Cleveland Without a Car? But George…

For the past twenty two years, I lived in New York City, where a car rarely makes sense. Getting around there is about subways, buses, bikes, cabs, Uber or walking. Only masochists with money to burn own a car in Manhattan.

In other cities, it’s different. The concentration of work spaces and living spaces is exponentially more spread out, stretching the distances between the places where we live and the places where we go for work and play. Hence, the need for a car in the (sub)urban sprawl.

I’m not the biggest fan of the suburban experience. I grew up in it for 20 years and revisited it countless times over another 25 years, having made the deliberate choice to live in the urban center of Boston right after college, then Manhattan until last year. At the end of the day, there is really nothing new on which one could sell me about suburban life. I’ve lived it. That’s not to say I don’t understand its appeal, because I certainly do. Many aspects of it are truly lovely. But it’s not for everyone, myself included.

What does interest me is designing a life in my newly adopted home of Cleveland that doesn’t require a car. I’m not trying to recreate the New York experience, which would be impossible. Cleveland is a very different city with a very different vibe, which is a good thing. In terms of the energy alone, I often compare the switch from New York to Cleveland to switching a 45 rpm record to 33 rpm. (Or maybe New York is a 33 rpm record played at a frenetic 45.) To the vast majority of residents in and around Cleveland, this idea of going without a car probably ranges from absurd to unsustainable or outright sacrilegious.

“You gotta have a car.” I hear it over and over again. And I get it. Living in my temporary digs at my mom’s suburban home, I fully realize that a car is quite necessary in these parts.

But the word “Cleveland” generally means not just the downtown area of Cleveland proper but also all the suburbs throughout Cuyahoga County. The population of Cleveland itself is around 390,000, but the total population of Cleveland and its surrounding suburbs in Cuyahoga County is just under 1.3 million. The majority of “Clevelanders” don’t live in Cleveland, technically. They live in its suburbs.

I want to live in Cleveland – the mothership, the nerve center, the city itself. That means downtown.

Compared to Manhattan (and I’ll be making that comparison for a while as I adjust to life here), downtown Cleveland is downright quiet, but it has that cosmopolitan je ne sais quoi only possible in an urban center. Even after visiting downtown for a day, a New Yorker would immediately notice a remarkably different landscape, with shorter skyscrapers yielding more light, more sprawling walkable spaces, less traffic, gorgeous architecture and much wider sidewalks that are dramatically less crowded. Essentially, downtown Cleveland offers a very accessible cosmopolitan experience.

These days, more people are choosing to actually live downtown or in its immediate surroundings like Ohio City, Tremont, Gordon Square or Battery Park… all surrounding neighborhoods that would make a New Yorker think “Brooklyn Lite.” Even though it’s got a ways to go before really becoming a bona fide “it” town, downtown Cleveland is really having a moment. Having spent a fair amount of time down there assessing the layout, it’s pretty clear that most of what I’d need is within walking distance.

Restaurants, the corner deli, the movie theater, the library, Terminal Tower, Playhouse Square, all major sports arenas and stadiums, the dog run, the glorious Heinen’s grocery store, chic hotel bars and lounges… are all within walking distance. Other points of interest like museums, Severance Hall or University Circle are all an easy (and short) ride on public transportation (the RTA) or Uber or my bicycle.

The obvious benefit of not having a car is the cost savings. I did a little calculation of what I’d be spending in the span of a year if I bought a new Ford Fusion Hybrid with a standard package, which would have a sticker price of around $24,000. After dropping about $2,800 for the down payment, the bare minimum of what I’d be spending annually goes like this:

Car Payments: $2,700 ($225/month)
Insurance: $1,100
Gas (estimated): $900
Parking: $1,200

TOTAL: $5,900 (not including incidental costs of maintenance, repairs, tickets, etc.)

There are a lot of things I’d rather do with $6,000 over the course of a year. On those rare occasions when I actually needed a personal car for any extended period, I can always rent a car, which would still cost remarkably less than owning one over a 12 month period.

