Looking for a cheap, car-not-required place to live that actually has jobs.
May 3, 2011 9:42 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for a place to live in the U.S. that is a) relatively affordable (compared to Los Angeles), b) does not require a car to get around and c) does not suffer from sky-high unemployment. Does such a place exist?
posted by allseeingabstract to Grab Bag (26 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
There are a lot of things I don't like about Chicago, but one of the good things about it, and the reason I'm still here, is that to me it falls into a sweet spot where it has a relatively low cost of living (compared to other large cities) while still having a decently broad and strong job market. Of course, the job situation is not great anywhere right now, but the unemployment rate here is a little lower than the national rate. You can certainly live without a car.
posted by enn at 9:49 AM on May 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

What industry are you in?
Do you have climate requirements?
Do you have hobbies and sports you'd like to accommodate?
Do you need to be near a major airport/airline hub to facilitate travel to other cities?

I would say a few midwestern cities may suit your basic question but the winters are a dealbreaker for an awful lot of people.
posted by padraigin at 9:53 AM on May 3, 2011

Why, you must be talking about beautiful Madison, Wisconsin! University employees get a free bus pass, and we have several car-sharing services.

The winters suck ass, but at least you're in the same boat as everyone else. But they ARE doable without a car.
posted by Madamina at 9:55 AM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think a fair number of Midwestern college towns would fit your bill, with padraigin's stipulations about whether you require decent weather, urban amenities, and access to a major airport.
posted by craichead at 9:57 AM on May 3, 2011

4.1% unemployment in Lincoln, NE. However, the public transportation (read: buses) stops at 6pm.
posted by trueluk at 9:57 AM on May 3, 2011

How about Philadelphia? A quick search shows cost-of-living is 28% less than LA, you don't need a car (for all we complain, SEPTA isn't that bad, and unemployment is 9.9%, vs 12% in LA. Plus, Philly is a great town to live in.
posted by The Michael The at 9:59 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Your criteria is sufficiently vague that you're not going to get a good answer out of this question. (All employment statistics are not created equally, and one person's affordable city is another's bankbreaker. So without providing the context that we need to answer this question - ie what kind of work you're looking for, and what qualities you are looking for in an "affordable" city - you're sunk.)

But, I do have a suggestion that you should consider: when looking for a car-not-required city, you need to actually ask yourself what level of carfree lifestyle you're willing to accept. Houston is not considered a car-free city by just about anyone's standards. And yet, I hate cars so very much that I will happily take the bus anywhere rather than have to deal with a car. And it is totally doable.

But you really need to ask yourself a lot of questions about what kind of car-free lifestyle you want to live:

Have you ever lived car-free before? Are you a cyclist? What length of public transit commute is going to be considered acceptable to you? How much are you willing to pay to live car-free? Do you have housing requirements that might price you out of convenient car-free living locations? Do you require trains or will you ride buses - or are you looking for a New Pedestrianism utopia where you and everyone else leave cars behind entirely?

I loved Philadelphia and didn't need a car there. Trains, buses, and everything was walking distance anyway. If I were the type that could handle having a roommate, then the cost of living would have been affordable. But two years ago, I couldn't find a real job that would permit me to live alone, so I left the city behind.

Houston is much more affordable, and I managed to find a great job here. The weather isn't to my liking, and everything is spread WAY out (so walking is out of the question). But living and working around the medical center is an excellent, affordable, car-free lifestyle that I can't recommend more highly. The Texas Medical Center is a huge employer here - aside from the energy industry, it is Houston's Other Big Industry.
posted by jph at 10:07 AM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

i just worked on a nationwide music tour, and you know what town really stood out as a totally surprising cultural gem? Kansas City, MO...there's this huge arts district that's just beautiful, it was really easy to get around in, and there's (fun fact) more public fountains there than any city other than Rome.
posted by sexyrobot at 10:09 AM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Regarding climate, there are not that many non-car-dependent cities south of the Mason-Dixon line, since heavy urban development there didn't occur until after A/C made a wide debut and car-friendly suburbia was well underway. For walkability and public transit, you are mostly stuck with "older cities with winters." Some older Southern cities have very walkable downtowns, but may or may not be otherwise livable (may have no supermarkets, for example).
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:11 AM on May 3, 2011

How about Philadelphia? A quick search shows cost-of-living is 28% less than LA, you don't need a car (for all we complain, SEPTA isn't that bad, and unemployment is 9.9%, vs 12% in LA. Plus, Philly is a great town to live in.

Hey yeah! I lived in a lovely little apartment in West Philly, on my own, which I afforded just fine at a job where I made like 8-something an hour. I took public transit and walked a lot, and found lots of free events going on. Philly seems to have a pretty good crust-punk/hippie population that creates lots of cheap and DIY events. I liked it.
posted by Greg Nog at 10:13 AM on May 3, 2011

The second is going to be your limiting factor. I can find you plenty of places which meet the first and third criteria, but there are very, very few places where you can do pretty well without a vehicle, and most of them aren't terribly affordable, even by the bizarre standards of greater LA.

