The Best Cities For Going Car-Free

Marisa Taylor
Young people have been driving less than previous generations.

Americans have always loved their cars, but younger generations may be changing that. Millennials aredriving less and taking public transportationmore often, and they’re increasingly not evenbothering to get a driver’s license.

Transportation experts say that it’s all part of a movement of people—and jobs—into cities, markinga distinct change from folks of previous generations, who needed their cars in the suburbs. And living in denser urban areas makes going without a car easier than ever.

“People are wanting to live lives in which they are less dependent on a car,” says Tony Dutzik, a senior policy analyst with the think tank Frontier Group. Dutzik’s research in a 2012 study shows that young people have been driving nearly a quarter fewer mileswithin the last decade than they did 20 years ago, and that they have increased their mileage on public transportation by 40 percent.

So where are the best cities for traveling without a car?

The experts we talked to cite large European cities like Amsterdam in the Netherlands and Copenhagen in Denmark as the models for car-free living. In the U.S., there are two categories of cities for carless travel. First, there are the larger, older U.S. cities like New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, andSan Francisco, which feature compact downtown areas with strong networks of public transportation, and have multiple transit options within walking distance in a given neighborhood. Second are cities such as Minneapolis, Portland, Seattle,Denver, and evenLos Angeles, which have begun building or enhancing public transportation systems and bike lane networks in the last decade, offering strong alternatives to driving cars — and cutting down on traffic and pollution, too.

In the first category, New York City is, without a doubt, one of the best places to live without a car. It topsWalk Score’s lists of both the most walkable cities and the most transit-friendly citiesin the country, and maybe that’s why54.5 percent of all households there are car-free, the highest percentage in the U.S.

A row of Citibikes stationed at downtown bike-sharing location in New York City.

The city’s 2013 introduction of theCiti Bike program, as well as theexpansion of bike lane networksandpedestrian-only plazasin the last few years, were major boons for New Yorkers who want to be car-free, according to Caroline Samponaro,deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, a New York-based walking and bicycling advocacy group. She callsthe redesign of Queens Boulevard, one of the busiest — and most fatal— roadways in the city, a symbol of the drastic improvements made.

Despiteinitial resistanceby Queens residents, Samponaro points out that the revamp has provided a safer road. “That wasthe boulevard of death, and now it has a green protected bike lanerunning down the center of it,” she says proudly.

In Washington, D.C., the city’s extensiveunderground Metro system was ranked No. 1 in the country in a 2017 study by SmartAsset(thoughresidents complain about construction and unreliability), and the new Capital Bikeshare program, with its 440 stations across the metro area, costs only $85 for an annual pass.

In Chicago, the “L” trainsmake up the second-largest city rail system in the U.S. Between 2011 and 2015, the cityadded more than 100 miles of protected bike lanes, and has committed to building 50 more miles by 2019.


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In the second category of cities, Seattle has beenrapidly expanding bus and light rail systemsto deal with explosive population growth through its$930 million Move Seattle plan.

Portland, Oregon, is the leading city in the U.S. for bicycle commuting, where7 percent of all residentscycle to their jobs. In 2015, the city opened Tilikum Crossing over the Willamette River,the largest car-free bridge in the country, and it wants25 percent of all trips in Portland to be made on bikesby 2030.

Minneapolis, despite its chilly winter temperatures, is also a huge biking city, with5 percent of all residents commuting on two wheels. It also has one of the most extensive networks of bike lanes in the country, with75 miles added since 2011. The city’sMidtown Greenway, a nearly 6-mile-long bike- and pedestrian-only trailbuilt over abandoned railroad tracks, was opened in 2000, and connects downtown areas with the suburbs. 

Ralph Buehler, a professor of urban affairs and planning at Virginia Techwho studies transportation policy, says that while bike commuting in the U.S. has hit an all-time high in recent years, cities still need to build a lot more bicycle infrastructure to make the experience safer, which will make it even more of a draw.

“Very often, your bike lane or your path ends, and then it’s just, good luck, until you find the next thing,” he says. “There are only a certain number of people who are willing to put up with that.”

Europe, he says,has done an excellent jobat that. In Copenhagen, wherebicycle traffic has risen by 68 percentin the last 20 years, more people now travel by bicycle in downtown areas than they do in cars. The city’s Cycle Superhighway, a network of bike paths connecting downtown with suburban areas, opened in 2012, and an expansion will ultimately yield 300 miles of bike lanes by 2018.

And Hamburg, Germany, wants walking and biking to be the primary ways of getting around the city. It’s building a “green network” of parks and open spaces connected by bike pathsthat will make up 40 percent of the city’s land, and will make the bold step ofeliminating cars altogether within 20 years.

Buehler speculates that cars may no longer be status symbols for younger people the way they were for past generations, making transit networks all the more important. “For them, it’s more a mobility tool, something to move from A to B,” he says, “but they’re not fantasizing about the latest Chevy model.”

This article originally appeared on HuffPost.