The Best College Towns for Car-free Living

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As summer turns to fall, students are returning to schools across the country. Recent high school graduates are leaving home for the first time, going away to their chosen colleges and universities, meeting new people, living in dorms or shared housing and learning their way around new towns. One of the best ways to experience a town is on foot where you can meet the locals, easily pop in to a shop that catches your interest or take some time to relax in a neighborhood park. But for many college students, getting around on foot isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. With the rising cost of education, cars are becoming an unwanted financial burden and young people are foregoing them in favor of walking, cycling, public transit and, when needed, car shares.

With that in mind, we’ve put together a list of the top college towns for car-free living. To start, we gathered a list of top-ranked colleges and universities around the country (cite US News). We eliminated any cities with more than 200,000 people and removed those where student populations were less than 20 percent of the total population. (Student populations are totals from public and private institutions with more than 1,000 FT students. For-profit institutions and those with fewer than 1,000 FT students are not included in student population count.) The cities are then ranked based on overall Walk Score and Bike Score.

best college towns for car free living

1. Cambridge, Massachusetts

Photo via Ted Eytan/Flickr

Home to Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as several other smaller colleges and universities, students make up nearly 40 percent of the Cambridge population. With three times more bike commuters than the national average and a Bike Score of 93, Cambridge is a biker’s paradise.

“I’ve been going to school in the Cambridge area for the past eight years and have really benefited from the focus on alternative modes of transit,” explains Piers McNaughton, a doctoral student at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. “I’ve been able to commute on my bike regularly – even during snowy winters! Two years ago, my commute along the beautiful Charles River bike path inspired me to study the influence of scenic, designated bike paths on health. Not only do bikers get the benefit of exercise during their commute, they are also exposed to fewer harmful chemicals than car commuters when separated from traffic. Visitors can take advantage of bike shares like Hubway to explore one of the world’s most bike friendly cities.”

2. Berkeley, California

Photo via John Morgan/Flickr

UC Berkeley is the oldest of the nine UC campuses offering undergraduate degrees. Downtown Berkeley is situated near the west entrance to the UC Berkeley campus. To the south is Telegraph Ave., which is home to shops, restaurants, cafés and street vendors. A vast system of 136 pedestrian paths crisscrosses the city, allowing easy pedestrian access to anywhere in the city.

“Berkeley is remarkably easy to get around without a car,” says Ethan Elkind, Associate Director of the Climate Change and Business Program, Center for Law, Energy and the Environment at UC Berkeley Law. “Most of the city is in a relatively flat area, with certain streets dedicated as ‘bike boulevards’ to ensure safety and speed for bikers.  It’s got a number of shopping districts that are very walkable and centered around public transportation.  And the culture of the place has always been about pedestrians.”

3. Santa Cruz, California

Santa Cruz
Photo via Richard Masoner/Cyclelicious/Flickr

Downtown Santa Cruz is a walker’s paradise where UC Santa Cruz students can find more than 100 restaurants, bars and coffee shops. The city boasts a broad network of bike lanes and paths that make biking convenient for most trips. The UCSC Bike Library offers quarter-long bike loans at no charge. Loans include safety orientation information and maintenance assistance, as well as a bike helmet, lock and lights. UCSC also offers a bike shuttle service around campus and downtown. Additional service is offered on rainy days!

4. Boulder, Colorado

Photo via NNECAPA Photo Library/Flicker

Boulder is home to the University of Colorado. The city is criss-crossed by miles of bicycle-pedestrian paths, including 74 underpasses designed for safe and uninterrupted travel around the city. These routes are usable year round.

“For students at UC, Boulder offers two centers of activity that make life on or near campus very walkable,” says Boulder Redfin agent Paul Stone. “Pearl Street in Boulder’s city center is a piece of cake to walk or bike to after a football game or other University event. But the center of campus life is The Hill, where students and other locals gravitate and can find just about anything they need or want, including bookstores, kitchy restaurants and trendy bars.”

5. Davis, California

Photo via TEDxUCDavis/Flickr

Davis is home to the third UC California campus to make our list. In 2005, the League of American Bicyclists designated Davis as the first Platinum-level Bicycle Friendly Community for their extensive network of bicycle facilities and efforts to make biking safe, comfortable and convenient for all. More than 75 percent of arterial streets in Davis have dedicated bicycle facilities.  Easy access to transit also contributes to car-free living in Davis. The Unitrans system serves the city with 48 buses on 20 routes with a staff of drivers and supervisors composed entirely of UC Davis students.

