In some cities, it is relatively easy to get around without the use of a personal vehicle. In others, it is very difficult. Let’s look at the factors that cause car dependence (and independence), and which cities are the best and worst at limiting the need for you to get in your car to go anywhere within their boundaries.

The United States has a unique relationship to the car

The United States of America is a very large country. From its founding more than 200 years ago, its history has been guided by the drive to expand, and to populate the country from coast to coast. Car ownership has been attainable for the average U.S. citizen for over a century, helped by installment loans for purchasing vehicles. Automobile fuels have always been lightly taxed here, and this has promoted the development of larger, more powerful cars that could cover long distances in comfort.

As the United States developed, the automobile’s popularity was a major influence. Cities grew larger by sprawling in all directions, with new roads built to connect them. Later came the Interstate Highway System, providing the nation with a network of wide, high-speed arteries to carry people and goods efficiently in every direction. The automobile became the default transportation choice, with most people using their cars for even very short trips of less than a mile. Why walk when you can drive?

As more and more people lived farther from the city and town centers, commercial venues were built in the suburbs. Shopping centers and malls grew in importance, each with huge parking lots to accommodate their shoppers. Without a car, it was difficult to access these places.

Widespread vehicle ownership, combined with an extensive highway system and low fuel prices, made it easy to live a long distance from where you worked. The term “commuter” was coined. Increasing numbers of people chose to live in less densely settled and more affordable places, while driving to their workplaces in more built-up areas. Traffic congestion followed, adding “traffic jam” and “long commute” to our vocabularies. With a total of 250 million cars on our roads, most cities have been adversely affected by this state of affairs. What can be done about our severe case of car dependence?

What are the downsides of car dependence?

In addition to all that time wasted in traffic driving to and from work, there are other factors and costs to consider, including:

Exhaust emissions Traffic noise Insurance and vehicle accident costs Fuel usage and costs Depreciation of your car’s value from extra miles driven Cost of car repairs and servicing Costs of road building, repairs, and maintenance

Some cities have been able to become less dependent on cars

Residents of some American cities have been able to move around easily without the need for a personal vehicle. Most of these cities are extremely dense, were well-developed before the creation of the automobile, and have had well-thought out mass transit systems built into them. These cities have made it possible to easily move around by using trains, subways, and buses. Travelling within these cities does not require you to get into your car. The top ten cities with the largest number of transit commuters are:

  1. New York
  2. Chicago
  3. Los Angeles
  4. Philadelphia
  5. San Francisco
  6. Washington, D.C.
  7. Boston
  8. Seattle
  9. Jersey City
  10. Baltimore

Some cities have been unable to become less dependent on cars

There are many cities in the USA that were created and have grown significantly during the Age of the Automobile. The presence of cars dictated how these cities were designed, and how they evolved. Places like these have sprawled across their local landscapes, making it difficult (and expensive) to add mass transit systems that can practically and cost-effectively serve them. These are the places that are most dependent on cars. They also have the lowest numbers of households without any vehicles. Here are ten of the top larger cities in this category:

San Diego, California – 6.5% of Households do not have a car.

Charleston, South Carolina – 7.7% of Households do not have a car.

Albuquerque, New Mexico 7.7% of Households do not have a car.

Boulder, Colorado 7.7% of Households do not have a car.

Houston, Texas 8.2% of Households do not have a car.

Phoenix, Arizona 8.7% of Households do not have a car.

Orlando, Florida 8.8% of Households do not have a car.

Dallas, Texas 9.7% of Households do not have a car.

Las Vegas, Nevada 10.4% of Households do not have a car.

Los Angeles, California 12.1% of Households do not have a car.

Los Angeles gets to be on both lists as a city that has always been car dependent, but in the 90’s started enhancing its public transit to draw more people away from the freeways.

How can cities become less car dependent?

There are a number of strategies that cities can use to reduce their dependence on the automobile, and to reduce the ill effects of all that vehicle traffic. Some are aimed at reducing the numbers of cars that drive into and within the cities:

  • Convenient and pleasant mass transit options connecting suburbs with cities Car sharing services like ZipCar and Car2go Congestion pricing, which is a toll you must pay to enter the city during peak hours.
  • Limiting access by commuters to city centers during peak hours.
  • Parking restrictions which limit the amount of on-street parking.
  • Availability of last-mile solutions, like e-scooters and e-bikes Bicycle-friendly initiatives like separate and protected bike lanes.
  • Car-free zones for the exclusive use of bicycles and pedestrians

Others are focused on encouraging more people to live in the cities instead of commuting:

  • Mixed land use, so that you can live near where you work.
  • Higher density building, to reduce sprawl and make room for more city dwellers.
  • Improved mass transit systems that make it easier to move around within the cities

Only time will tell how well these measures will reduce the car dependence of the many cities across the USA. It has taken more than one hundred years of living with the automobile to get us to this point, so any changes to the present state of affairs will take time, money, and a serious change in people’s attitudes toward their cars. If you really want to dig in on driving statistics by-city in the United States, checkout this comprehensive report from CityLab.

This is the final installment of our ‘Unique Rules of the Road’ Series. Welcome to Massachusetts, where you may not transport wildlife loose in your car. Check out our other installments for ‘Unique Rules of the Road: New York’, and ‘Unique Rules of the Road: California’.

