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best smaller cities to live without a car


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28 replies to this topic

#1 Gnome Chomsky

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Posted 19 June 2012 - 09:54 PM

I know major cities like NY, Chicago, DC, Philly, Boston are very easy to live without a car. But how about smaller cities like Minneapolis, Seattle, Madison WI, Davis CA, and other places?
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#2 asleepawake

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Posted 20 June 2012 - 09:07 PM

Try Wikitravel.com articles on the cities to check out information about the public transport in the areas. Check the weather to see if it would be reasonable to ride a bike regularly.
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#3 Usmivka

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Posted 21 June 2012 - 04:21 PM

I'd like to point out that Seattle and Boston are essentially the same size, and the extended Seattle urban area is larger than that of Boston in terms of population. Minneapolis is not much smaller, and DC is only a little larger than Boston or Seattle. So your city size list says more about your perceptions of the the cities than it does about what size they are and what resources they might host. The only truly small city on your list is Davis, and it is close to Sacramento and San Francisco.

If you don't mind biking and busing, every city on your list is livable without a car, based on either my experience or those of colleagues. Also, your list basically implies anywhere without multiple subway lines is unlivable without a car (is "small"), but in my experience busing is often much faster than the T in Boston, and buses in Seattle were very convenient when I lived there despite the light rail being limited. Not having a car might be a shame in a place like Seattle though, it will be a lot harder to get to the mountains, ocean, or rainforest if you are an outdoorsy sort.

All that said, I think what environment you'd like to be in and the other amenities may matter more than what public transit is like in each city, though it is important. Check out the city guide threads.

Edited by Usmivka, 21 June 2012 - 04:22 PM.

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#4 OregonGal

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Posted 21 June 2012 - 04:36 PM

Yeah, I wouldn't count Seattle as "small".

I think that a transportation-friendly city that is actually small-medium is Portland, OR. I grew up there and the public transit system is well-developed and laid out, and actually goes all the way out to the suburbs because it's a regional system (I lived a half hour south of Portland by car and we had a bus come through twice an hour). Budget crunches mean that they're eliminating the free rail zone in the middle of Portland, but I think they have the best transfer deal between bus and rail--your ticket buys you a 2-hour or all-day pass to any part of the transit system, so there's no surcharge for transfers bus-bus or bus-rail. All the light rail cars have hanging bike racks and all the buses have front racks for 2-3 bikes, so it's very bike-friendly as well.
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#5 Gnome Chomsky

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Posted 21 June 2012 - 05:14 PM

I guess my perception is a little different because of where I've lived. I grew up in New York City where it's actually more inconvenient to have a car than not. And I've been living in Miami for the past 4 years. Miami is way too spread out for me and it's impossible, in my opinion, to live without a car. It's also unbearably hot year round.
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#6 Usmivka

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Posted 21 June 2012 - 05:53 PM

I hate temperature extremes too.


"Washington [DC] is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable.
Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country."

-Horace Greeley


Edited by Usmivka, 21 June 2012 - 05:55 PM.

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#7 OregonGal

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Posted 21 June 2012 - 05:58 PM

Well those are pretty much the two extremes for urban transportation! It also depends on what you count as in the city. Like I said, Portland's transit extends to the far edges of the counties that the city sits in--the transit authority is called Trimet for the three metropolitan counties. However, in other places the buses stop at the city limit and aren't a regional system. I would say that as long as you're not averse to buses (I know some people who refuse to take buses but are fine with subway) you'd be fine in Seattle. I've heard good things about Minneapolis and Madison as well, but I've never been so I couldn't speak to the public transit experience there.

And yeah.. the heat index today in DC is predicted to hit 105. Go West!
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#8 Gnome Chomsky

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Posted 21 June 2012 - 08:18 PM

Well those are pretty much the two extremes for urban transportation! It also depends on what you count as in the city. Like I said, Portland's transit extends to the far edges of the counties that the city sits in--the transit authority is called Trimet for the three metropolitan counties. However, in other places the buses stop at the city limit and aren't a regional system. I would say that as long as you're not averse to buses (I know some people who refuse to take buses but are fine with subway) you'd be fine in Seattle. I've heard good things about Minneapolis and Madison as well, but I've never been so I couldn't speak to the public transit experience there.

