Fitting into a big city

Moving to a big city for the first time can be daunting in many ways for those with no experience of urban life. If you’ve grown up on a farm, miles from the nearest gas station, you may think of big cities as nightmarish, polluted, crime-ridden, noisy and unfriendly places. The unfortunate truth is that cities can be like that, when they are at their worst. Nobody is going to pretend that they enjoy the traffic in Atlanta, the air quality in LA, or an evening stroll in the W Mulberry & N Fremont area of Baltimore. But those are the extreme exceptions. The urban living experience has transformed over the last decades. Hundreds of cities are implementing programs to protect green areas, improve air quality, reduce traffic congestion and reduce crime. With a few smarts, you’ll be able to fit in and start enjoying yourself in no time at all.

One of the best pieces of advice is to buy a large map and pin it up on a wall in your new home. This way you can familiarize yourself with the geography of your city, major freeways, subway lines, bus routes and the places you’re likely to visit. Whenever you need to make a journey, you can easily take a look at the map and plan your route in advance. There are, of course apps for all of this, but it’s often inconvenient to try staring at your phone trying to figure out which direction is which, while being jostled on the sidewalk. This is an especially bad idea if you happen to have pulled over in your car in a dangerous neighborhood. Having a map at home can help prevent you from even driving through such areas.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges can be adapting to big city etiquette. Watch how other people behave and just try to fit in. In some cities – perhaps most famously in New York – you’ll attract negative attention for walking to slowly on the sidewalk. In other cities geared more towards automobiles, you might be stopped by the police for suspicious behavior if you try to walk along major routes. Cities have different personalities, too. In Des Moines you’ll often hear strangers say ‘good morning’ to each other, as they make their way to work. Try that in downtown DC, Orlando or Las Vegas and you’ll quickly scare people off or end up in a confrontation.

This etiquette extends to the roads and rail networks of your new city. Drive with caution and conservatism until you really get a feel for things. Don’t cut up other drivers, overuse your horn or drive aggressively. In Newark, such behavior might get you into a public brawl. In Phoenix it could easily get you shot. If you’re using public transport, the general rule is to keep yourself to yourself, sit where there are more passengers (i.e. avoid empty carriages) and sit near the driver or conductor. Don’t make eye contact. If people start to bother you, simply move away from them. Friendly conversations between strangers do happen, but it’s probably better to wait until you feel at home in your new city before you start sharing your life story with strangers on the no. 5 train.

If you’re lucky enough to live in a city with cycle paths and green spaces with paths away from the traffic, you’ll probably want to take advantage of these as much as possible. It can come as a surprise to many just how little you actually need a car when living in many big cities. Even cities which are synonymous with car usage, such as Los Angeles, often have surprisingly extensive subway and bus networks. By combining public transport and a fold-up cycle or scooter, it can be a remarkably efficient way to get around. Be sure to wear the right protective gear, such as helmets and knee pads. Just because you’re away from cars doesn’t mean that there aren’t other hazards you could fall foul of. Get all the important information you need before you set off.

One thing you’ll find when you move to most big cities is that most people, like you, are not originally from there either. It won’t take long before you start thinking of your new city as home.