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.
Average commute time: 23.1 minutes
Non-car commuters: 33.5 percent
Some cities, like New York, have uncommonly extensive public transportation systems but also uncommonly huge populaces. Delays are inevitable in any transportation system with so much demand. Pittsburgh is a bit of an anomaly in that it is not a massive city—the population is just over 300,000, with a metro area of 2.4 million—but it has a large public transit system for its size. Pittsburgh's transit system, the Port Authority of Allegheny County, has a daily ridership of 240,000 on its buses and light rail. The city also has one of the largest bus rapid transit systems in the country, with three bus-only highways. Its light rail system has the 16th-most passenger miles traveled of any light rail in the country, according to the American Public Transportation Association.
Average commute time: 18.4 minutes
Non-car commuters: 30.6 percent
Boulder tends to attract the kind of outdoorsy people who love biking to work. The city claims more than 300 miles of bike lanes, routes, designated shoulders, and paths. If you don't like traveling on two wheels, there are other options. Boulder's Regional Transportation District has dozens of bus lines. While other cities designate their bus lines with utilitarian numbers, the names of the downtown Boulder bus lines reveal a city with a more colorful approach to transit: HOP, SKIP, JUMP, BOUND, DASH, STAMPEDE, and BOLT.
Average commute time: 20.3 minutes
Non-car commuters: 28.7 percent
The home of the University of California-Davis is more than just a college town. Davis has a population of 60,000. In 2005, the League of American Bicyclists awarded the city a "platinum level" distinction as a biking-friendly community. Its the first and only city in the country to receive that title. According to the league, "bike lanes and trails permeate the community and enable people of all ages to ride to school, to work, and for recreation and errands."
Ann Arbor, Mich.
Average commute time: 18.4 minutes
Non-car commuters: 27.5 percent
Since it is one of the best-known college towns in America, it shouldn't be surprising that Ann Arbor is not car-heavy. Many of the city's major employers, such as the academic journal service JSTOR, the weather service Weather Underground, and the headquarters for Google's AdWords service are based downtown. That centralized location and Ann Arbor's compact nature make commuting easy for walkers, bikers, and bus riders.
New Haven, Conn.
Average commute time: 21.6 minutes
Non-car commuters: 27.3 percent
New Haven's commuting patterns are shaped by its unusual downtown. In many cities, downtowns fill up with professionals and other workers during the day, then turn into ghost towns at night. But according to the City of New Haven, 7,000 people live in the downtown area, making it "among the most populous downtowns in the nation"—with a population density greater than that of downtown Seattle, Chicago, or Baltimore. Jobs are in downtown New Haven as well, with some of the city's big employers like Yale University and the Knights of Columbus headquartered there.
Chapel Hill, N.C.
Average commute time: 20.1 minutes
Non-car commuters: 26.2 percent
North Carolina is not usually thought of as a mass transit state, and with good reason—only 16 percent of workers commute without a car. But Chapel Hill is not typical. Triangle Transit provides bus and vanpool service throughout the entire Research Triangle area, which includes Raleigh and Durham. According to the census, more than 10 percent of Chapel Hill commuters walk to work.
Average commute time: 21.9 minutes
Non-car commuters: 24.2 percent
Long winters don't deter Minneapolis commuters from leaving their cars at home. Measured by passenger miles, the city has the 14th-largest light rail system and the 13th-largest bus system in the country, according to the American Public Transportation Association. The Census Bureau also ranks it second in the country for bicycle commuting among the 50 cities with the most commuters. For pedestrians, commuting in below-freezing temperatures is made easier by the fact that 80 blocks of downtown Minneapolis are connected by enclosed skyways that allow pedestrians to traverse the city in heated walkways without stepping outside.
Average commute time: 24.1 minutes
Non-car commuters: 22.7 percent
Portland has become famous as a mecca for the hip and artistic. But even if the average resident doesn't fit that stereotype, they all benefit from shorter commutes, owing to fewer people on the road. "Cities like Portland have a higher percentage of people working at home," says Pisarski. "They're at home working on the next great American novel." The city also has a well-developed mass transit system for a city of its size: Portland's light rail system is the third-largest in the country by passenger miles, ahead of systems in bigger cities such as San Diego, St. Louis, and Dallas.
Average commute time: 15.3 minutes
Non-car commuters: 22.6 percent
Ames, home to Iowa State University, is the smallest city on this list with just over 50,000 in population. The town's size makes it more impressive that CyRide, Ames's bus agency, broke its all-time record of ridership by transporting more than 5 million people by the end of its last fiscal year. More than 10 percent of Ames's commuters walk to work.
Average commute time: 18.7 minutes
Non-car commuters: 21.9 percent
Despite its rough winters, Wisconsin is big on bicycles. The League of American Bicyclists ranked the state second among the country's most bike-friendly states. Madison is arguably the biggest biking city in Wisconsin, with an extensive system of bike lanes covering the city (National Public Radio dubbed it a "biker's paradise"). In 2007, Prevention magazine named Madison the most walkable city in America. Another plus: Madison's Metro Transit bus system has real-time arrival times commuters can access online.
Average commute time: 23 minutes
Non-car commuters: 21.7 percent
With a land area of just 85 square miles and a population of less than 400,000, Honolulu is compact enough that commuting isn't tough. TheBus transit system, with ridership of more 70 million annually, makes it even easier. TheBus has twice been named "America's Best Transit System" by the American Public Transportation Association.
Average commute time: 16.2 minutes
Non-car commuters: 21.4 percent
The center of the second-largest metro area in Utah is not well known for public transportation. Only recently has the city government been discussing plans for a bus rapid transit system that would become operational in 2012. But many Provo commuters don't need public transit to get to work without driving: More than 13 percent of the city's workers walk, putting Provo in the top 10 of all U.S. cities for pedestrian commuters.
Average commute time: 16.9 minutes
Non-car commuters: 20.7 percent
Eugene makes the list because it has many of the same traits of other cities with short commutes and relatively low car use. Home to the University of Oregon, Eugene is a small city of only about 40 square miles. Its size and culture mean that there are plenty of people interested in biking and walking rather than burning gas for a few short miles.
Average commute time: 16.3 minutes
Non-car commuters: 20.1 percent
Syracuse does not have a transit system beyond buses, and it's not particularly compact. But it makes the list for a number of other reasons. The 2000 census found Syracuse to be the 12th in the country in terms of having the most pedestrian commuters—just one spot behind New York City. More than 10 percent of Syracuse's commuters walk to work. Also, while it's one of the largest cities in one of the largest states, Syracuse's metro area population is less than 1 million, so traffic isn't a huge issue. Finally, the city's Centro bus system connects workers to employment areas within the city and surrounding counties. Centro boasts ridership of 42,000 daily.
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.