Places you can at least theoretically do without a car without having to walk more than a mile on a daily basis* or simply refrain from activities the rest of us take for granted include:

- New York

- Washington, DC

- Chicago

- Boston

- Philadelphia

Chicago has the lowest cost of living of any of those, and while it's cheaper than LA, it's still a lot more expensive than most of the rest of the country. Average rent in LA is something like $1,850, according to cost of living tables. In Chicago it's $1450. In Atlanta it's $790, and in Fort Wayne, Indiana, it's $650. Muck about with the calculator and you'll get an idea about what I'm talking about. But living without a car in Fort Wayne is basically impossible.

The fact of the matter is that the United States is really, really big, and society has decided it wants to take advantage of that fact. This means that very little is built within walking distance of anything else outside of the biggest cities in the country, which are the only places it's even remotely economical to have large-scale public transportation systems.

There are places all over the country where people who can afford cars choose to do without them, but in most places this represents a deliberate and non-cost-free lifestyle choice, not a natural response to the transportation environment. jph's comment is what I'm talking about. Sure, you can do without a car in Houston (or Madison), but it's going to take some fairly serious planning and adaptation. There are buses, but if they're anything like the buses in most urban areas outside New York City, they shut down between 11:30PM and 6:00AM during the week and between 10:30PM and 7:00-8:00AM on the weekends, buses only come twice, maybe three times in an hour, and the schedules tend to be inexact at best. Bus transit also takes a lot longer than driving, to the point that if you're going less than ten blocks it can actually be faster to walk. Biking becomes an attractive option, but that has its own issues, particularly weather (hence all those comments about winter).

So really, if your defining criteria is not needing a car, you're probably looking at a major urban area, and that means paying a premium on rent. Finding one where unemployment is no higher than average is actually the least of your worries. If you're willing to get a car and are just looking for a cheap city with better-than-average job prospects, hell, the world's your oyster. But sticking on that no-driving bit is going to cost you, I'm afraid.

*I pick that distance not because walking more than that is impossible, but because it can be pretty inconvenient, especially for things like grocery shopping, and it adds hugely to commute times. My seven mile commute takes me 15-25 minutes in the car, but it'd easily take two hours on foot.
posted by valkyryn at 10:16 AM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Washington DC- world class public transit, soft job market, cost of living might be higher than you'd want but there's definitely good cheap housing options.
posted by forkisbetter at 10:16 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Pittsburgh's unemployment rate is at 7% and it's cheap as heck to live here. I've never lived without a car but I know people who do and it's definitely do-able as long as you pick the right neighborhood (Sq. Hill, Shadyside, East Liberty, Southside, Lower Northside for example). I do have a car here but it's mostly for grocery runs and trips out of town, I could manage pretty easily with the bus system and occasional ZipCar rentals. According to Wikipedia, almost a third of the city's residents don't have a car.
posted by octothorpe at 10:26 AM on May 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

Baltimore meets your criteria, but, as people have pointed out, your criteria are a bit on the vague side.

For what it is worth, I live in Baltimore, work in DC, no car, use buses, commuter trains and the occasional ZipCar or weekend car rental. Cheaper to live in than DC, but not for everyone (I love Baltimore, have met perfectly sane-seeming people who hated it there). Being from Detroit, everywhere seems to have tons of jobs, but with Baltimore and DC being easy to get around and between, there are a lot of job options. Amtrak commuting to Philadelphia or Wilmington, DE is not out of the question, either.
posted by QIbHom at 10:27 AM on May 3, 2011

To sort of back up the Madison, WI suggestion, I went to college there without a car. It's doable if you stay fairly concentrated in the downtown area. But if you happen to get a job (or an apartment) that's farther out, it might be tough. However, Madison is one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country, and as Madamina mentioned there's also the bus.

Madison is definitely affordable.

I am not at all qualified to tell you whether you'll have an easy time finding a job there in your specific field.
posted by John Cohen at 10:37 AM on May 3, 2011

Forkisbetter - DC's job market is pretty spectacular compared to the rest of the country -- it's hardly soft. But it will be a hell of a task finding a cheap apartment in an areas that's suited to car-free living.