And yeah.. the heat index today in DC is predicted to hit 105. Go West!


I'd definitely want to go to Portland but they don't have anything in my field. I'm doing linguistics. The closest place is UO in Eugene. Some of the schools I'm looking at are UWas-Seattle, UWis-Madison, UMinn-Twin Cities, Pittsburgh, Georgetown and Berkeley. Colorado-Boulder has a good program in linguistics but I don't know about a town like Boulder; might be too much of a small town for me. There's a good school in San Diego too but that's probably a little too hot down there and too crowded.
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#9 OregonGal

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Posted 21 June 2012 - 08:28 PM

I'm headed to UC San Diego; it's actually not all that hot there because it's right on the coast. Along the lines of 60-80 year round, with little humidity and lots of sun. The heat is when you head inland.

UO is my alma mater, so I can speak to the transit situation there. While weekday transit is decent--shuttles from the common student apartment areas, etc-- it sucks on the weekends. Also, there's not all that much to do in Eugene proper but a lot of stuff is within a 2 hour drive: beach, mountains, high desert, Portland. If you went to UO and wanted some independence I'd say take your car. The only reason I got by without one is that I lived 4 blocks off campus.
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#10 Usmivka

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Posted 21 June 2012 - 10:49 PM

...San Diego; it's actually not all that hot there because it's right on the coast. Along the lines of 60-80 year round


Agreed, San Diego is very little like Miami weather wise, it is a very pleasant place to live. But it is more car-centric than many of the other cities you mentioned. Berkeley is in the SanFran metro area, also very pleasant, but super expensive. Boulder certainly feels small if that is where you stay, but is anything but if you plan on some outdoor recreation. Pittsburgh is smaller than many of the cities you mentioned above, and I've not heard anything good about public transit there.

Also, it sounds like you are not fixed in anywhere yet, so it may make more sense to figure out which programs are a good fit (not just "good") before worrying about transit. You can use it as a tiebreaker after you get into programs, but deciding about it now seems premature.
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#11 Gnome Chomsky

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Posted 21 June 2012 - 11:28 PM

Agreed, San Diego is very little like Miami weather wise, it is a very pleasant place to live. But it is more car-centric than many of the other cities you mentioned. Berkeley is in the SanFran metro area, also very pleasant, but super expensive. Boulder certainly feels small if that is where you stay, but is anything but if you plan on some outdoor recreation. Pittsburgh is smaller than many of the cities you mentioned above, and I've not heard anything good about public transit there.

Also, it sounds like you are not fixed in anywhere yet, so it may make more sense to figure out which programs are a good fit (not just "good") before worrying about transit. You can use it as a tiebreaker after you get into programs, but deciding about it now seems premature.


If San Diego is very much like Miami whether-wise then that's definitely a "no." I can't stand the Miami weather. I'm definitely not a heat guy. I hate it when it gets over 70 degrees any time of year. But yeah I'm definitely going to start looking into the programs. I just want to find about 10 or so schools that were in areas I would want to live, then when I narrowed it down I would start looking into which school is the best fit.
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#12 mandarin.orange

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Posted 22 June 2012 - 08:42 AM

San Diego weather/climate patterns are very different from Miami. Florida is surrounded by warm ocean currents and has that gawd-awful humidity. Coastal California has cold currents from the north, and a good bit of upwelling, producing ocean breezes and a significant cooling effect, esp. at night. Can you tell it's my favorite climate? ;-)

If heat is not your thing, you need to rule out Davis.
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#13 Usmivka

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Posted 22 June 2012 - 06:56 PM

If San Diego is very much like Miami whether-wise then that's definitely a "no." I can't stand the Miami weather. I'm definitely not a heat guy. I hate it when it gets over 70 degrees any time of year. But yeah I'm definitely going to start looking into the programs. I just want to find about 10 or so schools that were in areas I would want to live, then when I narrowed it down I would start looking into which school is the best fit.


