Help me find a pedestrian friendly home!
March 4, 2007 12:45 PM   Subscribe

Is there a city with an awesome public transportation system that won't break the bank?

I'm living in Michigan right now, but I really don't belong here. I'd like to move by next fall before I have to sign a new lease, but I'm not sure where I want to go. I'm a terrible car owner and a nervous driver, so where ever I decide to go, I do not want be dependent on cars for anything (work, picking up groceries, you name it). The problem is, I can't realistically afford to live in the public transportation meccas of the universe, like NYC.

I've seen posts on here that discuss other cities (Boston, Philly, DC, etc.), but I want to hear more suggestions, especially if they're less expensive options.

Other factors:
1.) I want to avoid the Great Lakes and other cold regions, so Chicago and the twin cities don't appeal to me that much.

2.) I'm a vegetarian-liberal-cultured-environmentally conscious urbanite, and I generally like to stick with my own kind.

3.)I'd like to find work in a library or publishing house.

I'm looking forward to your answers! Also, I apologize if I screwed up the format of this question. This is my first post.
posted by english lit.ter bug to Travel & Transportation (40 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Portland, Oregon.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 12:48 PM on March 4, 2007

There is a reason NYC is the gold standard of public transportation: it is trains, not buses (mostly); it is pervasive; and it is open 24 hours. Nowhere else is going to be that good. That is part of the reason people make sacrifices to live here. One benefit is that you can live far from where you work, because the train goes everywhere, so you can actually find a cheap place to live. Also, stores are used to the fact that no one drives, so they are built more to deliver, etc. Everywhere else is going to be second best. It does get cold here, though.

Your other option is to move someplace small enough to be reasonably bikable. Like Portland.
posted by dame at 12:58 PM on March 4, 2007 [2 favorites]

Crouton: No, Portland will break the bank. Depends on where you live, I suppose, you can live anywhere cheaply... but I saw rent in the nicer areas of town (tualatin, closer-in beaverton, downtown, and esp. SE) rocket up by nearly $100/mo over the past two years ... I left a year ago because my rent went from $680 to $850 in some buildings close to PCC Sylvania -- for a 1br flat.

Gresham's pretty much the last place where you can live reasonably, reach downtown quickly (Light Rail) ... but you can't live that close to light rail.
posted by SpecialK at 1:01 PM on March 4, 2007

*Gresham's pretty much the last place where you can live reasonably without a car.
posted by SpecialK at 1:02 PM on March 4, 2007

Austin, TX: I ride the bus to get to school every day and I can't complain (too much). Fares are cheap and the buses generally run on time. Granted, I only ride on one line and therefore can't tell you much about getting around the entire city.

Austin meets your #2 criteria well, although I'm don't know enough about #3 to give an answer. As for #1, well, you should probably consider whether you're ready for the complete opposite of a "cold region".
posted by puritycontrol at 1:03 PM on March 4, 2007

Bits and pieces of DC fit your requirements (of course other bits and pieces completely don't), and housing-wise, it's very expensive (unless you're willing to live in a group house type of situation). It's also quite small, which means that depending on how you look at it, it's either very manageable or a bit stifling. Being a midwesterner, I find it manageable. Public transportation's pretty good - I use the metro buses a lot.
posted by echo0720 at 1:08 PM on March 4, 2007

If you live and work near the downtown, LA, the subway system is pretty good--in fact, no one ever asks you for a ticket :) Otherwise, LA sucks for public transportation unless, you live on one of the main streets that also has busses

DC is pretty good for transportation--very efficient and clean--everyone uses their subways
posted by DudeAsInCool at 1:10 PM on March 4, 2007

Second dame. You have to make sacrifices to live in New York, but once you're there, living without a car is easy and will place few limitations on where you can work/play/shop. Anywhere else, your car-free life will limit you to the jobs on public transit lines and to shopping at stores either nearby or that will deliver. It can be done, but why not bite the bullet and move to New York?

