5 Best Cities for Going Car-Free

There's ample evidence that walkable neighborhoods breed safer, healthier, and more democratic constituencies. And even in cities with high levels of smog — here's looking at you, Los Angeles — studies show that the health benefits of walking or cycling or recreation or as a means of commuting far outweigh the negative health risks associated with breathing in air pollution. What's more, when city dwellers opt to walk or cycle instead of relying on gas guzzlers, overall air pollution levels can be reduced. It's a win-win-win. You don't need a car to get around these U.S. cities.

1. Boston

Nicknamed America's Walking City, Boston's relatively small footprint is dense with small neighborhoods, each with a unique character and a smattering of restaurants, shops, and convenience stores. That is to say that most Bostonians can complete their daily errands without ever putting the key in the ignition. Boston is also a city where owning a car, in many cases, costs more than it's worth. Take, for example, these tandem, uncovered parking spaces in the high-end Beacon Hill neighborhood. For about a half million dollars, they can be yours. No, this isn't a one-time fluke in pricing. That's actually the going rate. A pair of parking spots on the same street sold for $560,000 at an auction in 2013.

2. New York

The city that never sleeps — Manhattan, in particular — is as pedestrian-friendly as they come. With sidewalks, bike lanes, buses, and subway routes galore, New York brings amenities such as markets, shops, workplaces, medical centers, and gyms in close proximity to the apartments and condos where people live. The city also has easy street crossings and long block lengths, making for more pleasurable pedestrian routes. There is, however, room for improvement. Manhattan is by far the most walkable of New York's boroughs, but it accounts for just 8% of the city's population. Other boroughs aren't actually all that walkable. In the Bronx, neighborhood decline and disinvestment in public transit has made walking around some neighborhoods difficult and less enticing. In truth, the real walkability winner here is Manhattan, and not all of New York City.

3. Washington, D.C.

Much of the nation's capital has walkable zones where residential and retail spaces are in close proximity. And, unlike New York, these zones are evenly distributed between downtown areas and the suburbs. That means it's not just the heart of the city that's walkable, but the outskirts, as well.

4. San Francisco

The Golden Gate City was built on 42 hills — terrain that can make for treacherous gear shifting. And while all those hills will do a number on your calf muscles, there's truly no better way to get around San Francisco's densely populated districts. That's because a quarter of the 49 square-mile city's office, retail, and multi-family rental space is located within the bounds of walkable neighborhoods. And while it's possible to break out of these neighborhood walkability zones and trek the entire city by foot, it's not exactly the fastest or most practical method of getting around. Alas, every city has its walkability limits.

5. Detroit

Oddly enough, you can get around Motor City just fine by foot — no motor required. In fact, these days pedestrian-friendly projects are sprouting up all over Detroit. And it's not just for the sake of recreation. About a quarter of all households citywide lack access to a motor vehicle. New walking path projects can help many in this demographic commute to and from the places they need to go, such as work, the grocery store, and school. And since you can't walk everywhere, new bike paths are surfacing, as well. Whereas Detroit had no bike lanes a decade ago, there are now nearly 200 of them.

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Guest's picture
Dairy Maid

DC is walkable, but there are still very few grocery stores that you can walk to. You can find a liquor store anywhere, but sadly only a few places to buy actual food. We moved to DC from Europe, thinking we could still live without a car. But because of the lack of grocery stores and other shopping, we ended up renting cars a couple times a month just to shop in the suburbs. Not at all like Europe. We ended up moving out to the 'burbs. It's worth it for the quiet and green and not having lights on everywhere.

Guest's picture

I really want this to be true for Detroit. But, as a Detroiter, and an off and on motorist, it's still fairly inconvenient to get around without a car. The city of Detroit is 142 square miles and public transit is still not up to par. Walking paths and bike paths are becoming more commonplace, but a lot of them are still relegated to the downtown area. What about the neighborhoods? What about commuters?