Weekend trips to cities like Boston, Chicago or San Francisco rarely require a rental car to get around, given their extensive public transportation systems. But more unexpected locales are joining the car-optional list as new and expanding rapid transit options take root across the country.
Many major transit systems, like those in New York, predate the ubiquity of cars and serve densely populated urban areas. Now, younger and less dense cities, like Denver, are adding trains or streetcars. Even places most closely associated with cars, like Detroit and Los Angeles, are remaking transit networks once ripped out to make way for Fords, Chevys and Chryslers.
“It’s interesting to see how the West in particular is growing and expanding public transportation,” said Virginia Miller, a spokeswoman for the American Public Transportation Association.
The nonprofit group reported that 69 percent of public transportation initiatives on ballots nationwide in the November 2016 elections were approved, for a total of about $170 billion in transit projects.
With occasional assists by taxis and rideshares, visitors to these cities might be able to skip the rental car counter.
Downtown Denver is 23 miles from Denver International Airport, a distance now covered by the new University of Colorado A Line, which opened last spring, in 37 minutes. The $9 fare acts as a day pass for limitless rides on a rapidly expanding network of light and commuter rail. The new R Line, which is scheduled to open this month, will add 10.5 miles to the regional system that has more than doubled to about 98 miles.
The terminus of the airport train, the newly refurbished Union Station, has trendy restaurants, bars and shops as well as its own stylish lodging, the Crawford Hotel. The station is an anchor in the historic LoDo (Lower Downtown) district, where attractions like the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver and Coors Field are within walking distance.
In addition, the bike-share program Denver B-cycle operates from 88 locations and offers a good way to reach neighborhoods like RiNo, or River North, home to many breweries and restaurants, or Cherry Creek for shopping. There’s even a new electric three-wheel vehicle service, eTuk, that offers city and brewery tours.
And you can take a day trip without renting wheels, via the new Flatiron Flyer rapid transit bus, which offers service from Denver to Boulder in under an hour. Amtrak’s Winter Park Express runs from Union Station to the ski slopes of Winter Park on weekends through March 26.
The Motor City once had a vital streetcar system, including a track that ran down its main corridor, Woodward Avenue. In April, some 60 years after the old lines were eradicated to make way for cars, the new QLine will restore streetcar service to downtown over a 3.3-mile route.
“You can’t underestimate the symbolic importance of unveiling mass transit in a city like Detroit, which was built on cars,” said Amy S. Eckert, a freelance writer and the author of “100 Things to Do in Detroit Before You Die.”
The streetcar, of course, is limited relative to the footprint of Detroit, and taxis or shuttles, including a service called Skoot that offers van transportation for $20 a person, are still the most common way to get downtown from the airport.
But the project has sparked a building boom as residences, restaurants and shops have moved in along the corridor. Visitors will be able to shuttle along the route for about $1.50 a ride from near the Detroit River downtown to the nearby baseball and football stadiums (professional hockey and basketball facilities are being built and are expected to open this fall). The route also passes through the cultural Midtown district, home to the Detroit Institute of Arts and other museums. Hotels along the streetcar route include the recently opened Aloft Detroit at the David Whitney.
No American city is more synonymous with congestion – as captured in the opening scene of “La La Land” – than Los Angeles. But alongside and under those clogged highways, the city’s Metro Rail has built 105 miles of subway or light rail in Los Angeles County since 1990. Two extensions opened in 2016 now reach west to beachfront Santa Monica and extend from Pasadena east to Azusa at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains.
With the growth of the public transit system, the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board has run a Car Free L.A. campaign for nearly five years. It offers 15 sightseeing guides on its website ranging from downtown’s Museum Row, home to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the La Brea Tar Pits Museum, to the restaurants of Koreatown.
The revitalization of downtown Los Angeles into an entertainment district makes it particularly attractive to public transit tourists as most of the city’s rail lines intersect there (rides are $1.75 one way, or $7 for a day pass).
The vast rental car center at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport attests to the dependence visitors to Arizona’s capital have on driving. To avoid it, take the free people mover PHX Sky Train from the terminals to the Valley Metro Light Rail. Its 26 miles of track run to downtown Phoenix in one direction and Tempe and Mesa in the other. Another 40 miles are planned by 2034, and the transit authority is testing Wi-Fi on the route.
“Its impact has been transformative,” said Kimber Lanning, executive director of Local First Arizona, a nonprofit organization that encourages small businesses. She also owns an art gallery in the Roosevelt Row Arts District, walking distance from the train. “Walkability has encouraged an urban core that wasn’t there before,” she said.
An unlimited day pass is $4, and other stops on the line reach the Phoenix Art Museum, the Chase Field baseball stadium and Symphony Hall. The new Found:Re Phoenix hotel recently opened along the rail line with an art-filled lobby bar and restaurant. It is within walking distance of the galleries along Roosevelt and popular restaurants like Matt’s Big Breakfast.
Heat in the summer in Phoenix is like snow in the north, often a deterrent to walking. But the stations feature shade barriers and, as locals point out, can be closer to your destination than a parking lot.