Your current rent plus your car expenses can't be that much less than what it would cost to live with roomies in the Bronx.
posted by backupjesus at 1:12 PM on March 4, 2007

Also, if you want to work in publishing, New York is the center of that universe. There are publishers elsewhere, but not to this extent. Lots of libraries here, but obviously, those are extant to some extent in every city.
posted by dame at 1:20 PM on March 4, 2007

stores are used to the fact that no one drives, so they are built more to deliver, etc

Yeah, this is definitely something to think about. I've never owned a car in my life & have lived in four decent public transit cities (Dublin, Amsterdam, New York and now Toronto). You can happily live car-free in any of them, but the quality of their transit systems and the pervasiveness of their car culture are NOT the same - New York is not even part of the same conversation as the other three. For example, in TO I can't get a subway before 9am on a Sunday (!) and in both Dublin & Toronto it's expected of a lot of people that they'll have access to a car for work and for play.

Depending on your lifestyle, there's no point in having an excellent bus route outside your apartment if it doesn't run late hours to get you home from the clubs, or if you need three transfers to get somewhere that sells cheap groceries, or if you work shifts but the bus doesn't, or you'll need a car any time you want to visit friends, etc. Not everyone makes the big bucks in NYC (I certainly didn't), if transit is a big lifestyle/political issue for you I think you owe it to yourself to investigate New York (and other subway cities like Boston and DC) thoroughly.
posted by jamesonandwater at 1:23 PM on March 4, 2007

Jacksonville, FL is the largest city in the Lower 48, and has a good, inexpensive bus system (fares are based on a zone system, with the minimum fare $0.75 and the maximum $1.50, unlimited monthly pass is $40) and Bikes-on-Buses is a popular alternative due to the flat terrain of the area and good cycling weather year round. There are free downtown trolleys, the Skyway monorail connecting both sides of the St. John River downtown, airport shuttle, water taxis, a river ferry, many major bridges with pedestrian lanes, and even a Ride-to-Read program for kids.

As to culture, we have libraries! And newspapers, NPR stations, a symphony orchestra, an NFL team, a minor league baseball team, movie and drive-in theatres, fishing piers, and even a blog dedicated to "Urban Jacksonville."

We don't care what you eat, or how you vote, if you extend us similar courtesy. The fish joints around here are great, though, and the Republicans throw the best campaign picnics.
posted by paulsc at 1:49 PM on March 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

I found metro Montreal to be very good for public transportation. Nowhere near as many subway routes as New York, and not 24 hours, but still I managed nearly a decade there carless, rarely giving transportation a second thought.
posted by mendel at 1:53 PM on March 4, 2007

If you don't mind college towns, I would recommend Chapel Hill, NC. The local bus system in town is free! and depending on which lines you use runs until around 2 AM. All the buses have bike racks and biking is common as well. Bus rides to Raleigh and Durham are also inexpensive. The Triangle area is home to UNC Chapel Hill, Duke University, and N.C. State so there is culture and plenty of good vegetarian restaurants.
posted by sosaidh at 2:17 PM on March 4, 2007

I love Austin and have lived here for nearly a decade, but I can't in honesty recommend it to someone without a car. Our buses aren't bad, and they're free much of the year (Ozone Action Days = free bus rides) but -- as someone with a car and who loves to drive, I am frequently called upon to give rides to people who don't have cars. There are just too many places that are difficult to reach, and the general expectation is that you will have a car, so things are not set up for the unautomobiled.
If you're willing to live and do all your business downtown, it might be doable -- certainly, there are many people who make it work -- but I would recommend looking elsewhere.
posted by katemonster at 2:20 PM on March 4, 2007

Hm. Are you asking for the city not to break the bank, or the public transportation not to break the bank?

San Francisco is, well, the latter, not the former. :)

Plus, somebody had to mention SF. May as well be me.

Here is what I have found: the places you want to avoid will be affordable. Where winters are bad, the cities are generally more affordable in rent and other various cost-of-living indexes. Where winters are mild, rents are high and job markets are tough and other cost-of-living items are also higher. As much as I would love to move to Portland, it looks like a tough city to find a good paying job in and the housing market is slowly creeping into the expensive territory to rival San Francisco.

The west coast is more expensive, generally speaking. But for the three criteria you list it is what fits your build.

If you don't want to live in SF proper there's always Oakland and Alameda, both of which have fantastic thriving artistic and creative communities, and both of which have pretty nice public transportation systems.

