The best cities to live car-free in America
NYC and San Francisco? Sure, but LA makes the list despite its auto-centric reputation
By Charles B. Stockdale
Several factors make a city easy to live in without a car. The most important one is a widely available and efficient public transportation system. Another is having daily amenities, such as groceries, shopping, schools and entertainment, nearby and within easy reach on foot or by bicycling. The best cities have both features and 24/7 Wall St. has identified the ten best ones to live without a car.
For people without cars, large cities with dense populations can be easier to handle if they have exceptional levels of “walkability.” New York City, for example, is great for a car-free lifestyle because the majority of daily conveniences are reachable on foot. In Boston, the situation is similar. Both cities also have highly efficient public rail systems. As a result, people can easily get to work even if the distance is too far for walking.
AP Portland, Ore., has the second highest rate of commuters who ride bikes to work in the country.
More sprawling metropolitan areas can also be easier to negotiate for those without cars as long as they have highly developed public transit systems. The Los Angeles metropolitan area runs more than 500 bus lines, covering 96 percent of neighborhoods. Similarly, San Jose covers nearly 96 percent by running about 100 bus lines. Although these cities do not have exceptional levels of rail service, residents can avoid owning automobiles by relying on city buses.
The majority of cities that are easy to maneuver on foot or by public access also have relatively large bicycle communities. For example, more people bike to work in a city like Portland, Ore., than in a city like San Antonio, Texas, which is not very pedestrian or bicyclist friendly. These cities tend to have an exceptional number of programs and bylaws for bicyclists. Seven of the cities on the 24/7 Wall St.’s list are also featured on Bicycling magazine’s list of the top 50 bike-friendly cities.
To compile this list of the best cities to live in without a car, 24/7 Wall St. examined the 100 largest metropolitan areas. In each city, we looked at the percentage of neighborhoods covered by public transit, the frequency of service for those neighborhoods and the share of jobs reachable within 90 minutes or less by public transit for people living in those neighborhoods, all provided by the Brookings Institution. We also looked at the “walk score” for the primary city of each metropolitan area, provided by research group Walk Score. This number represents how accessible amenities are for residents of a city on foot. Finally, we considered the percentage of commuters who bike to work, using data from the Census Bureau.
Having cities that allow easy car-free living has other benefits. Nick Spang of Walk Score told 24/7 Wall St. via email: “Walkable neighborhoods are one of the simplest and best solutions for the environment, our health and our economy.”
These are 24/7 Wall St.’s best cities to live in without a car:
10. Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, Mass. to N.H.
Transit coverage: 69.4 percent (36th highest)
Service frequency (minutes): 8.9 (16th lowest)
Jobs reachable in 90 minutes: 30.2 percent (43rd highest)
Walk score: 79.2 (3rd highest)
Commuters who bike: 0.7 percent (21st highest)
The Boston-Cambridge-Quincy metropolitan area’s greatest strength for those without an automobile is the prevalence of dense, easily manageable communities. This makes it exceptionally easy for residents to reach amenities such as groceries, restaurants, shopping and schools. The metropolitan area’s primary city, Boston, has the third-highest walk score in the country. The area’s public transit also has a relatively high service frequency rate, making its use that much more convenient for the city’s residents.
9. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, Calif.
Transit coverage: 96 percent (2nd highest)
Service frequency (minutes): 6.2 (2nd lowest)
Jobs reachable in 90 minutes: 25.6 percent (69th highest)
Walk score: 65.9 (14th highest)
Commuters who bike: 0.87 percent (14th highest)
Los Angeles is the second largest city by population in the United States, and its metropolitan area is fairly spread out. Due to its extensive public transit system the area has avoided a complete automobile-based culture. The metro area’s 19 transit systems have more than 500 bus routes. As a result, 96 percent of neighborhoods are within 0.75 miles to a transit stop — the second highest rate in the country. Better still, commuters can catch a form of public transportation from their nearest stop every 6.2 minutes.
8. Salt Lake City, Utah
Transit coverage: 89 percent (8th highest)
Service frequency (minutes): 8.5 (11th lowest)
Jobs reachable in 90 minutes: 58.9 percent (2nd highest)
Walk score: 57.6 (29th highest)
Commuters who bike: 0.78 percent (17th highest)
Utah’s population is expected to grow from 2010’s approximately 3 million to 4.4 million in 2030. Salt Lake County accounts for more than one-third of the state’s population. To accommodate this growth, the Utah Transit Authority has plans to add four more lines to its light rail system, TRAX, up from its current three lines. This investment is meant to improve transportation for the suburban and exurban population to the city. In the winter, the UTA runs ski transit lines in addition to its rail and bus services.
