Great, affordable downtowns that don't require a car?
Yesterday I got the good news from my work that my remote work assignment is now permanent and I am free to live and work anywhere in the US. I get to keep my salary so really any place is on the table for me and I wanted to get some feedback and advice from those who live or have lived across the US.
While I would personally be content moving to the middle of nowhere, my partner has been aching to get out of the suburbs of the Bay area and be around more people and things to do that wouldn't require her to drive places. Personally, I'm looking to take my rent price down to a maximum of ~$2100 per month for a 2 bedroom that will give us enough space to each do our remote work. Some places that I have been looking at are:
- San Diego, CA - not so affordable but has great dog beaches and vibrant downtown
- Chattanooga, TN - affordable but small for my partner and lacks the restaurant variety we have grown accustomed to in CA. Knoxville, TN may be a runner up.
- Kansas City, MO - I have nephews that I have neglected being a part of their life and this would put me within 30 minutes of being close to them. Apartments are dirt cheap in downtown.
- Richmond, VA - closer to my parents but haven't looked too into this. I grew up on the complete other side of VA but am willing to come back to the state .
- Chicago, IL - this place is massive and I have no idea what are the best places in the city to live vs. what to avoid. I have always heard Chicago is underrated and I'm not opposed to the cold. I like that they have tons to do but it isn't really close to family as I would like to be.
Anyways, I'm open to hearing about some underrated places and putting some time into researching them. Walkability and things to do are critical in selling the city to my partner who really doesn't want to drive to do anything.
Just to chime in regarding Chicago and San Diego.
I grew up in San Diego, from the age of about 10 until I left for college. I find that San Diego is a lovely place to visit, but an awful place to live. It's a military town through and through with three major bases nearby (NB San Diego, MCAS Miramar, and Camp Pendelton), and it does affect the culture quite a bit. That's not to say that being in the military is bad, but rather that the whole city feels kind of... transient? There are a lot of neighborhoods in the city proper and walking, or getting around by bus, is really annoying outside of your own neighborhood. There's also little public transit.
Chicago is the opposite. It's boring as a tourist, and once you've seen the museums - which are great - that's it. But it's composed entirely of tiny little neighborhoods with their own downtowns, merged into one big city and linked together with some pretty great public transit. I can't speak to your other options, but at a budget of $2100, you should have no problem finding a 2bed or even a 3bed in a nice area, close to the train.
EDIT: To chime in to what @Litmus2336 says: I'm a woman and I definitely would not use SD pubtrans after dark, and I actually do often take the Chicago trains at night from time to time and feel pretty safe doing it.
You're the opposite of me! I grew up near Chicago and moved to SD. I love SD, but agree without a car it isn't great. I also miss Chicago every day although I'm not sure I'd move back. SD is great if you love nature. I don't like the city too much unfortunately
Yeah that's a really good point. It doesn't sound like OP is super into hiking, but if he's willing to get into that it could be a great choice. My dad and I did GeoCacheing in the San Diego area for years and hadn't nearly exhausted the hiking spots by the time I moved out.
Oh, I'm definitely into nature and hiking! I bought my motorcycle specifically to go motocamping next year :)
Well, in that case you'll love San Diego's surrounding areas. Excluding mid-summer, it's hiking season all year round, and it's very interesting terrain.
I love Chicago. I grew up in the Chicago area, and was born in the city.
But the winters are brutal, especially without a car. It's not just cold temps. It's a total experience: trudging through snow slush on sidewalks, snow salt getting everywhere, and so on. It means wearing lots of uncomfortable layers: thermal long underwear + pants, shirt + sweater + heavy parka, insulated gloves, boots, double socks. The ritual of constantly taking off, putting on those many layers as you enter and leave buildings.
It's a great city that offers the amenities of a world-class city — but its winter is a natural form of rent control. ;) I recommend OP spending a week or two trying out Chicago's deep winter before moving there and seeing if s/he can tolerate it or not.
Philadelphia area is great. The burbs are a bit harder to be fully car-free, but there's still lots of options thanks to regional rail and decent bus system.
There's plenty of nice areas to choose from (especially if school system is a non-factor) where rent for a 2 BR is < $1500.
Weird flex, but I had one apartment where I had 3 broadband providers to choose from, which is damn near unheard of in the USA.
And kinda in a sweet spot location wise where you can easily visit New York, Baltimore, and DC for day trips. Nothing quite like that late night bus back to Philly from NYC after a show.