San Francisco proper, well, yeah, it's expensive. If you want to live by yourself then be prepared to fork over $800 minimum for a studio, but realistically think $950-$1000 a month for either a studio or a shared living situation. As far as public transportation, well, it's a double edge sword. It's there, but reliability is a notorious issue with the system in San Francisco. They are trying, but it's a gigantic struggle.

I've been doing it for eight years now with no car. I have a decent paying job that allows me to live in a great place with access to four major bus lines, a major light rail line, and my workplace is six blocks away (although, that means I walk up there to catch a shuttle as part of the institutions shuttle system, which is MUCH more reliable than MUNI). I've made it work. My wife currently works somewhere that she relies entirely on public transit, and it's tougher for her. She has horror stories of having to wait 30 minutes for a train that should come every 15.
posted by smallerdemon at 2:36 PM on March 4, 2007

Theres Vancouver, BC, too. The public transportation system has been expanding the last few years - reliable, frequent, and well connected (well, at least in the Lower Mainland). There's also a limited number of late-night bus routes that serve a limited area (the network goes to all corners, but is not very dense). There's also major work being done to enlarge the light-rail system.

It's expensive as heck to live here (relative to average salaries) but parts of the Vancouver Eastside, which is served well by public transit especially around the Broadway/Commercial area, is almost affordable (cheap studio/1 bed rent is ~$750 vs. $950-$1200 elsewhere here).

Many neighbourhoods (outside of the sub/exurbs), including the Broadway/Commercial area, have amenities (shopping, groceries, cafes, &c) within walking distance of (major) bus stops/housing areas. Parts of Vancouver are also very bike-friendly. There seems to be a lot of public libraries, but I'm not sure if that's the line of work you're into. There are also two "major" universities (UBC, Simon Fraser) with sub-campuses (and libraries) in the downtown core and a few community colleges (Langara, VCC, Capilano).
posted by porpoise at 2:59 PM on March 4, 2007

Every US city with a major public transportation system (except for NYC) thinks that their system is too limited, expensive, and unreliable. They're not necessarily wrong, but you accept these limitations if you want to get around.

You will have to be comfortable walking or biking longer distances than you expect, and it will take you longer to get places. Factor this in when making plans -- you may have to walk seven blocks to get to the bus and another seven blocks to get to your destination. If this is going to drive you nuts, you're going to wind up spending way too much money on taxis.

You will have to redefine convenient. Lugging home too-heavy bags of groceries, either walking or on the bus/subway, is more frustrating than stopping at the grocery store every other day.
posted by desuetude at 2:59 PM on March 4, 2007

I was just at the Oakland (CA) Library today, and they have some job openings. Rents in my neighborhood start at around 750 for a decent studio apartment. I have a car now that I use a couple times a week, but I lived here for years without. I wouldn't say public transit here is awesome (mostly because Bart stops running at the ridiculous hour of midnight), but it's doable.
posted by oneirodynia at 3:32 PM on March 4, 2007

If Portland is too expensive (although $850 for a 1 bedroom isn't at all in the league of NYC rents, which was the OPs specific concern), Eugene, Oregon has the vegetarian-liberal-cultured-environmentally conscious urbanite thing in spades and a reasonable bus system and a great bike-path infrastructure. It's a little light on the "urbanite" thing, being a small city, but the quality of life there is high, and with several universities and plenty of cultural opportunities, it has plenty to do and see.
posted by maniactown at 3:33 PM on March 4, 2007

Seconding Chapel Hill/Carrboro. It's vegetarian-liberal-cultured-environmentally conscious, almost to a fault actually, and the buses are free and go everywhere you actually want to go (some out of the way subdivisions are a little off the busline) and you can walk/bike almost everywhere and everything sosaidh said.
posted by greta simone at 3:37 PM on March 4, 2007

One of the nice things about Chapel Hill is that it's only maybe 5 miles from one end to the other, which makes it quite comfortably bikeable (though hilly). Many of the bus lines only run every 30 minutes or so, and you'll want to make sure you live close to a grocery store... I lived there two years without a car, and there were some occasionally very painful moments (like the time I spent 6 hours to get to the multiplex to see Serenity) but on the whole it was pretty doable.
posted by Jeanne at 3:37 PM on March 4, 2007

Consider St. Louis. It's a couple of hundred miles south of the Great Lakes region, so it doesn't snow much. Public transportation, while not fantastic, is adequate. There's a light-rail system (Metrolink) with two lines and a fairly extensive bus system.

