Destination Density

More places to go. More people to see. More ways to get around. How is our quality of life shaped by our access to diverse and plentiful human experiences?

I have spent a lot of time professionally thinking about how population density impacts quality of life. The relationship is much-studied and well-documented. From an individual perspective, places with more people offer more jobs, services, shops, restaurants, parks, arts, culture, housing choices, and many other features conducive to living well and being happy. Dense development places these amenities in closer proximity, and supports more options for how to access them, supporting walking, biking, buses, trains, and other travel modes as practical alternatives for getting around.

 

From a community perspective, dense and compact urban development is more efficient to serve with infrastructure and services. At the same time, dense areas have higher value, supporting public and private investments that improve livability. In many ways, population density supports more options for living, and provides more of the things that people often prioritize for quality of life. More people closer together can also facilitate more ideas, perspectives, expressions, chance encounters and in general a richer human experience.

 

This is all to say that the benefits of density are not new to me. But in a recent discussion of our upcoming travels, my partner got me thinking about a different kind of density. One of the things they are looking forward to in our move to Annecy is how many more places (and types of places) they can visit in the middle of Europe compared to the middle of the United States – a concept I have begun calling “destination density.”

 

It got me wondering if this premise was actually true. Are there really more places to visit? Are there really more things to see and do? Or perhaps is it simply the appeal of something new and unfamiliar? After all, our journey is taking us from a region of more than two million to a city with fewer than two hundred thousand residents. It’s reasonable to expect that in a smaller community we would find fewer opportunities and fewer destinations.

 

Let’s take a closer look:

 

Population Density

 

I used this tool to estimate population within a certain radius. While the data methodology for the tool is a little bit opaque, I cross-checked the tool in areas with known population and its estimates appear to be reasonable.

 

Population near Kansas City
Population near Annecy

While Kansas City is much larger than Annecy, the population within 100 kilometers (about 62 miles) of Annecy is 4.6 million – almost double Kansas City at 2.3 million, due to the nearby cities of Geneva and Lyon. Looking slightly further abroad, there are 14.6 million people within 200 kilometers (about 124 miles) of Annecy compare to just 3.4 million for Kansas City. There are more than 37 million(!) people within 300 kilometers (about 186 miles) of Annecy compared to 7.5 million for Kansas City. If we hold the idea that places with more people contain more destinations, my partner’s intuition is correct that our new home in Annecy will offer far more things to see and do than Kansas City.

 

Nearby Cities

 

Another way to think about destinations is to look at nearby cities. While big cities are certainly not the be-all and end-all for travel destinations, we can use them as a proxy for all of the surrounding medium and small sized towns available to visit. Larger cities are also more likely to have that critical mass of population and activity necessary to support many different types of destinations and experiences. For this analysis, I looked at cities within a 300-kilometer radius of Annecy and Kansas City. 300 kilometers is the approximate distance to the nearest coastal beach, which is obviously the standard scale by which all travel destinations should be measured! It’s also in my opinion around the upper limit travel distance for a long day trip.

 

Within 300 kilometers of Annecy, we can visit global cities of arts, culture, and entertainment, including Milan, Lyon, Zurich, and Nice, each with a great variety of experiences, settings, histories, and character. Despite their genuine assets and charms, perhaps you might agree that the likes of Omaha, Des Moines, and Wichita do not quite measure up.

 

Ease of Access

 

We can think about “destination density” in terms of distance, evaluating how many locations are in close geographic proximity. But close proximity can also be about ease of access. If we want to really look at destination density, we should not only understand how many people and places are nearby, but how easy it is to travel to them.

 

In this regard, the contrast between Kansas City and Annecy is readily apparent. Kansas City is heavily oriented to automobile use, and in truth other options like walking, biking, and transit are extremely limited in functionality and convenience. Outside of the urban core of Kansas City there are really no practical mobility choices other than driving. Sprawling development patterns scatter potential destinations across many hundreds of square miles of low-density land uses served by expansive highways.

 

The car is king in Kansas City, even in its most walkable district (shown: downtown areas devoted to parking)

My partner and I live and spend most of our time in Kansas City’s urban core – its most walkable area. Even here, my perspectives on access have evolved. Paris’ mayor Anne Hildalgo and others have recently popularized the concept of a fifteen-minute city, where all of services and amenities you need are located within a fifteen walk or bike of your home. The concept is a recasting of timeless city building principles with the basic premise that cities are more livable if the places you need to go are closer and easier to reach, with more choices for how to reach them.

 

Prior to my battle with long-covid, I walked and biked a lot. And because I lived in the urban core of Kansas City, it was possible to get to my job or the grocery store or a doctor’s office within fifteen minutes on foot or by bike. While most of Kansas City is auto-dominated, my fifteen-minute bubble of urbanity was workable, if not ideal. My destinations were a mile or two miles or three miles away, but those were distances that I could manage with ease. Post-covid, my fifteen-minute bubble has shrunk considerably. A fifteen-minute walk gets me a few blocks at most, and a bike ride of any kind is a carefully calibrated risk. Kansas City’s densest and most urban areas are no longer dense or urban enough for me to meet my daily needs with my current physical limitations. I don’t think that Annecy is especially remarkable in terms of compact, amenity rich development, but like most of its European peers it excels on this measure in comparison to its American counterparts. In Annecy, it’s possible to live in a place where everything I need is no more than a few blocks away. A fifteen-minute city is achievable there in my new tiny mobility bubble.

