Car-free cities?

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It's audience participation time -- I'm going to throw out a question, and I'd like to see your answers in the comments or via trackback.

There are cities like Tulsa where a car is an absolute necessity for survival. Nearly the entire city was built post-Model T, with the assumption that everyone had a car at his disposal -- very low density, no sidewalks, segregation of uses. A day's necessary travel may put 30 or 40 miles on the odometer. Even with a good public transit system, getting around would be inconvenient, and we don't have a good public transit system.

There are cities like New York where a car is an inconvenience. The city was built when most people had to get around on foot, and the public transit system is excellent (even if the natives don't believe it).

There are cities in-between -- most people get around by car, but it is possible and practical to live comfortably without one. I suspect this is true of a lot of college towns. Some parts of town would be inaccessible to you, but there is at least a densely-developed core where you can find housing, employment, shopping, and entertainment within walking distance. Savannah, Georgia, seems to fit this description.

So here's my question: In what American cities / metro areas is it possible to live comfortably, as an employed adult, without a car? I'm not looking for speculation -- I'd like to know if you've managed it yourself or know someone who has. I'd be especially interested to know of cities where people have managed to raise a family sans car. I'm excluding dorm-dwelling college students -- it's easier to get by without a car when you don't have to buy your own groceries, get to a job, or maintain your own dwelling. Also, by the phrase "live comfortably," I exclude having to walk five miles along an arterial street with no sidewalk and bad lighting to get to your job. Some folks here have to do that to survive, and I applaud their determination, but it doesn't make Tulsa a city suited for car-free living.

A couple of things prompted this. One is that I've been working on a piece about how urban design affects the independence of people with disabilities, inspired by the contrast between someone I met recently in New York and some folks I know here in Tulsa, and how easy or challenging they find it to get around on their own. I am coming to believe that every city of a certain size ought to preserve or recreate at least one area where car-free living is possible, for the sake of accommodating those who can't or shouldn't or choose not to drive.

The other thing that prompted this question is a post by Dawn Eden about her job search. She doesn't drive, so the job needs to be some place where you can survive without a car. That made me wonder if there are places besides older, bigger cities like New York where that is possible.

One more ground rule -- your anecdotal evidence should be from the last 20 years, more or less. Both my grandmothers got through most of their lives without driving, living within walking distance of the downtowns of Dewey and Nowata, Oklahoma, respectively, but in the '40s, '50s, and '60s, these towns offered all the basic necessities downtown, and many merchants would deliver. (Their husbands drove, so they weren't completely car-free, but most of the time a car was not at their disposal.) Now that everyone has a car, we'll drive several miles for better prices and better selection -- the small neighborhood store can't compete, and living car-free in a small town isn't an option any more.

I'm looking forward to your responses.


Joel said:

Once upon a time, the city of Cleveland, Ohio had an exemplary trolly system running east and west from downtown to the outline "suburban" areas. Soon after the turn of the century, Ford Motors and a conglomerate of oil companies swooped in, bought all the lines, and ripped up the tracks. Today Cleveland's RTA (Regional Transit Authority) maintains a fairly good transit system, especially if you can utilize the "rapids," trains which run in three major lines sprawling east and west from the city center. If you try to do Cleveland sans voiture, I recommend the east side. West side is nice, but east side is more happnin'.

After using Cleveland's RTA for several years (both buses and trains), I moved to Muncie, Indiana, right downtown on Walnut street. The first time I had to leave my car in the shop overnight I was delighted to learn that all the city's MITS' (Muncie Indiana Transit System) bus lines ran from the downtown hub not more than a block from my apartment. I could literally go anywhere in town. The other thing I noticed is that the buses in Muncie were immaculate compared to Cleveland's.

On the whole, I think it's difficult to live without a personal combustion engine in the midwest. But then, I like my car, because I love going to places off the posted bus routes. :)

K.A. Hruzer said: kind of town.

Very similar to NYC in that respect. Probably slightly better transportation to the burbs. But, then a car would be required.

You should also look up Reston, VA. It's an architectural model city for community-based living.

And, I'm sure some of the ground-up retirement villages are similar. Bella Vista, AR, for example.

Then, there's Minneapolis and Des Moines with their extensive Skyway systems, connecting virtually entire downtown districts, including housing, day care, etc.

Kevin said:

I had an opportunity to interview for a job in Washington, DC last year. The man I interviewed with takes the Metro every day from his house (which is about 30 miles away). It costs him about 250 dollars a month to ride the metro, but if you were to drive it, you'd likely pay that much for gas (and of course the once-a-month oil changes). He's been doing this for at least four or five years now.

While I was there, we never once used a car. It was the Metro or it was walking. And anywhere you walked to, you could find the Metro. There were I believe four or five lines that ran through the city and out to the suburbs like Arlington, Chevy Chase, etc.

I could definitely see a person not needing a car there.

CGHill said:

Boston, I think, would work. It's relatively compact, five subway lines cover the central city, and the 'burbs can be reached by bus or rail. It is, however, frightfully expensive, and as blue states go, Massachusetts is downright ultraviolet.

Charleston, South Carolina is doable, and warm even, but one pays a stiff premium for living in the central city, and the suburbs are choked with cars.

Ron said:

Chicago, to my experience, works quite well with the El and Metro trains.

The St. Louis region can work, to a limited fashion. There is a MetroLink train that connects Illinois suburbs with downtown and to the airport, which is the west part of St. Louis County. The bus system is workable. But if you or your employer was near the train stations, it would be quite possible to walk to work.

Parts of New Orleans have a trolley-car system. It's a touristy thing, but locals also use it to go back and forth to work in downtown. I've seen it myself.