Downtown St. Louis is alive and well these days. The Central West End area is about three miles west of downtown and would be a good area for an apartment; it is served by the Metrolink train, which will get you downtown, near several libraries and to the airport. Rents and cost of living are cheap here compared to other places.
posted by tomwheeler at 3:50 PM on March 4, 2007

I know that you say Chicago and "other cold regions" are out, but as someone who grew up in the Philadelphia/NYC area and now lives in Chicago, I just wanted to mention that the weather in the two regions is relatively comparable. (In fact, my parents - who still live in Pennsylvania - often joke that they know what the weather will be in two days based on what the weather is like in Chicago today.) And, besides the weather, Chicago is also home to plenty of urbanites of your stripe, and is quite affordable compared to most coastal cities. My rent for a studio is just over $600, and I live directly on a major bus route to the loop.

Feel free to disregard, of course, but I hope you don't dismiss Chicago out of hand because it's in the midwest. It's a great city, even for an East Coast girl like myself, and quite culturaly distinct from everything that surrounds it.
posted by CtrlAltDelete at 4:25 PM on March 4, 2007

If you want to work in publishing (or find out if you do), then New York and adjacent New Jersey are worth the adventure of finding someplace affordable to live. Salaries are higher there, too -- not just costs.
posted by gum at 5:16 PM on March 4, 2007

Theres Vancouver, BC, too.

Except that the buses are always late and both the buses (on main routes) and Skytrains are frequently packed tight even in off-peak hours. Vancouver is much less pedestrian-friendly than it was ten years ago. I wouldn'ty describe our transit system as "awesome" in any way.
posted by solid-one-love at 5:47 PM on March 4, 2007

Jacksonville, FL […] has a good, inexpensive bus system

I really have to disagree with this. It may be inexpensive, but it's really inconvenient. The buses are frequently late, and sometimes just don't come for no apparent reason. There's also the problem that at any given bus stop, there will seldom be more than one or two buses per hour, because the JTA has spread its routes out over several nearby streets, especially downtown. This means that if you miss the bus, or your bus is running late, the next bus that will get you to where you want to go will likely be a block or two away, rather than five or ten minutes later at the same stop.

Also, there are many places where there just are no sidewalks, and a lot of things are rather far apart (where my father used to live is over two miles from the nearest grocery store). If you do not have a car, where you can live, and where and when you can work, will be dictated by the JTA's bizarrely deficient schedule.
posted by oaf at 8:08 PM on March 4, 2007

(Not that Jacksonville's a bad place to live—you just can't get anywhere without a car.)
posted by oaf at 8:08 PM on March 4, 2007

Reconsider Chicago. Except for the fact that you dismissed it out of hand, it meets all your other criteria. Buy a really nice winter coat and suck it up.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 8:59 PM on March 4, 2007

Definitely consider New York. You can get a nice studio or one-bedroom in someplace like Brooklyn or Queens for about $800 and up. If you decide to share a 2BR with a roommate, that would reduce rental costs by a lot.

Many people think of New York City as just Manhattan, which is out of almost everyone's league, but there are plenty of us here in the outer boroughs who don't drive and love it.

I'm personally afraid to drive. I get frazzled. I don't like it.
posted by cmgonzalez at 9:47 PM on March 4, 2007

Also, there's not enough love for our bus system here. The trains are the centerpiece, but the buses serve where the trains do not. It's a rich bus system that will get you anyplace you need to go.
posted by cmgonzalez at 9:48 PM on March 4, 2007

"(Not that Jacksonville's a bad place to live—you just can't get anywhere without a car.)"
posted by oaf at 11:08 PM EST on March 4

oaf, I live a couple blocks off Atlantic Boulevard, near San Pablo. I ride the buses here and walk frequently (although I also drive whenever I want, and have a truck and a car), and within 3 block walking distance are Publix, Winn Dixie and Food Lion grocery stores, plus both Lowes and Ace Hardware stores, Starbucks, Radio Shack, Blockbuster, liquor stores, bars, a German restaurant, an Outback Steakhouse, McDonalds, Taco Bell, Burger King, Krispy Kreme, Applebee's, Chik Fil A, a gym, couple of Italian places, Chinese restaurant, a UPS store and a smaller mail/copy place, a Walgreens drug store, a Panera Bread bakery, and a Moe's Southwestern Grill, not to mention several dry cleaners, gas stations, a 12 bay car wash, 2 city parks, several pre-school/day care centers, 3 banks, 2 doctor's offices, a dentist, 2 veternarians, and a dance studio. That's off the top of my head (I'm probably forgetting a bunch of joints).

