San Francisco is a faster-paced city than sluggish San Jose and languid Los Angeles, according to a study by a professor at Cal State Fresno, which is a particularly torpid town, by his standards.
But California is a state of snails compared with the cities of the Northeast. Folks there, in turn, slog along next to their urban counterparts in Western Europe and Japan, says social psychologist Robert Levine in his new book, “A Geography of Time.”
After conducting tests in 36 American cities, Levine declares - hang onto your homburgs - that California is laid back and New York is frenetic. But San Francisco, the most urban of California cities, is also the most accelerated (with the inexplicable exception of Bakersfield).
“San Francisco was quite fast for California cities, but California was easily overall the slowest region in the country,” Levine said in a telephone interview from New York.
Levine and his research team took four pace-of-life measurements in each city on their list. They examined how fast people walked over a 60-foot distance in downtown locations during business hours, how long bank clerks took to make change, the percentage of people wearing watches, and the rate of speed at which postal workers explained the difference between regular, certified and insured mail.
On the zingy end of the chart, Boston and Buffalo eased out The Big Apple as briskest cities in the country, though Levine said the differences were slight and probably affected by New York’s evident quirks.
He said results may have been skewed when a New York City postal worker paused to loudly insult him for buying a single stamp with a $5 bill.
And “there was literally a mugging while we were doing the walking speed test, so it slows you down,” he said.
Overall, San Francisco ranked 24th on the list, 10 places behind Bakersfield but well ahead of Oxnard, San Diego, Fresno, San Jose and - in 36th place - Los Angeles.
Nonetheless, San Francisco feels “pretty hectic” to officer Al Melendez of the city’s police department, who paused to observe the hubbub one day last week while riding a beat on a bicycle near Union Square. And he’s part of the trend.
Melendez said he recently switched from walking because “you can get around faster out here on a bicycle.”
Tom Kemabon, a veteran hotel doorman, has been observing the downtown pace for 10 years.
“The locals are not in a hurry,” he said. “But people from Chicago and especially New York are.
“I can tell New Yorkers by them going out in the street and trying to flag their own cab while there’s a line of 40 people behind me waiting for a cab.”
Levine says in his book that research in Los Angeles was uniquely challenging: “We were hard-pressed to find any walkers at all. … Most of the pedestrians we observed went no farther than their parked cars.”
He says the difference between East Coast and West Coast attitudes is exemplified by the phone numbers you dial to get the time: In California, it’s P-O-P-C-O-R-N. In Boston, it’s N-E-R-V-O-U-S.
Public response to his survey have been uniform: People in the slower cities resent their ranking, he said. They want to be perceived as quicker.
“It’s curious,” he said. “Places that are faster on my measure tend to have higher rates of coronary artery disease, so it’s not such a terrible thing to be a little bit slower.”
Yet, based on European studies, zippier cities have happier inhabitants, he said.
Levine suspects that has to do with economic well-being.
“The faster a pace of life, the more vital the economy is,” he said. “We know that in places that do better economically, people tend to be more comfortable with their lives and are more satisfied.”
At the same time, he said, “Our suspicion is that economic vitality puts pressure on people … to make every minute count.”
By Levine’s model, Americans are dawdlers compared to citizens of other nations. Using slightly different tests, Levine ranked the United States 16th in pace of life - miles (or hours) behind the top five: Switzerland, Ireland, Germany, Japan and Italy.
But in those countries - other than Type Triple-A Japan - Levine found another pattern that he believes holds the secret to personal pacing.
“In Western Europe people work faster during the business day, but the Japanese and Americans work much longer hours over the year,” he said. “And Western Europeans laugh at our two-week vacations. Their vacations begin with four weeks.”
The ideal, said Levine, “is to adapt. There are times when you turn up the pace, but also times when you’re not a prisoner of the clock.
“We need to be able to live with another time sense.”
Levine also writes about cultures that live on “event time,” as in “come to my place when the cows are going to drink water.”
Said Levine: “When you talk about wasting time in these cultures, people look at you like you’re nuts.”