I'm afraid you didn't read my post: I wrote "very little like Miami." See above.

And I agree with the above, no Davis if you are really that temperature sensitive. You should probably also cut out DC, Boston, New York, Philly, Pittsburgh, and Chicago too, as all of these frequently exceed your ideal temperature for much of the year. I'm not sure how you survived your childhood in NYC. Even Madison, Minneapolis, and Seattle exceed 80-90 for parts of the summer. Have you considered someplace farther North, say Saskatoon or Nome? Because short of the Arctic Circle, you are more or less out of luck.

Edited by Usmivka, 22 June 2012 - 07:05 PM.

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#14 Gnome Chomsky

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Posted 22 June 2012 - 07:58 PM

I'm afraid you didn't read my post: I wrote "very little like Miami." See above.

And I agree with the above, no Davis if you are really that temperature sensitive. You should probably also cut out DC, Boston, New York, Philly, Pittsburgh, and Chicago too, as all of these frequently exceed your ideal temperature for much of the year. I'm not sure how you survived your childhood in NYC. Even Madison, Minneapolis, and Seattle exceed 80-90 for parts of the summer. Have you considered someplace farther North, say Saskatoon or Nome? Because short of the Arctic Circle, you are more or less out of luck.


Sorry. When I read it originally I misread and thought you said very much like Miami. Summers did get pretty brutal in New York, but fortunately the temp dropped a good amount at night time for you to not feel miserable. In Miami it drops a few degrees but it's even unbearable sometimes to go for a walk at midnight. Also, Miami it's hot about 11 months of the year. And even during winter, it'll be 45 in the morning and jump back up to 85 in the afternoon. Of course there are going to be unbearably hot days almost anywhere you go, but with cooler nights and more seasonal variety, almost anything, in my opinion, would be better than Miami. I don't know from personal experience, but I have heard some places out west, like Seattle, Portland, for example, rarely ever get hot. Even summer days are about 70-75. Only problem there, I've heard, is the rain. However, Miami has torrential downpours, so living here for a few years makes you scared every time you hear the word rain.
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#15 mandarin.orange

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Posted 23 June 2012 - 07:37 AM

It really sounds like the west coast may be your thing. B) Asheville and perhaps UK/northern Europe come to mind. Have you explored these possibilities? Southeastern climate is brutal; I lived in NC for 7 years and hated the summer heat, humidity, bugs and allergies. I escaped north or to the west coast for the summer at every available opportunity.

Now, despite being sympathetic to climatic preferences, I read (esp. in your last post) a whole lot of energy spent overthinking weather nuances - disproportionately so to the amount of thought/research you should be putting into what program is the best fit for you. I think you are going to be hard-pressed to satisfy ALL quality-of-life parameters (small city + transpo friendly + climate) AND be in a program that is helping you towards your research interests and professional goals...the latter being what grad school really is all about.

Yes, quality of life is important, but so is being jazzed up about your work. You're going to spend the majority of your time in grad school doing your research, interacting with the people, and tailoring your specialities for the career you envision. And if you want to ultimately be a TT prof, that goal is always going to be at odds with geographic preference. So decide which of your quality of life (QOL) requirements are non-negotiable, and which ones you may let slide a bit. If you have ideal climate + awesome program, are you okay with a car commute as part of your routine, or being in a small town or huge metro area? I applied to one school that was all about the QOL I envisioned for myself (and it was strikingly similar to your ideal of cool climate + no car + largish town), but fitting into their research program was a massive stretch for me...and I was rejected.

If you're more of the QOL mindset and place these above the grind of work (YOLO and all that), then determine your ideal area and consider ALL avenues of how you're going to get there and support yourself (job, internship, barter, crash with friends, etc) with grad school as just one possibility among many. I have a couple friends who essentially did this with Portland, and others who moved to a small NC beach town and eventually worked their way into ideal jobs.

This may be helpful: http://www.findyourspot.com/

Good luck!

ETA: I just realized findyourspot won't give you an answer unless you enter your personal info. :rolleyes: That's been changed from when I first heard of the site a few years ago.

Edited by mandarin.orange, 23 June 2012 - 07:52 AM.

