sometimes it hits the 30s and 90s, but that's not too common. People complain about it being gray and cloudy, but having lived here from January to July, we haven't found that. Sometimes it is, but it's kind of a nice change of pace, and we both find that there is something charming and relaxing about gray and rainy weather. If it were all the time it'd be annoying, but as a change of pace every so often it's nice.

The other thing is the rain. That too we haven't found to be a big deal, and also find it to be charming once in a while. The thing that we didn't realize until moving here is that there is a difference between rain and, er, mist? Most of the time when it "rains" in Portland, it is more like a mist. It's light enough where you don't really get wet. Which surprised me, because before moving here, in my mind, when it rains outside you will get wet. Anyway, when it mists it doesn't really get in your way. And that's why they say you'll look like a tourist if you use an umbrella in Portland. It's not that Portlanders are tough and don't mind being drenched. I haven't found that it rains (not mists) often enough to be an inconvenience. When it legitimately rains, I just stay inside. It's nice to relax and stay inside sometiems anyway, so I make my inside days the days where it rains.

So, it's pretty awesome how the weather is moderate in Portland. But it's also very beautiful here. All of that "rain" helps lots of cool stuff grow, I hear, so it's very green here in Portland, even in the urban areas. And in some areas like Nob Hill, "colorful" would be a better word than "green". There's lots of flowers and bushes and stuff that are also purple, blue, yellow, etc. In a place like NYC you have to go to Central Park to get that nature feel, but here it is a lot more interspersed with the urban environment, which is really cool.

And it's nice being in close proximity to nice nature stuff (I'm so articulate aren't I). This past week I was walking along 23rd street, which is a main street with lots of shops. Then just a few blocks west on 30th and a little bit north, about a 15 minute walk, I arrived at the Lower MacLeay Trail. Check it out. It's amazing. I think it's really cool how you could go from urban (Midtown, Pearl district), to charming semi-urban (Nob Hill) to straight up being in the forest so quickly. And then venturing out further, there are all of these great waterfalls and other nature-y things that I haven't had the chance to experience yet, but hear is absolutely amazing.

Speaking of venturing out, the public transportation is pretty solid here in Portland. There is a nice trolley car that runs in a loop and makes it easy to get around when you're downtown. But there is also the MAX train that ventures out in five different directions, maybe 45 minutes or so in each direction. So if you want to venture away from downtown, for a doctors appointment or special restaurant or something, you can. Perfect. Even if you only end up needing to do so once every three months, it's just nice. It makes you feel like you're not "trapped". And the buses are solid here too.

The food is also very good here. There are good expensive options, but I really like how there are also lots of genuinely good options in the $10-15 price range. Living in Vegas before, I felt like even though there were good pricy places, we were missing those $ and $$ places. At least the good $ and $$ places. And I love food carts. The small business vibe is awesome. I love being at the food cart pods. It's fun getting to sample things from different carts, especially in a larger group.

What else? My girlfriend says the weed is amazing. My understanding is that you can't transport weed between states, so Vegas can't get weed from Cali or Oregon. I guess the ecology of Oregon is good for weed. And it's cheap here.

There is a (multiple?) poker room here. So if I want to play poker, I can do it. But I like how it's not as convenient as Vegas. I don't want to be tempted to play every weekend.

Price-wise, you can get something for $300-400k here in Portland. That's a step below other cities like Austin and DC, at least in the downtown areas.

Oh, homelessness. Right. That's a big drawback for a lot of people. Here's my take on it. I agree with Mr. Money Mustache when he says that Safety is an Expensive Illusion. The homeless situation doesn't actually lead to much risk. It probably does lower rent prices though, in which case I'm glad we have it! In most areas, the homelessness isn't concentrated enough to really get in your way. Chinatown is the exception. So if concentrated homelessness bothers you, just avoid Chinatown.

Also, utilize a little bit of street smarts. If you see someone who looks a little physically unstable, cross the street and don't get close to them. OTOH, if someone is peacefully sleeping in their tent, don't worry about it. They are not going to randomly jump out of their tent and attack you as you walk by in the middle of the day with lots of other people around. I promise. I guess there are in-between cases where you can use your judgement based on your risk tolerance. Ie. if you feel uncomfortable, just cross the street. IME the concentration of homeless isn't high enough in most areas where such street crossing would be more than a minor inconvenience.