Need more criteria. What kind of home do you want (SFH, apartment, townhome)? Are you going completely car-free? Preferred climate? Hobbies? Do you have any pets?
Thank you for replying!
Open to any type of home as long as there is walking proximity to downtown or in downtown. She could be considered car-free but I will still have my car and motorcycle.
Open to any climate although I'm avoiding Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, and Oklahoma.
I have my hobbies like playing video games, watching sports, riding my motorcycle. She doesn't really have any hobbies except going to the beach, although she and I would like to get more hobbies.
One small dog that we like to include with everything we do.
Alrighty, well I guess I’ll through Augusta, GA and Aiken, SC into the ring. The downtowns are small, but they’re reasonably walkable, and there’s lots of trails in the area. North Augusta, SC (where I’m at) has lots of new development along the waterfront, and it’s just across the Savannah River from downtown Augusta. Aiken is a bit more old money, but a slower pace, wide live oak-lined boulevards, among others. Augusta has old mills converted into apartments. I can answer more questions if you’d like.
Thanks for this website, it is extremely helpful. I like that I can see best to worst neighborhoods outlined in the various scores for a city. Super awesome!
I'll throw Ann Arbor MI into the ring. It is 100% a college town due to the University of Michigan, which brings both positives and negatives. Lot of culture, vibrant downtown that's very walkable, and a decent (not great) bus system. Detroit* is about 30-40min away if you want to go see a larger event like the DSO, an off-broadway play, or someone on tour. I've lived in Ann Arbor and currently work there, but live in Ypsilanti which is the adjacent town (property taxes are better).
Other selling points of Michigan :
*Nothing against Detroit, I just haven't actually lived in it so don't feel qualified to get into detail
Off-topic, but what is it about Michigan that so many (relatively speaking) Tilders are from here?
In any case, I can't recommend car-lessness anywhere in the state. A recent visit to Ann Arbor during the summer, with few students in town, was still fraught with bus delays. Pedestrian-car and bike-car accidents are frequent. As /u/DepartedPretzel mentioned, the state's roads were designed long ago and we've got relatively high road fatality rates for these interactions.
I'm in a part of the state with fantastic biking and hiking trails, but you'd be taking your life into your own hands to commute and shop without a personal vehicle. Even in locales with heavy bus coverage, few stops provide any shelter, and this is a recipe for sunstroke or frostbite.
OTOH, look closely at Philadelphia - terrific mass transit systems; all the hiking, biking, kayaking, and climbing you could want within an hour or two of the city; still-affordable housing around the city center; lots of cultural and foodie attractions/events.
I have noticed what seemed to be a rather disproportionate number of Michigan folks, but I attributed it to personal bias. Same as if you have a green car you notice other people with green cars.
If anyone wants to grab a beer in the Ypsi/A2 area, hit me up! I'm usually mostly inoffensive in person.
Which is also hysterical, because the spouse got a Subaru in dull green, thinking it wouldn't look like every other car in the parking lots. Surprise - every 5th car here is suddenly a dull green Subaru, and he's routinely going to the wrong one.
@Merry does point out that only their partner is going car-free. They will still have a car and motorcycle.
I live in San Diego now. Transit is very mediocre, everything takes a long time and some desirable things (beaches) are hard to get to. paradoxically there is better public transit to wealthier areas, bar a few which exclude it almost entirely. But some neighborhoods are walkable. San Diego is very split up into neighborhoods, and it can be hard to traverse between them. That said we're in the middle of a rent crisis, you can probably only get a single in a not super trendy area for what you're looking at. I live with 3 roommates in a 3 bedroom very far north, it's 4500. In the heart of downtown a single can run you 3k.
I used to live in a suburb of Chicago and I love Chicago. Great transit, especially near the loop where you can go anywhere. That said, I wouldn't use it after dark. TBH I'm not sure if I'd use San Diego traffic after dark if I was woman presenting.
AMA happy to offer help
Yeah, my partner noticed the rental prices have skyrocketed just in the past year. I assume it is because there are people just like me doing exactly what I am doing now. Sorry about that :(
San Diego has typically been our go-to vacation destination for the past 4 years. I enjoyed my time the most when I could stay planted where we were and not have to drive anywhere. I did notice traffic can be downright awful if you decide to drive at an inopportune time. Our biggest draw is the dog beach in either Coronado or Ocean Beach but pickings are indeed slim. It may be that we just continue to use San Diego as our vacation destination in the future and move somewhere a little cheaper.
