Even though the recession has made it hard to move, many Americans are still trying to flee their cul-de-sacs and long freeway commutes for walkable neighborhoods closer to public transportation and their jobs.
Patrick Lashinsky, chief executive of real estate website Ziprealty.com, says that demand for homes in these types of neighborhoods has soared during the recession. And although city housing may come at a premium, it is becoming more affordable because of the decline in housing prices. "Condos that are closer in to the city have come down in price a lot," says Lashinsky.
Moving closer in might also be a good investment. "Clients believe that gas prices will spike again, and that this will drive up the value of what they're buying," he says. The lifestyle might also be especially appealing in a recession. "In difficult times, people really re-evaluate what they do with their time. You can't be productive when you're just sitting in your car," Lashinsky says. For example, biking to work is a way to be active while commuting.
There's one problem, however: Commuting without a car usually isn't faster. According to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, the average travel time for a car commute is a little over 24 minutes. For public transportation, the average travel time is more than 48 minutes. "If you look at the average travel time on transit, it is about double the time with a car," says Alan Pisarski, transportation consultant and author of the Transportation Research Board's Commuting in America series.
That's one reason cities in which many people don't use cars also have the longest commutes. In fact, of the Census Bureau's 2009 list of cities with the longest average commutes, eight of the top 10 are places where at a least a fifth of commuters don't drive to work: New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, San Francisco, Oakland, Boston, and Baltimore. On the other end of the spectrum, Grand Forks, N.D., has the shortest average commuting time in the country—12.3 minutes—but over 93 percent of Grand Forks commuters drive.
But there are some exceptions—cities where many people can drive less without sacrificing time. In the cities on our list, commutes are shorter than average, and a great many of them are on foot, bicycle, or via public transportation. The list is heavy on college towns, for a few good reasons: Such places are good fits for nondrivers because they are often compact and dense, and they often have liberal populations that demand more investment in public transportation.
U.S. News chose these cities using the following guidelines: First, cities with populations of more than 50,000 were included. Second, we considered the average commuting time in metropolitan areas throughout the country—24.4 minutes in 2009, according to the Census—and narrowed the list to cities with even shorter average commuting times. Finally, data from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey was used to calculate the percentage of a city's workers over age 16 that gets to work without driving or carpooling. We excluded those who work from home.
Average commute time: 24 minutes
Non-car commuters: 58 percent
Cambridge combines all of the reasons that would make you ditch a car. It is a walker's mecca—the 2000 census found Cambridge to have the highest percentage of pedestrian commuters in the country, at 25 percent. Walking is easy when many employers are located in town. Several of the largest employers in the Boston area are in Cambridge, such as Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Novartis Institute for Biomedical Research, and Genzyme Corp. Biking is another popular way to get around. The 11-mile Minuteman Commuter Bikeway connects Cambridge to nearby towns like Arlington and Lexington. Finally, Boston's MBTA rapid transit system (popularly known as the T) has six stops on two different lines in Cambridge.
Corrected on 11/13/2009: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Boston's MBTA rapid transit system has two stops on two different lines in Cambridge. There are five stops on the Red Line and one stop on the Green Line in Cambridge.