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#16 victor.s.andrei

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Posted 23 June 2012 - 04:01 PM

I know major cities like NY, Chicago, DC, Philly, Boston are very easy to live without a car. But how about smaller cities like Minneapolis, Seattle, Madison WI, Davis CA, and other places?


You can live without a car if you live inside DC itself or in the inner suburbs...like Ballston and Clarendon in Arlington, which are close to the Metro.

That said, the cost of living is very high here, so if you have to go further out to find more affordable housing, you will need a car and you will have to deal with our notoriously hellish traffic.
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#17 OregonGal

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Posted 25 June 2012 - 08:02 PM

The "average" summer day in the Portland area is in the 70s and sunny to partly cloudy. However, we do get hotter, especially in late July and early August--80s during the day isn't uncommon, and there will be a few days in the 90s and stretching towards 100 (a couple years we had a horrible heat wave of like, 8 days straight reaching into the 90s with 3 100+ days in the middle). It cools down at night into the 50s-60s and isn't humid so it's a lot more bearable than an 80-mumble day on the East Coast.

The final point to remember: on average, there are 200+ cloudy days in Portland every year. It rains from October to May, and then there is a drought from June-September. Half the rain falls in the winter (November-February), another third in the spring. I'm not talking about occasional torrential downpours here, either--I'm talking about cloudy days, with a near-constant drizzle that randomly amps up to actual rain. The situation in Seattle is very similar, just even more rain and a bit colder in the winters. If you don't like the rain, or need a lot of sunny days, don't move to the Pacific Northwest; just visit in the summer :)
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#18 Gnome Chomsky

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Posted 25 June 2012 - 08:33 PM

OregonGal,
I had no problem with rain when I lived in New York. I mean, sometimes it got bad. In Florida, however, when it rains your whole day is basically cancelled. And it'll start pouring out of nowhere. It doesn't rain often, but when it does it really does. Sometimes you have to pull over to the side of the road and wait, other times you have to stand under cover for 20 minutes outside of the supermarket when your car is literally only 30 feet away. I hear that it rains a lot in the Northwest but never about the rain itself. As long as I can still get around I'm fine with a drizzle and no sunshine. It's when I can't leave the house that bothers me.
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#19 Usmivka

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Posted 25 June 2012 - 09:00 PM

The situation in Seattle is very similar, just even more rain and a bit colder in the winters.


I hate to disagree, but this comparison is incorrect, and, in fact, backwards.

1. Seattle gets a fair amount less rain than Portland on average, and significantly less in the Winter (~1.5 inches of rain per month less in Winter; Seattle vs Portland). This is because the Olympic Mountains form a rain shadow over the part of Puget Sound that Seattle lies on. Also, more of Seattle's rain falls at night as compared to Portland, and days tend towards less cloudy, again related to where the the two mountain ranges are and how the prevailing winds shift between day and night.

2. Since Seattle is on the ocean while Portland is not, Seattle tends to be more clement than Portland--on average ~10 degrees warmer in the winter (snow is much rarer in Seattle than in Portland), and ~5 degrees cooler in the Summer.

All and all, in my totally biased opinion, Seattle has a better climate. It is a lovely place to be most of the year, and the only time when it is frequently, unpleasantly rainy during the day is November through mid-December. This makes it better climate-wise (I'm gauging hot, cold, and torrential rain as bad) then essentially anything East of the Rocky Mountains, and the microclimate makes it superior to the major cities in the surrounding region.

Sadly the weather does not compensate for the Seattle's lack of cultural opportunities relative to Portland or Vancouver, BC.

Edited by Usmivka, 25 June 2012 - 09:08 PM.

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#20 OregonGal

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Posted 25 June 2012 - 09:04 PM

Ah, the eternal Portland vs Seattle debate ^_^

I'll just say that when I've visited Seattle (and maybe I've just had bad luck) it's been rainier/cooler than the weather I left behind in Portland. Also, I think I consider Seattle to be colder because my cousin lives in the hilly part of Seattle, and gets more snow than I do at sea-level in the suburbs of Portland.
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