Living in Baltimore is cheap but the Balt.-DC commute is a bear.
posted by The Lamplighter at 11:10 AM on May 3, 2011

Are you in the medical field? There are a slew of positions open at my company that I'd love to collect the bonus for filling! This is in Portland, ME. You don't need a car to get around. Portland is very walkable in many areas and a bus system connects the entire city along with adjacent cities. You can bike to any destination in the city in a half hour. If you want to bike to the beach it's about a ten mile ride. You can hop a train (or bus) to Boston and be there in about two hours. We also have car-sharing if you occasionally want/need a car.
posted by mikepop at 11:15 AM on May 3, 2011

New Orleans is certainly less expensive than major cities like LA, Chicago, NYC and DC. It's weathering the recession fairly well because of the post-Katrina influx of federal funds, and it never had the big housing boom and then bust. Still, it's not the the most dynamic economy but there is a small but growing entrepreneur scene. The city is flat and pretty compact so it's pretty easy to get around by bike. Just watch out for potholes. The city is trying to become more bike friendly and has been adding bike lanes. The public transit system is OK but improving.
posted by Leontine at 11:27 AM on May 3, 2011

Thanks for all the responses so far, guys! Weather is not necessarily a dealbreaker for me so I'm taking all these Midwest recommendations into consideration. I know my criteria are vague, but that was intentional so it would generate the largest variety of responses.

I've lived in Chicago and wouldn't be averse to going back.

Philly sounds interesting -- but it seems like it has a reputation for having lots of crime. Is this unfounded? How's the weather in Philly?

Thanks for all the responses!
posted by allseeingabstract at 11:43 AM on May 3, 2011

Fourthing?? Philadelphia. Meets all your requirements and is a city without the too big city feel( Read: not too expensive..$900 rent for a 1 bed/ maybe 2 in the nice art museum/fairmount park area)
I live in the suburbs of philly with 5 min walk to train station + 30 min to Philadelphia. After that walk, bus or take the underground trains( not as developed as other cities).

In addition Philadelphia is max 2 hours drive/bus/train to DC and NYC if you want the big city feel on the weekends.
posted by radsqd at 11:51 AM on May 3, 2011

Philly has four solid seasons. Winter can be cold but not frigid like the midwest and was mild for a while in there (but has picked up a bit with the snow in recent winters). Spring is usually pretty glorious, and cool, and a little wet. Summers are warm and muggy and an architectural idiosyncrasy of Philadelphia is the prevalence of "roofdecks" which are brilliant, rickety structures stapled to the tops of every rowhouse for miles around, which permits you to get up above the city, enjoy the sunset, the view and a bit of the night air. And fall... well... if you've never experienced a cool autumn day, with a bit of warm sunshine to keep you comfortable, walking around while pumpkins sit out on the stoops of historic rowhouses covered in bright red and orange ivy... well... you don't know what real autumn can be like.

As for crime... show me a city without it? Philly gets a bad rap for a lot of things that it really doesn't deserve. Crime is only one of them. There are some rough parts of town - but check some of the old threads (there are some specifically asking about good neighborhoods in Philadelphia) and you'll get a pretty robust idea of what places are nice to live, and which you should probably skip.
posted by jph at 11:55 AM on May 3, 2011

Philadelphia has a lot more crime than most other places in the state, but a lot less crime than some other major urban areas. I mean, everybody's better than Detroit these days, but Chicago has had several national news-making murder sprees in the past few years. Philadelphia hasn't.

Take a look at the figures. Philadelphia has more violent crimes than New York--which has one of the lowest rates in the country--but less than Memphis, Detroit, or Baltimore, despite having almost twice the population of any of them. It's also apparently pretty good on property crime. Indianapolis, Indiana is way, way more dangerous in terms of both violent and property crime, if that tells you anything, and to the extent that Indy has a bad reputation it's mostly because it's boring as hell, not because it's particularly dangerous.

Just don't live in South Philly and you'll be fine.
posted by valkyryn at 12:15 PM on May 3, 2011

Nashville, TN.

Very affordable, easy to live in without a car, and unemployment is about at the national average. If you get a staff job at Vanderbilt you can ride the bus for free. Very mild and pleasantly snowy winters, great in the springtime, and lots of free art- and music-centered events. Nashville is a fantastic mix of people, and is as cosmopolitan as it is full of southern charm.
posted by nicodine at 1:12 PM on May 3, 2011

I'd suggest Washington, DC from what you've described, but it's very dependent on what you want to do when you get there. Public transit makes living in and around DC an absolute breeze. Affordability is directly proportional to the niceness of area you want to be in, so you can find some steals by being on the edge of a lot of nicer zones.
posted by SNWidget at 2:44 PM on May 3, 2011

Both Denver and Albuquerque have very reasonable costs of living, lots of great stuff to do and are very good places to live without a car. There are plenty of jobs in both places, although it does depend on what field you're in what you'll find. There are also places in Wyoming that fit the bill, although my willingness to bike/walk far distances is higher than most people's.

It would be good to know how big a city/town you'd like to live in.
posted by stoneweaver at 2:49 PM on May 3, 2011

Affordability is directly proportional to the niceness of area you want to be in, so you can find some steals by being on the edge of a lot of nicer zones.

SNWidget said this about Washington. But this is true in other cities as well.
posted by madcaptenor at 9:39 AM on May 4, 2011

« Older MeFi clone, on the cheap?   |   Where to stop on drive from SMF to SNA? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.