That said, peace of mind is important. If you can achieve peace of mind via street smarts and crossing the street if a situation makes you uncomfortable, then great. If you can't, then Portland isn't the place for you. And there's nothing wrong with that. There's plenty of situations where I struggle to achieve peace of mind even though the logical part of me doesn't think I should struggle.

The biking in Portland is... solid I guess? Idk. It's not really good enough where I'd feel comfortable doing much biking in the streets. It's better than other places in the US I guess, but it still doesn't cross the relevant threshold for me.

Personally, I enjoy the whole Portland Weird thing. It's refreshing and fun. I could definitely see others being put off by it though.

It's nice being near a body of water -- the Willamette River -- for when you are craving that.

Where we currently live, it happens to be a pretty perfect location: one block from a grocery store that is open until midnight, three blocks from the gym, and three blocks from where my girlfriend works.

Oh, dogs! We have a cute little boy and he is welcomed everywhere! I run into people who carry around dog treats even though they don't have dogs (with them at the moment), just because they expect to bump into dogs and feel compelled to have treats available to give to them!

I really like how it is so small business/mom-and-pop-shop oreinted. There aren't as many big chains here. It makes me feel good to support them, and especially with food, I feel like the value is usually better.

https://www.laughspdx.com/ is available for stand up comedy! Pretty solid! I love stand up comedy.

There is a university downtown. I haven't utilized it yet, but there's something cool about being near a university. Plus I like college town vibes.

I don't drink, but I hear the local breweries are legit and noteworthy.

I know some people say that Portland can be lacking in diversity. I really don't know where they get that from though. Look around, there are so many different types of white people!

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Interesting that Canada wasn't even considered as an option :) Vancouver and Toronto fit most of your requirements, though they are on the expensive side.

Good point! I in fact did not really consider Canada. Although like you said, those two cities seem like they're on the expensive side. In retrospect I think I should have looked harder at various options in Canada though, but right now I think we like Portland enough where it wouldn't be worth the effort :)

Yeah, too late now, also Portland OR is great by all accounts, so probably the right decision regardless. 

DC:

  • The subway is as great as they say. It might give you permanent brain damage though. Until conclusive trustworthy information about that becomes publicly available, it's probably worth it to wear a cheap P100 mask indoors and to eat outdoors.
  • The housing can be cheaper depending on the area. It's worth thinking about.
  • I never noticed unusually cold weather in DC. Maybe compared to the west coast, sure. It's the summer heat and humidity that's the problem; if you get a cheaper place with no A/C, buying a window unit is necessary, and still saves a ton of money.
  • Jobs. You have to send out a ludicrously large amount of applications at the beginning, but once you're in, a smart person with the most basic quant skills can get all kinds of bizarre, interesting jobs (e.g. python, R, even a couple college-level statistics classes)

Cars:

  • Cars give a competitive advantage over other people. The social signalling alone more than pays for it, and the signalling value pales in comparison to the instrumental value. Some people prefer to be the change they want to see, but abstaining from having access to a car is like burning half of your money to help the government slow down inflation.

The subway is as great as they say. It might give you permanent brain damage though. Until conclusive trustworthy information about that becomes publicly available, it's probably worth it to wear a cheap P100 mask indoors and to eat outdoors.

My assessment of the risk is different. I do have a P100 that I'd wear at the airport, but I don't think the risk is high enough right now to wear in subways. I do think it's worth wearing a N95 though if it's crowded, which I do.

The housing can be cheaper depending on the area. It's worth thinking about.

Yeah that is true. I actually talked to a real estate agent actually to discuss the areas. It does seem like there are some more affordable areas. It's just that they probably wouldn't be the areas I'd want to hang out in as much, and so I'd be spending a good amount of the time on the subways commuting into the more central areas. Which wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, to be clear.

I never noticed unusually cold weather in DC. Maybe compared to the west coast, sure. It's the summer heat and humidity that's the problem; if you get a cheaper place with no A/C, buying a window unit is necessary, and still saves a ton of money.

Oh ok. I actually was just assuming that it'd be similar to NY, where I grew up, and it gets cold there. But it also gets hot as well, yeah, heat and humidity are also a problem! Which makes me realize how much I love the moderate weather in Portland.

Jobs. You have to send out a ludicrously large amount of applications at the beginning, but once you're in, a smart person with the most basic quant skills can get all kinds of bizarre, interesting jobs (e.g. python, R, even a couple college-level statistics classes)

Personally I work remotely as a programmer so my location doesn't really matter, but that is cool to hear that about DC. I've experienced having to send out ludicrously large amounts of applications at times as well. Not fun at all.