Within a 6 block radius, you can add a Home Depot, Sonny's barbeque, a Steinmart department store, several high end jewelry shops, a local computer store, a specialty fish retailer, a butcher shop, a Jiffy Lube, a couple more gas stations, 4 doctor's offices, 3 dentists, 3 veternarians, a couple of investment brokers, CPA's, a pizza joint, another Chinese restaurant, a Goodwill store, a couple of Cingular/Sprint phone stores, some more jewlers, etc.

Increasing the radius from where I live to 1 mile, puts me in range of Target, Walmart, and other big box retailers, plus a couple hundred more retail estabishments of all descriptions. Not to mention a couple of golf courses, the Inter-Coastal Waterway, some boat yards, a couple of strip joints, and some large schools.

In the morning, between 6:30 and 8:00 at least 6 buses headed for downtown (direct via Atlantic, or transfer at Arlington) go past the bus stop 2 blocks from my house. An equal number head for the Beaches. If I jump a downtown bus, I'm 14 miles away in San Marco in 35 to 40 minutes, which is about as fast as I can drive. From San Marco, I can walk or bike 10 blocks to Baptist Hospital in less than 15 minutes. If I want to be downtown in the business district, I might transfer in Arlington, and come in the north side, adding perhaps 20-30 minutes for the transfer and additional distance, including more bus stops and traffic around construction on Arlington Parkway.

If I grab a Beaches bound bus, I can be at the dividing line between Atlantic Beach and Neptune Beach in under 20 minutes, generally, including the walk to the bus stop from my house. I can be at the Pavillon in Jacksonville Beach in 30 minutes, max.

Your Dad may live in Orange Park, or out in Mandarin, or by the old Cecil Field, where development is sparse, but his experience is not necessarily typical of everyone living here. Jacksonville is huge, geographically, and a full crosstown bus trip can take a couple of hours, it's true. But whether or not a person drives, it wouldn't make sense to live on one side of town, and work on the other, would it? And if you don't have a car, and choose to live miles from a grocery store, your life is bound to be inconvenient, isn't it?
posted by paulsc at 12:02 AM on March 5, 2007

The new lightrail system in Denver is pretty friggin sweet for the areas it covers– and if those are the places you live, work, and like to hang out in (which they probably will be), you'd be golden. It's not that bad getting around outside the lightrail served area either, but it's not as fast.

As for the "vegetarian-liberal-cultured-environmentally conscious urbanite" aspect of the city, Denver is certainly liberal for the most part in many aspects (at least central Denver), and you won't be hard-pressed to find environmentally conscious vegetarians in town either.

Denver is not by any means, though, a "big city" on the scale of NYC, SF, LA, or even Seattle. It has it's perks and things that make it special, but you're not going to find that big-city-buzz.
posted by dantekgeek at 1:10 AM on March 5, 2007

Madrid is my idea of perfect but that may not work for you. Where else can you get a 10 ride subway/bus ticket for around $6.50?
posted by JJ86 at 6:28 AM on March 5, 2007

Live in New Jersey, work in New York. You won't need a car if you're in Hudson County, and Jersey City still has lots of affordable areas to live. Then you can take advantage of those cushy NYC salaries without having to blow them all on NYC rents.
posted by bink at 9:32 AM on March 5, 2007

Portland's changed a lot in the past ten years and is likely to continue to change dramatically as it grows. I'm personally a bit worried that Portland's coveted livability will be it's own undoing as people move here, but transit-minded folk like yourself will be very welcome and fit in quite well.

That being said, our mass transit system ain't all that. It works great for a 9-to-5 commute, but if you're out past last call, you're stuck and Sundays can be dicey, so it helps to have a backup mode of transportation, such as a bicycle. Definitely plan on living within walking distance of a frequent service bus route. The west hills are a decent barrier to bike commuting and most of the culture and fun stuff is on the east side.