 

Beyond walking, I have been impressed with the recent transformation of many Annecy streets with bike-friendly infrastructure. Bike friendly streets, trails, boats and other modes provide access to destinations in and around Annecy, and also serve as recreational amenities in their own right.

 

In a "fifteen minute city" most daily necessities can be found within a few blocks from home.

Both cities operate municipal transit networks, but a combination of auto-oriented development and underfunding limits the coverage and frequency of transit access in Kansas City, especially outside the urban core. My partner and I are frequent users and fans of transit in Kansas City, but I can attest to its significant limitations.

 

In comparison to a typical American city, Annecy’s local transit network has excellent frequency and coverage. Routes run almost anywhere you might want to go, both in Annecy’s core and in surrounding communities. Even with the broad coverage of the network, compact development makes these routes faster and more efficient. I also like how the local transit system layers several different types of service to meet the needs of different types of travelers and destinations. There are high frequency bus routes to employment centers, but there are also tourist circulators, ferries, shuttles to local attractions, and more.

 

Since we’re talking about “destination density” and not commutes to work, we should also look at how easy it is to reach places outside our home base. Here Annecy offers something for which there really is no analog at all in Kansas City – frequent and convenient intercity regional rail. A combination of French and Swiss rail networks ensure that Annecy is well connected to nearby cities.

 

Intercity rail in France and Switzerland connects Annecy to the surrounding region.

These routes connect larger towns and cities, but their presence also allows us to connect to much smaller and more remote destinations along the route. Eureka Springs and Moûtiers are both charming towns of a few thousand residents with historic structures nestled in scenic valleys, but only the latter can be reached by train. Remote, recreation destinations are also more likely to be accessible near Annecy. For example, even with my current limited personal mobility, I can catch a train to a nearby ski town, and transfer to a lift that takes me straight to a mountain peak without having to walk more than a few blocks in total (and without having to drive at all).

 

Eureka Springs, Arkansas - Source: Flickr, doug_wertman
Moûtiers, France
Eureka Springs, Arkansas - Source: Flickr, doug_wertman
Moûtiers, France

With three potential directions to travel, Kansas City is better connected by Amtrak’s national rail network than many American cities, but most places are still unreachable by train. Even places that are connected by rail suffer from long detours, long delays for freight rail traffic, and limited frequency. For example, a rail trip from Kansas City to Omaha 265 kilometers (165 miles) away requires a 16-hour, 900 kilometer (600 mile) detour through central Illinois. In contrast, relatively fast and frequent trains connect Annecy to most of Europe in just a few hours.

 

Amtrak routes connect Kansas City in several directions, but most destinations cannot be easily reached by train.
National and regional rail service provides Annecy with convenient connections almost everywhere.
Amtrak routes connect Kansas City in several directions, but most destinations cannot be easily reached by train.
National and regional rail service provides Annecy with convenient connections almost everywhere.

Overall, my partner is right again that destinations will be more accessible in Annecy than they are in Kansas City. There are many lively cities and charming small towns in the Midwest, but not many options to reach them. In contrast, the density of transit options in France puts many more places in reach for our car-free household. Buses and trains go more places. There is more coverage in the cities where we visit. More compact land uses ensure that once we leave the station, more places are accessible by foot or bike.

 

Natural Destinations

 

Not all travel destinations are urban. And America’s stunning landscapes and natural beauty attract visitors from all over the world. For my partner and me, most of these natural destinations also feel relatively inaccessible from Kansas City. But is that a bias of familiarity?

 

Defining a natural destination is tricky. Their appeal or value can be subjective. A local wooded trail can be as beloved and restorative as the most dramatic scenic vista. A remote desert might be full of magic and mystery for one person but appear desolate and empty to the next. Kansas City is not far from natural settings like the Flint Hills, that possess a rare and unique natural beauty.

 

Konza Prairie Preserve - Flint Hills, Kansas

While we can admit the question is subjective, we can also note that Kansas City is nearly as far away from popular natural features like coasts and mountains as it is possible to get on planet Earth. The nearest coast to Kansas City is about 1,000km away. That’s something like a thirteen-hour drive. Without a car, it’s a fifty-hour-plus multi-day train ride with some bus transfers for good measure. Four hours on a train gets us from Annecy to the beaches of the Mediterranean. At the foot of the Alps, no travel at all is needed to reach the mountains from Annecy. The City of Denver at the base of the Rocky Mountains is a nine-hour drive west from Kansas City. It’s a twenty-four hour connection by train. The Appalachian Mountains are 1,000 kilometers in the opposite direction.

 

Kansas City

Annecy

Nearest Coast:

1000km

250km

Nearest Mountains:

900km

0km

Nearest (Wilderness) National Park:

690km

75km

The United States’ beloved national parks are the crown jewels of the nation, but there is almost nowhere in the country that is further away from a national park than Kansas City. The nearest non-urban national park to Kansas City is 690 kilometers away. The second closest national park is 770 kilometers away. By comparison, Vanoise National Park in France is only about 75 kilometers from Annecy.

 

Source: Reddit user: u/i_make_maps_0

It’s not impossible to visit these far-flung places from Kansas City. And there’s much to see and explore by car. The quintessential American road trip had a strong grip on our cultural consciousness. But it does appear that in Annecy there are objectively more places to visit and it is easier to reach these places than in Kansas City. For my partner and me, this “destination density” offers us more opportunities and directly enhances our quality of life. If we can, while we can, changing where we live can change how we live, for the better.

 

Do you think about “destination density” when you travel?  How accessible and convenient are the places that are most important to you?’

 

(Featured Image Source: NASA Scientific Visualization Studio)

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