Ready to ditch your ride?

By Susan Hall Mahon
October 08, 2019
DanielBendjy/Getty Images

If you love living sans-car on vacation—boardwalk strolls, bike rides on the beach, paddling from place to place—a vehicle-free lifestyle might suit your daily life too.

The advantages of car-free living are many, from lower costs (gas, insurance, parking) to health and environmental benefits. But some locations make it easier to forgo four wheels than others.

Luckily there’s no shortage of places that are coastal and great for pedestrians, bikers, and public transportation lovers, according to a new ranking of the top car-free cities in America by CityLab.

Topping the list of best large metros for car-free living is San Francisco, followed closely by Boston, New York, and Seattle.

CityLab’s ranking is divided into four categories based on metro size: large, medium, small, and very small, and was compiled based on four key variables*:

  • the share of households that don’t have access to their own vehicle
  • the share of commuters who take transit to work
  • the share of commuters who bike to work
  • the share of commuters who walk to work

*This data was gathered from the American Community Survey’s five-year estimates for 2017.

Biking in San Francisco
mmac72/Getty Images

Here’s how America’s metros, from large to small, stacked up:

Top 10 Car-Free Large Metros (more than 1 million people)

  1. San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA, overall rank: 4
  2. Boston-Cambridge-Newton, MA-NH, overall rank: 5
  3. New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA, overall rank: 12
  4. Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA, overall rank: 13
  5. Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA, overall rank: 15
  6. Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV, overall rank: 16
  7. Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD, overall rank: 17
  8. Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI , overall rank: 23
  9. New Orleans-Metairie, LA, overall rank: 34
  10. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA, overall rank: 36

Top 5 Car-Free Medium-Sized Metros (500,000 - 1 million people)

  1. Urban Honolulu, HI, overall rank: 8
  2. Madison, WI, overall rank: 8
  3. Springfield, MA, overall rank: 28
  4. New Haven-Milford, CT, overall rank: 29
  5. Durham-Chapel Hill, NC, overall rank: 35

Top 5 Car-Free Small Metros (250,000 - 500,000 people)

  1. Ann Arbor, MI, overall rank: 7
  2. Eugene, OR, overall rank: 11
  3. Gainesville, FL, overall rank: 19
  4. Santa Maria-Santa Barbara, CA, overall rank: 21
  5. Trenton, NJ, overall rank: 24

Top 5 Car-Free Very Small Metros (less than 250,000 people)

  1. Ithaca, NY, overall rank: 1
  2. State College, PA, overall rank: 2
  3. Champaign-Urbana, IL, overall rank: 3
  4. Iowa City, IA, overall rank: 6
  5. Bloomington, IN, overall rank: 10

Related: The Most Exotic Beach Destinations in the World:

While the large metros that rank highly on the car-free index are largely coastal, those that appear on the bottom of the list are more sprawling Sunbelt cities like Birmingham, Nashville, Raleigh, Dallas, Oklahoma City, and Charlotte. ‘With the exception of Dallas, these are not-so-large metros with less traffic congestion, where it is relatively easy to get around by car,” writes study author Richard Florida.

Bottom 10 Car-Free Large Metros

  1. Birmingham-Hoover, AL, overall ranking: 364
  2. Nashville-Davidson-Murfreesboro-Franklin, TN, overall ranking: 346
  3. Raleigh, NC, overall ranking: 342
  4. Oklahoma City, OK, overall ranking: 334
  5. Kansas City, MO-KS, overall ranking: 316
  6. Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX, overall ranking: 302
  7. Memphis, TN-MS-AR, overall ranking: 290
  8. Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia, NC-SC, overall ranking: 276
  9. Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA, overall ranking: 256
  10. Indianapolis-Carmel-Anderson, IN, overall ranking: 241

According to the study, living in a car-free metro is positively associated with the percent of college graduates (.54) and the creative-class share of the workforce (.48). It’s negatively associated with the blue-collar working-class share of the workforce (.45).

It has an even stronger positive association with living in a liberal metro, and is negatively correlated with living in a conservative metro.

    And while going car-free should help cut costs, “ironically, despite the expense of owning a car, going carless in America often requires having money,” according to Florida. “It helps if you can afford living close to where you work or near good transit, or in a walkable neighborhood with most of life’s necessities close by.”