K.A., Bella Vista as it is today was planned in the late '60s (my grandpa sold property there), and it's very much a car-bound community. Subdivisions are completely isolated from the commercial areas, which are designed for easy access from US 71. I think the only places in Northwest Arkansas where a car-free existence would be practical are Fayetteville and Eureka Springs -- and both would require sturdy calf muscles and strong ankles.

Charles, you're right about Boston. Although I mainly depended on the fraternity cook for meals, and could sometimes catch rides from brothers with cars, I had a summer of fending for myself -- getting between the house in Brookline and the job in Cambridge, going to church in downtown Boston, and shopping for groceries, all without a car, and it worked very nicely.

Philadelphia and San Francisco are another couple of cities where I think car-free living would work.

Joel, thanks for posting your experiences in Cleveland and Muncie. As for the car companies buying and shutting down the trolley systems -- that happened around 1936 in Tulsa, and a GM subsidiary was involved.

Dan Paden said:

I've lived in Tulsa or the surrounding environs for all but a couple of my forty-two years, and while I can't help the Petite Powerhouse with her search for a comfortably car-free zone, I can certainly concur with your assessment that it is completely impossible to live anything resembling a normal life in Tulsa without adequate transportation. On the other hand--and this is a big plus--it is entirely possible to be in the countryside within twenty minutes or less, no matter where in Tulsa you live. Having to maintain a vehicle is a small price to pay for such luxury. Miss Eden can learn how to drive. And if she were to move to Tulsa, I am quite certain that I could introduce her to a wide variety of people that would be excellent matrimonial prospects!

CGHill said:

Hey, I saw her first.

(Well, second, actually, but Mr Bates is spoken for.)

Dan Paden said:

You may have seen her first, but my single friends most definitely have the advantage in looks. Perhaps they do not possess your erudite and witty literary talents, but most definitely, the have the looks.

CGHill said:

He's got me there. (Where's the blasted cloaking device when I need it?)

car owner said:

This isn't an American city, but I used to live in Ravensburg, Germany for a few years. With gas prices and the sheer expense of automobiles being out of reach, I opted to purchase a $400.00 a year "bus pass". With this pass I could use the bus system as often as I liked for an entire year.
I also used my bicycle all the time, even to get groceries.
There was a bakery a block away from me, where I got bread, pastries, milk, and eggs. And, of course, the ever-present cigarette machine right on the corner of the street.
I was very impressed at the ability to get around without a vehicle. I wish Tulsa was more like this. If Tulsa transit had more bus stops, more frequent stops, earlier AND later in the day, I would take the bus.
Sorry, I know, not an American city.

This is straying off-topic. This exercise wasn't intended to be about anyone in particular. If you've got employment, relocation, or matrimonial advice for another blogger, probably best to post it over there where she's likely to see it. I mentioned Dawn and friends with physical limitations only as examples of the constituency for places where you can live without being able to drive. Older children, teenagers, and older folks whose reflexes and vision are no longer up to night driving are other categories of people who would benefit from a more pedestrian-friendly city.

I do hope to hear from more people who have actually lived the car-free life somewhere. If you're reading this and have a blog, I'd love for you to encourage your readers to come over and participate. I'm going to see if some urban planning bloggers will weigh in as well.

I concur that Washington, DC is great for car-free living, if you plan it right.

The apartment where I live has a MetroBus pass right outside my house, and it takes about 20 minutes to get to the Metro itself. The Metro isn't half bad, really. Sure, it can be a pain at times, but you can get out of the city in a decent period of time, and I'm sure there's a "bus pass/Metro pass" type of deal you can find.

Baltimore, not far from Washington, is very different. (I work in Baltimore and live in a DC Suburb - they aren't that far apart from each other.)

The Baltimore Light Rail goes very few places, and right now, half of where it does go is closed. IF you live west or east of the downtown, the Light Rail will not take you where you want to go - in fact, neither will the small Metro system Baltimore has either.

Also, Baltimore and Washington are NOT well connected transit wise. If there were a straight forward way to get on the Metro and have it take me to Baltimore in a decent amount of time, I would save my car a good deal of effort. However, the only way to do this is for me to go south into Washington proper so I can go back north into Baltimore. This is very expensive, as it involves the Maryland train system, which simply costs too much for commuting purposes. It also takes up too much time. A good commuter link from the Red Line to Baltimore, particularly the airport, would serve DC well I think - there really isn't a good way to get from the airport to DC.

Finally, there are many DC suburbs which are well situated for the kind of life you talk about - where I live, the grocery store a short walk, as are most essential shops, like pharmacies, a few resturants, and a local movie theater. You have to plan well, however, as many DC suburbs simply are not well suited for a carless life - the Metro is easily accessable, but grocery stores are a long walk, and other options are not close either. Olney, where I live, is great - Gaithersburg isn't necessarily a good place for this (some areas are, but not all).

Dan said:

I'm sorry I have nothing meaningful to add to this discussion, but I have lived a carless life in Japan. It was certainly do-able.

I deeply resent how dependent we have become on the automobile and politicians like Earnest Istook who are bound and determined to keep us dependent by discouraging any transportation expense that isn't highway construction.

It's not practical for Oklahoma City to have world-class public transport, but we have taken huge leaps BACKWARDS over the last century, thanks to the efforts of the auto industry and their back-pocket toadies in government.

nola said:

My wife and I have had the pleasure of living in two cities where cars can be forsaken - New York and New Orleans. Going car-less in NY is a breeze. In NO it requires you to live and work in or near the French Quarter, but there are worse things. The suburbs of NO are particularly dreary, so living downtown without a car forces (or allows you) to live your life in a relatively small but interesting area. When friends go to visit NO I always recommend that they do not rent a car. Wandering around the Quarter on foot and exploring the shops and restaurants is a pleasure that not enough cities offer.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on February 22, 2005 9:44 AM.

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