Yeah, Chicago seems like a sleeper hit along with Philly. It is definitely the largest metro area we are considering that seems to check all the boxes with good food and entertainment. How dog friendly is the city?
Chicago is very dog friendly in my experience. In fact the 40th ward is about to invest a bunch of money into new dog parks, and it seems like a bit of a trend across the city. And remember, even though it's not the ocean there are tons of lake beaches which are really nice in the summer!
Hm, I've never had a dog. It's often cold or hot so I'm not sure if it's quite like Coronado where lots of restaurants will take dogs on the patio, but it's probably not too bad. There are also lots of urban parks. I haven't lived there in about 6 years so maybe a current resident can chime in.
No need to worry about rents increasing, I'm a transplant too haha. Coronado is insanely expensive unfortunately, but I do love it there. OB might be a bit more doable but will stretch your budget. You could always do something like live in Temecula, and drive to SD on weekends, but then your partner probably wouldn't be super happy.
I wouldn't call it underrated, but Denver might be a good option for you-- the urban core neighborhoods (Downtown, Cap Hill, the Highlands, Five Points) are all very walkable, the transit is pretty decent (I live in Cap Hill and have been without a car for six years now-- this is worlds better than when I was out in the suburbs in the same situation), and there's lots to do. We have the benefit of being the largest metro area for 500+ miles in any direction, so events and concert tours almost always have a Denver stop.
No beaches obviously, but we're quite close to the mountains for hiking/camping/winter sports, and even in town we have a pretty excellent trail system that connects most of the entire metro area. Outdoorsy activities are a big reason for a lot of people to have moved here, so there's little difficulty finding a group to get into those activities with if you want.
The climate is honestly pretty mild here, the worst thing is wildfire season, but judging by this past year, that's going to be a problem pretty much anywhere in the west. Even when it snows, it's almost always melted away within a couple days, and it's rare to have more than a day or two where it's dreary and overcast, even in winter. It might be cold some of those days, but it'll still be sunny and much less depressing than midwest/east coast winters can be.
Budgetwise, it's definitely doable to find a 2br in that price range, even close to a train station or one of the main bus routes that runs every 15 minutes or so.
Finally, this place is dog crazy, and people will bring them everywhere. Just make sure to pack out the poop bags on the trail and we'll be fine.
Thanks, I hadn't put too much thought into Denver as I heard the roads for motorcycles weren't too great but I think I should put it in on the list of places to consider!
Davis, CA is the most bike friendly city I’ve come across in the US. It’s a college town, but there’s plenty going on there. I passed through it on a road trip many years ago, and it’s one of the few places I’ve considered living in the future.
Richmond has been a great city the couple of times I’ve visited. They have very cute neighborhoods that are extremely walkable and bikeable. In fact, the last time I visited was to ride the Virginia Capital Trail which is 60 miles or so and goes al the way to Williamsburg!
I don't know much about the places you mentioned so I'll make the case for Salt Lake City. The "greater downtown area' (which I would argue is between 500 W - 1300 E/600N - 2200 S but more on this later) is a little spread out, so not everything is walkable, but there are several neighborhoods that have plenty of things close enough to walk to and with a bike you can go all the way across the city (600 N to 2200 S) in about 30 minutes. Most parts of the city sit in the vally and have flat roads with wide lanes and an actually decent bike lane (by American standards) so it's not hard to get by without a car. I should know, I ditched my car the last year that I lived there. If you have a car, the traffic isn't too bad, especially in the greater downtown area. It's really easy to navigate since the city uses a grid system to name it's streets. Let's say you live on 900 South and 900 East (good neighborhood wih plenty of options and a great park nearby) and you want to go to Rice Eccles Stadium to see a concert or watch a college football game. The stadium in on 400 S and 1400 E, so you already know it's going to be 5 blocks north and five blocks east. As long as you have the address, you never have to look up directions. Roads are almost always a straight line, too. Some roads are a bit more residential than others but this system makes it really easy to use different routes to get around, so congestion doesn't get that bad like it does in other cities that rely on two or three main roads.