The Pearl district is built to be pedestrian friendly, but it's really a nouveau riche afterthought. The bar for low-income housing in the city center is pretty low, though, because it's based on the median income of the neighborhood. (For instance, Pearl Court is nice.) Most of our other pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods are more shopping-centric than livable, so instead of a tight nucleus of essential stores, you've usually got a whole lot of trendy stuff with one or two useful things spread out linearly along a particular street (I'm thinking of Hawthorne, Alberta, Mississippi.)

There was a recent article that made the argument that Portland is one of the least affordable cities if you account for the competitive and low paying job market. But, if you come here with a job already in hand, you're golden. I'm living here on about 12k a year sans automobile with roommate, but we got a good deal on rent and I'm a little worried about the fact that we're likely going to have to find a new apartment soon.
posted by Skwirl at 10:46 AM on March 5, 2007

a 12 bay car wash

They let you carry a car onto a transit bus these days?
posted by solid-one-love at 10:53 AM on March 5, 2007

I've been to every city mentioned in this thread and I'm going to have to say that NYC and Chicago are the only real transit systems in America, in that they have enough infrastructure to get you from home to work AND from home to whatever you want to do at night.

I know you dismissed Chicago because of the weather, but I think it's worth a reconsider. I lived there for about six years and loved it. I am very aligned with you politically and found Chicago to be a great place to live for that.

Also, Chicago was also named the #1 city over 1mil people for biking in the US and I ended up biking a lot while I lived there.

San Francisco's transportation is OK, but I find myself getting into a car every time I'm there. Same goes for Seattle and Portland.

Having said all of this, though, I moved last year to Berlin, Germany. Don't know that you're looking to expatriate, but if you are, I highly recommend it. It definitely meets all your requirements. I only know two people who even own cars and you really can't get any more liberal than Berlin.
posted by atomly at 1:39 PM on March 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

atomly: I've been to every city mentioned in this thread and I'm going to have to say that NYC and Chicago are the only real transit systems in America, in that they have enough infrastructure to get you from home to work AND from home to whatever you want to do at night.

As someone held captive to it, I cay with total authority that Chicago's transit system is decrepit, full of slow zones, and about to be crippled by the disabling of one of its four north side tracks. Under no circumstances can it be considered in an acceptable state.
posted by WCityMike at 9:13 PM on March 5, 2007

As other posters have said, no city is a monolith in terms of cost of living. There's a lot of overlap: rents in many parts of NYC are cheaper than rents in many parts of SF, Boston and even Chicago.

Living in the affordable parts of another major city, you're likely to have a lot less access to transportation than living in the more affordable parts of NYC. Especially considering how much more convenient it is to live on a 24/7 subway line (like all of NYC's system) than on a bus line.

I've used Chicago's system and it's good but, as WCityMike said, limited and about to be more limited. Most other cities are primarily bus-based and that's just light years less convenient than a 24/7 network, insulated from the weather, with (mostly) underground waiting areas.
posted by allterrainbrain at 9:43 AM on March 6, 2007

I just came across this post. How about Philadelphia?

Although SEPTA is the transit provider, I avoid them when possible. The city is accessible by foot and pedal. Center city tends to be more expensive, but I've lived in a one bedroom apartment for $800 (until last year) that was for me the most convenient place to live in.

South Philly tends to be more inexpensive (I currently live in a house that rents for $700) and is ~15 min walk from center city.

West Philly (where I've also lived) can also be inexpensive (the further you go away from UPENN the cheaper it gets).

SEPTA has two main subway lines that can get you most places in the city + the trolleys that are on the street level in West Philly. However there is talk of SEPTA raising fares/cutting services this summer. A year or so ago there was a two week strike with no transit service. I was not affected as I lived and worked in Center City.

I am not too crazy about the weather, but center city often is the warmest compared with other neighborhoods.

Based on your requirements, west philly would be most suitable. Many, many people like yourself live there (the vegetarian-liberal-cultured-environmentally conscious urbanite type). There is the Upenn library as well as the City library and there are a few publishing houses here like Elsevier.
posted by bkpr at 10:33 AM on April 16, 2007

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