In addition to the money saved, there are the personal and environmental benefits. Contrary to the belief and practice of many, downtown Cleveland is a very walkable place. Unlike New York, it boasts spacious sidewalks to use while traversing the concrete jungle. Choosing to walk the sidewalk or bicycle on Cleveland’s comparatively safer streets gets you where you need to go while burning a few calories in the process. On the environmental front, one less car means one less car, which is better for the environment and better for the city streets in terms of pollution, traffic congestion and safety. Win win win.

If I ever get a job offer that absolutely requires a car and pays enough to painlessly cover all the cost of a good one, I’ll consider it. Until then, I’ll pass.

The notion of more people choosing to live in the city without a car isn’t new. As I tour downtown Cleveland, I can see the idea getting some real traction as a more livable, walkable and accessible city comes to life. This is not the downtown Cleveland of my childhood. This is a new one, showing signs of getting better and better. It flips the Cleveland-without-a-car issue from “Yeah, but…” into “Abso-fkn-lutely.” I’m looking forward to becoming a part of it.

Bonus: The fine folks at the Downtown Cleveland Alliance produced this wonderful video in 2014. It’s a fabulous valentine to life downtown.

Cover photo by Jay Kossman.


  1. Forrest L Howe Reply

    You are right about the car. I have friends who live in Paris who use public transport all the time. Rent a car when going to the country. I live here in Southern California where the road construction industry ruined public transport in the 50’s. I would love to get back to only one car instead of the two my wife and I need traversing this public transportation challenged megalopolis.

  2. Hi George – Welcome to Cleveland!
    I lived 3 years without a car when I relocated to Cleveland/Lakewood from San Francisco a few years ago.
    Many Cleveland friends thought I was tempting the fates, but it is very doable with some planning.
    Local public transit is actually pretty good – and there are FREE shuttles that can transport you to most of the downtown areas for no fee. And when you want to explore beyond the urban streets of Cleveland, just rent a car for very reasonable rates – especially at the airport on weekends. Or another option – Uber!

  3. Thanks, George.
    Journos liked Cle more than Philly last yr, convention hall was shoe-horned into the heart of downtown rather than dispersed in a parking desert 5 miles away.

  4. How does the bike scenario feel to you? Walkability doesn’t always mean bikability, and I’ve never been to Cleveland but I can see you being perfectly happy on foot and bike.

    • The streets in downtown Cleveland aren’t nearly as nuts as those in NYC. There’s room for improvement, though.

  5. When I return to my suburban hometown, I realize, it’s actually really fun to ride around the suburbs. There’s a real urban focus on bike advocacy lately which forgets that it’s still easy to ride to anything within a couple of miles. From what I can tell, a big success factor in suburban Netherlands is that train stations have a large catchment area provided by bike access. You might be interested in the strown-towns movement lately -> https://www.strongtowns.org/

  6. i’m in Pittsburgh and love towns like ours. Look’n forward to getting back to Cleveland and exploring more. Corky and Lenny’s is always stop when I visit, but that’s a tough trip to arrive by bike or I just don’t know the city well enough. If you haven’t already, check in with your local advocates at Bike Cleveland. Good people working hard to make it safer to ride.

  7. Lyle Hamilton Reply

    Greetings from down the road in Cincinnati. I share your thoughts George! I would be happy with my Jamis City Bike and my small motorcycle, but my wife has other ideas….

  8. Christopher R Fortunato Reply

    You should also consider Shaker Square, George. Accessible by rapid and you can get to the 55 on RTA by transferring. They also take bikes. It’s harder to get out to some suburbs these days on the RTA. What used to be routes that went all the way downtown now stop and end in the suburbs and you have to get another bus to take you downtown. I expect your family is in the western lake suburbs where the 55 and 26 are fairly accessible. Best of luck on the venture, and you will definitely save some money until you have to buy a car. Hopefully in cash.

  9. Hey George I’m glad to see I’m not the only one. Just came across your site, doing research on this matter. I’ve actually lived here a while and have decided that living downtown without a car is very doable.

  10. I’d like to know how it’s working out. Maybe it’s time for a smaller city – Cleveland is one on the short list. So is Pittsburgh.

Talk to me...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.