The city is surrounded by mountains and many neighborhoods have a decent amount of trees, so it can be quite beautiful between spring and fall. You get some snowfall in the winter, but it's usually mild in the valley so temperatures don't get too bad. Even when it's cold, it's not the brutal, fuck-you-humans-shouldn't-live-here-have-some-wind-asshole cold you get in the north and the northeast. You are also surrounded by mountains, so if you want a ton of snowfall or skiing, there are half a dozen options for you less than an hour away. Since it's a high desert climate, the air is crisp and dry and there are very few bugs in the summer months. There are plenty of places nearby to hike and camp, and some of the best national parks are only a few hours away. As for the culture, it's not the freaky religious Mormon utopia that many people think it is. Sure, it's not exactly a bastion of progressive ideals, but it is far more liberal socially and culturally than people realize. The MAGA and mega Mormons (who are still very nice, btw) mostly live outside the city where you can buy a 6 bedroom house for next to nothing. Speaking of housing prices, you might be in luck. It's been a few years since I left, but I still have friends there that pay a little less than that price for a three bedroom house with a garage and backyard in a fairly good neighborhood. It all depends on how close you want to live to downtown, but there should be plenty of great options that fit your budget.
That's my pitch for Salt Lake. I kinda feel dirty about it, since it's already growing quite fast, but it really is a good city and I miss living there.
The city has decent bike infrastructure (maps!). I moved to the edge of downtown SLC recently, and can confirm that it's easy to get around walking or biking and transit. 3rd South and 2nd West are great, the parking lane is between the traffic lanes and the bike lanes. Transit includes decent light and commuter rail (especially for a west US city). I commuted on a bike and light rail from south-central Salt Lake valley to a little past downtown for a few months for an internship, and didn't have problems. I don't use the buses very often, so I can't really talk about them.
There are three events that downtown residents have to plan around: twice-annual Mormon conference, and the Pioneer Day parade and marathon. The conferences happen the first weekend of every April and October, and it's best to not drive at all those weekends. Apparently they've gone completely remote since COVID, so it hasn't been too bad the last couple years, but I'm not counting on it staying that way. Pioneer Day is July 24th, and despite living a block away from the parade route for five years, it caught me by surprise each time.
Politically, it has the usual liberal(-ish) city in a conservative state problems. The state legislature can't stand the idea of having a D representative in Congress, so Salt Lake County is gerrymandered. The legislature has a habit of ignoring or watering down popular referendums that are even vaguely progressive. Mormons have an outsize influence- they're something like 80% of the legislature, but ~55% of the population.
Are you actually limited to the US? I moved to the EU a few years ago. Apart from potential time zone challenges, you could add most major cities here to your list.
Currently, I'm paying ~$2000 for a decent 3-bedroom centrally in The Hague.
ETA: From personal experience, both Austria and The Neth are much more 'dog-friendly' than anywhere in the States. Dogs are often welcome in apts, cafes, sometimes in shops, etc. Probably many other countries here, too.
Did you have any experience speaking Dutch before you moved?
A couple months of Duolingo. So, not much.
The Hague is an especially "international" city ... most immigrants start here, and many just stay. English is not universal here, but it's close, and The Netherlands overall is the best English-speaking country on Earth, where English isn't any kind of official language.
Sadly, my company is not supporting international remote work at this time. Only US :(
Are they? I guess if your budget is $2100/mo, then yeah, that's true. I've heard studios in some of the newer places like One Light, Two Light, and Three Light are like $2000/mo. I used to live in Midtown (~20-30 blocks south of Downtown; though still in the "city" city) and there were/are some 1bdrs or even studios going for like $1700! (Though I did pay $800 for a 1bdr at an older building in Midtown). My previous apartment in the Plaza district was $1400 for a 2bdr that I split with my brother. I just moved further south into the Waldo neighborhood (still in the city, but more of a suburban feel); I'm paying $880 for a sizable 2dr by myself.
I also challenge the whole doesn't require a car thing for KC. I think if you had to rely exclusively on the buses and Streetcar, you'd find yourself living in relatively small world. The Streetcar currently gets you from River Market down to Crown Center (So like 3rd Street down to Pershing or "24th Street"). But a lot of shopping, entertainment, restaurants, etc. is further south into Midtown and beyond: The Plaza, 39th Street, Brookside, Waldo, Ward Parkway, etc. Even places like 18th and Vine Jazz District aren't anywhere close to the Streetcar. The buses definitely hit these places, but admittedly, I don't know schedules and specifics. I've lived here nearly my entire life (mostly in the suburbs), but I've never ridden the buses! Which is totally a Kansas Citian thing to do, to not ride them. Regardless, KC, like most places in the US, practically requires a car.