The state of Massachusetts has a lot of these unique rules of the road. Massachusetts is a small state, ranking 45th in land area, but it boasts the 15th largest population. It also has the 21st largest vehicle fleet in the country, with over five million motor vehicles registered to operate on its roads in 2017, the most recent year for which this information is available. 

Massachusetts is the third most densely populated state, with 80% of its people living in the Boston metropolitan area. This makes driving in the Boston area a challenge, while the rest of the state is mostly idyllic countryside. Let’s take a look at some of the unique rules of the road in Massachusetts, the Bay/Pilgrim/Puritan/Old Colony/Baked Bean State (take your pick!).

Driving in Massachusetts, remember:

Cell phone usage in the car: Drivers who are over 18 can use cell phones for calls, if they always keep one hand on the steering wheel. Drivers may not write, send, or read text-based messages (including email and internet access). For all drivers under 18, cell phone use is prohibited, except for reporting an emergency. A driver who crashes because he or she was using a mobile electronic device will face criminal charges and loss of their license.

Seatbelt use: It is illegal to drive without using a seatbelt yourself, or without all occupants being belted in or in a proper child seat/restraint device. A police officer cannot pull you over and issue a ticket if you or a passenger is not wearing a seatbelt, unless you are stopped for a traffic violation. Drivers of taxis, livery vehicles, police and fire vehicles, postal delivery vehicles, and buses are exempt. Passengers in emergency vehicles are also exempt.

Passing on the right: The law requires drivers to keep right unless turning or passing. Passing other drivers going in the same direction should be done only on the left. Passing on the right is allowed if you are on a physically divided highway (with a median barrier), and you have at least two lanes on your side of the road.

Helmets for motorcycle riders: Drivers and passengers on motorcycles must wear “protective head gear” conforming with state standards, according to the law.

Motorcycle lane-splitting: Lane-splitting is not allowed, but two motorcycles may legally ride side-by-side in the same lane.

Use of headlights: Your headlights and taillights should be turned on 30 minutes after sunset, and also used until 30 minutes prior to the sunrise, as well as any time that visibility is less than 500 feet. If you are using your wipers because of the weather, your low beams should also be on.

Making turns on red: You may turn right at a red light after stopping and yielding to pedestrians, unless it is prohibited. Left turns on red can be made only from a one-way street and onto a one-way street, if not prohibited. Fun fact: Massachusetts was the last state in the US to allow right turns on red (in 1980), and still prohibits the practice at a great many intersections. Watch out for “No Right Turn On Red Light” signs!

U-turns: U-turns are generally allowed in a variety of situations, when safe to do and unless prohibited by a posted sign. You may not make a U-turn:

  • Where there is a curve or hill within 500 feet
  • Where there is heavy traffic

Minimum following distance: There must be at least two seconds of space between you and the car ahead, whatever legal speed you are going.

Pedestrians: If a driver is approaching a crosswalk, pedestrians have the right of way if they are in the path of a driver, or if they are within 10 feet of the halfway point in the road. Drivers may not pass a vehicle that has yielded the right of way to a pedestrian, nor should they block a crosswalk. If a pedestrian is injured by a driver in a marked crosswalk, an investigation will be conducted, and if deemed appropriate, civil or criminal violations will result in a citation, or even a criminal complaint.

Driving under the influence of alcohol: Don’t do it! Massachusetts has very severe penalties, and they are enforced! The blood alcohol limit is 0.08%, but you can be charged at a lower level, if your actions show that you were affected by the alcohol you ingested. 

Smoking marijuana: While marijuana is legal within the state, it is illegal for anyone to operate a vehicle under the influence of marijuana.

Bicycles: Drivers must stay at least three feet away from bicycle traffic. Drivers must yield to an oncoming bicycle turning left. At intersections, drivers must stop at the stop line to allow pedestrians and bicyclists to cross safely. When turning right, drivers must yield to pedestrians and bicylists who are crossing. When a bicycle box (which allows bicyclists to safely turn when approaching a red light intersection) is marked on the pavement, drivers must stop behind the bicycle box (even when it’s empty) and wait for a green light.

Leaving children alone in the car: While Massachusetts does not have a law specifically prohibiting leaving children alone in your car, authorities may criminally charge caregivers under existing the state’s existing endangerment laws. 

Speed limits: There are some general rules for speed limits in the state of Massachusetts. These will apply, unless posted signage indicates a different limit:

School zone 20 mph

Inside thickly settled or business districts 30 mph

Maximum residential limit 30 mph

Undivided highways outside thickly settled or business districts 40 mph

Highways outside thickly settled or business districts 50 mph

Two-lane roads 55 mph

Highways, freeways, and interstates 65 mph

Some crazy Massachusetts driving regulations

Let’s wrap up with some wacky rules that the state and specific Massachusetts localities have put on the books. Some might be based in past experience and may be practical, but others just leave you scratching your head:

State of Massachusetts: You may not transport a wild animal in the back of your vehicle, unless it is properly restrained.

Milford: Looking inside a vehicle to invade the privacy of the occupants is forbidden.

State of Massachusetts: Televisions in cars must be positioned so that the driver cannot see them.

State of Massachusetts: Drivers must use their headlights when they are inside a tunnel.

State of Massachusetts: Children under age 12 may not ride in the bed of a pickup truck.

Drive safely in Massachusetts!