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Car cutting, you might say, is the new cord cutting. Those who are tempted to merge into the car-free trend to reduce their carbon footprint — or to save themselves $9,281 a year on gas, maintenance, tires, insurance, license and registration costs and other related expenses, per the latest AAA data — will have the easiest time in San Francisco, according to this CityLab chart mapping out the best American cities for living car-free.
The Bay Area topped the largest metros (with more than 1 million people) in CityLab’s Metro Car-Free Index, drawn from American Community Survey data, which include the share of households without access to their own vehicle, the share of commuters who take mass transit to work, and the share of commuters who walk or bike to work. Boston was the second top major metro area for curbing the car, followed by New York City.
The study authors noted that the Big Apple led on three of the four variables, including the largest share of households without access to a vehicle (22%, which is more than three times the share in San Francisco and Boston). And more than 30% of commuters who use mass transit in the New York–Newark–Jersey City orbit is almost double San Francisco’s share. But the New York metro area also has a very small share of workers who bike to their jobs — not even cracking the top 10 on this metric, which dragged it down in the overall ranking.
The cities that rounded out the top 10 metro areas for going carless are Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia; Chicago; Seattle; Portland; Pittsburgh; and Los Angeles. The report suggests that the relatively expensive housing in many of these urban centers may be a factor in driving the decision not to own a car and take on its attendant costs, alongside a desire to avoid contending with dense traffic day in and day out. (Indeed, L.A. was recently named the city where commuters spend the most time stuck in traffic, according to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.)
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Notice that the wine- and rust-colored areas marking the most car-free urban areas largely stretch along the Northeast’s so-called Acela corridor, where regional Amtrak service connects Boston to Washington, D.C., as well as the Pacific Northwest, from Seattle to Portland. In contrast, cities housed in the Sunbelt such as Birmingham, Ala.; Nashville, Tenn.; Raleigh, N.C., and Dallas are still car-dependent, in part because they are more sprawling and less congested, and thus more conducive to travel by car.
But in midsize and smaller cities, car-free areas are largely centered around college campuses, including Madison, Wis. (University of Wisconsin); New Haven, Conn. (Yale University); Durham–Chapel Hill, N.C. (Duke University and the University of North Carolina); Ann Arbor, Mich. (University of Michigan); and Gainesville, Fla. (University of Florida).
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The data also suggested that living car-free runs along certain economic and political lines. College graduates and those working in creative fields were less likely to own an automobile than blue-collar and working-class Americans. And metro areas that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 had a stronger association with living car-free than areas that voted for Donald Trump.
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The report also noted that, while owning a car is certainly expensive, it can also be a luxury to opt out of ownership. After all, many of the cities best suited for car-free life are also expensive to live in. The average single-family homes is well over $1 million many of these locations, notably in San Francisco, where the affordable-housing crisis is forecast only to get worse.
Further, ditching the personal automobile often requires having the means to live in an area with access to reliable mass transit, or living close enough to a job to walk to work, not to mention being in a neighborhood where stores and services are within walking distance. It also, of course, costs money to use ride-share apps such as Uber UBER, -4.05% and Lyft LYFT, -1.31% , to hail traditional taxicabs, or to avail oneself of by-the-hour rental services like the Avis-owned CAR, -0.99% Zipcar as a destination or cargo demands.
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