Chicago would be a much better city for that. I lived in the Near West Side for 2yrs. So like right next to the Loop, which is Chicago's CBD. And I didn't permanently have a car, though I would sometimes borrow a car from my parents in KC or use a carsharing service. Anyway, between the CTA's buses and the L (light rail), you have the whole city at your disposal. Add in the Metra commuter lines and PACE suburban bus system, and now you can even get into a large chunk of the suburbs, if needed. I was in college at the time, so having a 24-hr, widespread public transit system was great.
I can't comment on rental prices, since it's been 10+ yrs since I've lived in Chicago, but boy do I think about going back all the time. There are so many neighborhoods to choose from (like 200+ I think) that you'd really have to narrow that down before you start talking about prices.
Good luck finding a place!
For $2k/month, you can find acceptable 2bed apartments in Boston's sphere of rapid transit. Finding a place that accepts pets will probably be the biggest challenge. You will have to actually spend all $2k—you're extremely unlikely to find a screaming deal on a nice 2bed for $1500/month, for instance, so consider that.
(Word of advice for apartment-hunting in the Boston area: hire a realtor. The vast majority of apartments in the area have a mandatory realtor fee attached; and you can either pay the landlord's realtor for fifteen minutes of their time to unlock the front door and photocopy the paperwork, or you can pay your own realtor to actually look through listings, suggest things, and generally by client relationship have your interests in mind. Also: avoid September. Some absolutely ludicrous fraction of rentals—IIRC, over 80%—turn over on September 1st. Being part of that mess is awful, and even though there are so many September turnovers, my experience was that demand was actually disproportionately higher than availability. Unless you're actually a college student trying to match your lease to the academic year, a turnover almost literally any other time will be more pleasant.)
Unfortunately, nearly all of the US is very unfriendly to any mode of transit other than car. Avoiding the need for a car is going to almost mandate picking big city centers with robust preexisting mass transit; almost all of which are going to be very expensive (because an objection to That Car Life is—very beneficially—hip among a growing segment of the population).
On your list, I'd say Chicago is the most livable without a car. I'm also going to second the recc for Philadelphia if you want "livable without a car". (I know you have a car, but I'm thinking in terms of "is your wife able to do anything she wants without having to rely on you for transport).
Being close to family is really valuable too of course, but I don't know much about Richmond or KC
I live in Brooklyn, which may be cheating a bit for this thread. I pay a little more for a 2-bed, and I live about 15-20 mins walk from the heart of downtown brooklyn. On the other hand, the train connectivity is excellent, and I'm a few minutes walk from an express train (from atlantic ave-barclay's center if you're looking at maps) into Manhattan. I can be in and around the village, for example, in 2-3 stops depending on where I want to go exactly. Brooklyn, to me, has all the benefits of living in NYC while still being somewhat affordable. I don't think I need to say a lot about life in NYC itself.
Edit: I should also note that I'm only in Manhattan maybe once a week, and there's plenty happening in Brooklyn!
I live outside Kansas City, so I can't directly speak to living in its downtown. However when I go into downtown I don't drive a car. If you stay along the central tram line, its really nice; the tram runs consistently and feels safe. However, other than that public transit is meh at best. As for stuff to do, I am not really that knowledgeable, but what stuff there is is going to be in the city itself. If your looking for particular neighborhoods in Kansas City, I highly recommend the River Market area; its right on the tram line and is very walk-able.
I would suggest Barcelona, but unfortunately, you seem to need a place in the United States.
I live in San Diego Car-free, and my partner and I mostly get around by bicycle and secondarily by transit. I live in Uptown (Hillcrest to be specific)-- 3 minute walk to Balboa Park, San Diego's "crown jewel", as well as many nice restaurants, breweries nearby.
We pay $2100-- but for a one bedroom. This is for a new building however. If you walk around/look on craigslist, you might find nice apartments in small multifamily buildings that are two-bedroom.
Unless you're willing to fork out for the kind of place to live right in the downtown area, I wouldn't consider Knoxville a walking-friendly city. Very few cities in the southeast are. They tend to be sprawling, car dependent hellscapes of retail chains and suburbia, with a limited public bus option at best (except maybe Atlanta). Chattanooga isn't any better either. A car is mandatory in these areas, assuming you want to do more than visit a downtown area.
Thanks, that's what I was figuring for the most part. Knoxville/Chattanooga would have placed me closer to parents but my partner really doesn't want to have to drive to do things and wants a good variety of activities to do that are walkable/transit adjacent. I really do like Chattanooga though. Thought it was a cool place the few times I visited.