“Davis is a unique community that is designed with flat, tree-lined streets and is perfect for the motorless commuter. It is small enough that just about anywhere you want to go is reachable by bicycle, says Davis Redfin agent Jed Setzer. “The center of town is built around the university so most stores, restaurants and cafes are easily accessible by the college crowd. “The community of Davis really embraces the car-free lifestyle. People of all ages are encouraged to move around by foot and on their bike. Newly-built homes are even designed with specific storage areas for bikes!”

6. Santa Barbara, California

Santa Barbara
Photo via KRoark/Flickr

The UC Santa Barbara campus is not technically part of the city of Santa Barbara, but is close in proximity and connected by a bike trail that allows students easy access to downtown.  In fact, more than 50 percent of UCSB students get around by cycling. Additionally, Santa Barbara is designated as a Gold-level community by Walk Friendly Communities for its strong connectivity and pedestrian-oriented shopping streets, among other factors. Visitors and those new to Santa Barbara can check out Santa Barbara Car Free for information on walking and biking routes, as well as bus and shuttle services around the city. Car-free travel is encouraged through discounts and partnerships with local businesses.

7. Tempe, Arizona

Photo via Alan Stark/Flickr

Tempe is home to the largest of ASU’s four campuses in the greater Phoenix area. Students here have access to FLASH (Free Local Area Shuttle) routes operating seven days a week in the area surrounding the university. With a Bike Score rating of 76, Tempe is very bikeable.  Dozens of multi-use bicycle-pedestrian paths provide safe, accessible routes throughout the city, and the city has plans to launch a bike share program with 250 bicycles and 20+ kiosk locations.

8. Ann Arbor, Michigan

Ann Arbor
Photo via Andypiper/Flickr

Located in the downtown neighborhood with a Walk Score of 93 and a Bike Score of 98, the University of Michigan is practically synonymous with Ann Arbor. University buildings are interspersed with private homes and businesses. The neighborhood also has excellent transit with 23 transit lines passing through.

“Ann Arbor is a great town for being car-free given the proximity of downtown to Michigan’s campus, the extensive city and university bus systems, bike lanes, car and ride share options like ZipCar, Uber and Lyft, as well as the much anticipated full launch of Ann Arbor’s new bike share,” explains Redfin Builder Services Business Development Associate and Michigan graduate Nora Johnson. “Many students use ZipCar for bigger shopping needs, but there are more than enough great restaurants, bars and grocery options including the twice weekly, absolutely amazing farmers market or the small shops in Kerrytown. Ann Arbor also has fantastic places like Bill’s Beer Garden – an actual garden store by day, beer garden by night. Outdoor recreation is also very easily accessible with Arboretum’s great running and walking trails, the Argo canoe and kayak center and the whole network of running and biking trails along the river, all easily walkable from campus or downtown.”

9. Iowa City, Iowa

Iowa City
Photo via Alan Light/Flickr

The University of Iowa is adjacent to the Ped Mall where students and locals alike flock for shopping, dining and drinking. Concerts and festivals are held along the Ped Mall throughout the year. Iowa City is the most bikeable city in Iowa with a Bike Score of 77. The League of American Bicyclists has designated it a Silver-level bike-friendly community, and the city is finalizing plans to launch a bike share service next spring. In addition to public transit service available through Iowa City Transit, students and non-students alike can take advantage of Cambus, a University of Iowa service supervised and operated by students, providing free fixed-route service around campus.

10. Burlington, Vermont

Photo via Redjar/Flickr

Burlington is the smallest city on our list with fewer than 50,000 residents, one third of whom are students at the University of Vermont. Situated on the eastern side of town, the UVM campus is just a short walk or bike ride from the famous Church Street Marketplace. Stretching four blocks along Church Street between Main and Pearl Streets, this outdoor pedestrian strip is home to numerous restaurants, bars and shops. Despite cold, snowy winters, Burlington has 5.5 percent bike commute share, making it comparable to more temperate cities like Portland, Ore. And if it’s just too cold for biking, services like CarShare Vermont offer wheels when needed. Full-time UVM and Champlain College students get free membership and cars are available right on campus.

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Aleisha works across the Walk Score and New Business teams at Redfin, promoting the Walk Score mission and making it easy for people to find a walkable place to live. Her dream home has a huge garden and plenty of outdoor space for entertaining.

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