7. Denver-Aurora, Colo.
Transit coverage: 83.7 percent (12th highest)
Service frequency (minutes): 8.1 (10th lowest)
Jobs reachable in 90 minutes: 47.5 percent (10th highest)
Walk score: 60.4 (23rd highest)
Commuters who bike: 0.79 percent (16th highest)
Denver has bus service, light rail lines, and an airport shuttle service. The city is currently undergoing a multibillion dollar expansion of its transit system, called the FasTracks Expansion. This plan is meant to increase light rail, commuter rail and bus rapid transit lines. The project, which is expected to be completed in 2019, currently faces a $2 billion shortfall.
6. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, Calif.
Transit coverage: 95.6 percent (3rd highest)
Service frequency (minutes): 6.9 (5th lowest)
Jobs reachable in 90 minutes: 58.4 percent (3rd highest)
Walk score: 54.5 (34th highest)
Commuters who bike: 1.56 percent (7th highest)
The San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara metropolitan area’s public transportation is overseen by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority. Like Los Angeles, the area relies heavily on buses, running about 100 routes. Public transit covers 95.6 percent of neighborhoods, the third greatest in the country. Public vehicles also run under 7 minutes apart, the fifth smallest frequency. The metro area also has the seventh highest rate of commuters who travel to work by bicycle.
5. Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, Wash.
Transit coverage: 85.3 percent (11th highest)
Service frequency (minutes): 8.8 (15th lowest)
Jobs reachable in 90 minutes: 33.4 percent (35th highest)
Walk score: 73.6 (6th highest)
Commuters who bike: 1.07 percent (9th highest)
Seattle’s public transportation system not only includes bus and rail transit, but a monorail in the city center, as well as ferries. The city also has the sixth highest walk score in the country, due to its high number of easily accessible amenities. According to Bicycling magazine, Seattle is one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country and “has a 10-year, $240-million bike master plan that seeks to triple the number of journeys made by bike and add 450 miles of bike paths.”
4. Honolulu, Hawaii
Transit coverage: 97 percent (the highest)
Service frequency (minutes): 9 (18th highest)
Jobs reachable in 90 minutes: 59.8 percent (the highest)
Walk score: 63 (19th highest)
Commuters who bike: 0.95 percent (12th highest)
Honolulu currently does not have an urban rail system, but its bus system helps cover 97 percent of neighborhoods — the highest rate in the country. Additionally, almost 60 percent of jobs are accessible within 90 minutes to those who live in neighborhoods covered by transit. This is also the highest rate in the country. Nevertheless, the city is planning a $5.5 billion rail project called the Honolulu Rail Transit Project. This will include 20 miles of track, connecting East Kapolei with the Honolulu International Airport and downtown Honolulu and will end at Ala Moana Center.
3. New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, N.Y.-N.J.-Pa.
Transit coverage: 89.6 percent (7th highest)
Service frequency (minutes): 4.5 (the highest)
Jobs reachable in 90 minutes: 36.6 percent (25th highest)
Walk score: 85.3 (the highest)
Commuters who bike: 0.52 percent (32nd highest)
New York City ranks first in the nation for total number of passenger trips and government spending per capita on public transit, according to US News. It also has the highest rate of service frequency. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s 2010 operating budget was $13.4 billion. The average weekday ridership for the city is estimated to be over 8.4 million trips. The city also has the highest walk score on this list, thanks to the ability of city dwellers to reach just about any amenity on foot.
2. Portland-Vancouver-Beaverton, Ore.-Wash.
Transit coverage: 83.5 percent (13th highest)
Service frequency (minutes): 7.4 (8th lowest)
Jobs reachable in 90 minutes: 39.9 percent (16th highest)
Walk score: 66.3 (13th highest)
Commuters who bike: 2.23 percent (2nd highest)
Portland is such a good place for people to live without a car due to both its public transit system and the ease of walking and biking around the city. The metropolitan area is served by TriMet, which in addition to other services offers a Free Rail Zone — a region that includes most of downtown Portland and where light rail and streetcar rides are always free. The city has a number of benefits for bike riders, including designated bike-only areas at traffic signals and free bike lights. It has the second highest rate of commuters who ride bikes to work in the country.
1. San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, Calif.
Transit coverage: 91.7 percent (5th highest)
Service frequency (minutes): 8.5 (12th highest)
Jobs reachable in 90 minutes: 34.8 (30th highest)
Walk score: 84.9 (2nd highest)
Commuters who bike: 1.65 percent (6th highest)
San Francisco is held in high regard for its many successful transit systems, including the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority and the Bay Area Rapid Transit district. These systems cover nearly 92 percent of neighborhoods — the fifth highest rate in the country. San Francisco also has the second highest walk score and is excellent for bicyclists. Commuter rails within the city allow bicyclists to mount with their bicycles, and there is a bike shuttle across the Bay Bridge to help cyclists during rush hour.
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