Cars give a competitive advantage over other people. The social signalling alone more than pays for it, and the signalling value pales in comparison to the instrumental value. Some people prefer to be the change they want to see, but abstaining from having access to a car is like burning half of your money to help the government slow down inflation.

Hm, that is not matching my intuition. Do you have any examples in mind where having a car would provide that sort of useful social signaling? I'm genuinely curious about this.

As an anecdote, I do remember this one time when I was having trouble finding a job. A recruiter was seeing if I want to pursue this opportunity in Vegas that'd require me to have a car for. I said no, because I don't have a car. The recruiter (unprompted) said I am making a bad life decision to not have a car and it'll be very hard for me in my career without one. Fortunately, neither of those things turned out to be true.

The only cases I can think of where cars are an important signal are dating (not having a car signals that you're poor) and entry level jobs (where the ability to show up to work on time is 90% of the qualifications). I don't think either of those things apply to you though.

Yeah neither of those things apply to me, but they do make sense. Although re: dating, I have a perhaps unconventional take. I wouldn't want to be with someone who'd view not having a car as an important signal, and so not having a car would provide me with good signal about someone who'd want to go on a date with me, while also helping me avoid dating someone I wouldn't want to be with anyway.

Edit: Hm, actually I think I was being too uncharitable here. Not having a car does seem like a strong signal that someone is poor. And it does seem reasonable to not want to date someone who is poor.

In the DC area there are much fewer places without A/C, since it's pretty critical to human functioning here. I always found it weird how many rental places didn't offer A/C in the South Bay, given that it was clearly necessary some of the year. People in California are too used to temperate weather or something.
 

Yeah, more generally I don't understand places without AC either when it does get uncomfortably hot for a month or two a year. When I was in Culver City outside of LA I didn't have AC and needed to get a portable unit in the summer. Iirc my apartment was something like 75 degrees at night, which makes it difficult for me to sleep. And probably for many others too. I recall research showing that something in the mid to high 60s is optimal sleeping temperature. And during the day it can be hot, so I'd have to go to the mall or something to get access to AC, which is inconvenient when you just want to relax at home. A window unit is only a couple hundred bucks, so the price seems more than low enough to justify it.

I was thinking of apartments, specifically the cheapest apartments in expensive areas where you sacrifice lots of minor things to reduce market price e.g. no garbage chute, small size, and also A/C (in my case, they would turn the building from A/C to heating early in the fall and wait until june to turn it back on in order to save money, which is easily solved with a cheap window unit)

It was presumptive of me to assume that was the only category of housing that OP was researching.

Cars give a competitive advantage over other people. The social signalling alone more than pays for it, and the signalling value pales in comparison to the instrumental value. Some people prefer to be the change they want to see, but abstaining from having access to a car is like burning half of your money to help the government slow down inflation.

I mostly disagree with the social signalling framing, but granting the frame it still seems to me that foregoing a car would improve your social standing (if you're the sort of person running in social circles where people broadly disapprove of cars and care about the environment). This is much like how vegetarianism/veganism is a stronger social signal than donating to charities fighting factory farming; the personal sacrifice speaks of personal virtue, which then confers social standing regardless of any consequentialist altruistic benefits.

I agree that it depends on the environment, and that with some people it will work differently than others. I'm accustomed to a more conservative job-seeking culture in DC.

Enjoy Portland! Btw, if you want to hang out with some cool people, there's a rationalist space in Seattle called The Territory full of cool people. 

While I don't disagree that The Territory is full of cool people, there is also rationalist stuff in Portland! Which is probably more convenient (ETA: Whoops, Adam beat me to it!)

(Adam, congratulations on getting out of Vegas! :P)

Haha yup! Thanks! I am not missing the 120 degree weather right now, that's for sure.

Cool! There's also the Portland Effective Altruism and Rationality group here in Portland. I haven't had the chance to attend yet though, I always seem to be too busy, but I plan on it!

And I forgot to mention it in the post, but I like how Seattle is only a two hour drive away. Which would mean for us either a ~$20 bus ride or renting a car. Similar with the coast being two hours away if you want the ocean, but that I think you'd need to rent a car for.

Take note: it is only 2 hours away if you are driving in the middle of the night, on a weeknight. Else, it is 3-4 hours depending on how bad traffic is (there will almost always be some along I-5).

Oh yes, in looking at Google Maps I see that you are correct. I was just going off of memory when I said two hours. Someone told me two hours at some point.

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