ITHACA, N.Y. — Ithaca is considered one of the best U.S. cities to live car-free, according to a just-released index by City Lab. Ithaca ranks first among 382 U.S. metropolitan areas for having the largest population of people choosing alternative options for their daily transportation needs. 

The index looks at “the share of households that don’t have access to their own vehicle, the share of commuters who take transit to work, the share of commuters who bike to work, and the share of commuters who walk to work.” Categorized as a “very small metro” (cities with populations less than 250,000) by journalist and creator of the index Richard Florida, Ithaca not only beat out cities of similar sizes but also ranked higher than Boston, New York and San Francisco.

A survey commissioned by Bike Walk Tompkins and the Ithaca-Tompkins County Transportation Council in 2018 found that many people in Ithaca do use sustainable modes of transportation. According to the survey, “of those who commute to work, 48% drove alone while 52% used sustainable modes of transportation, including 29% who walk and 3% who bike to work.” 

There are several options for day-to-day transportation within Ithaca, including a bike-share through the company Lime, carshare and rideshare options through Ithaca Carshare, Zimride Uber and Lyft, and bus and shuttle services through the TCAT, who just eliminated zone fares to make travel in and around the city easier and more affordable.

However, there is still room for improvement, especially outside the city. 

Fernando de Aragón, staff director of Ithaca-Tompkins County Transportation council, said he is proud of the ranking, but also understands the limitations of the index and what it means for the community outside of Downtown Ithaca. 

“In Ithaca, in particular if you live in the downtown urban area, it’s a great place. There’s a reason we scored so well in that study — there’s a lot of nearby destinations, the walking environment is actually quite good, so it’s comfortable to walk, we have sidewalks,” he said. “That study was very much about the ithaca urban area — it really was not a Tompkins County study and maybe we wouldn’t have scored as well if it was.”

Several communities in Tompkins County have limited access to alternative modes of transportation. Scot Vanderpool, the general manager at TCAT, said their organization is working to change that. 

TCAT is looking to launch a pilot version of their First Mile, Last Mile initiative in Dryden this spring. The program will coordinate with services like Gadabout and volunteer drivers to take riders from rural areas that don’t have access to transit and connect them to major bus routes. Another initiative is MaaS, or Mobility as a Service, is a joint effort that makes finding a ride easier and more reliable by creating a single platform to plan trips through transit, carshares, bike shares and rideshares.  

“Those are both pretty big innovative ideas that we’re really involved on a week to week basis,” Vanderpool said. 

(File photo by Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)
(File photo by Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)

Victoria Armstrong, the director of Bike Walk Tompkins thinks that in conjunction with the county and TCAT, better access to bikes and sidewalks can further connect the rural community with downtown. 

“We work with the Finger Lakes Cycling Club and we meet yearly with the Tompkins County highways department to talk about how you can make it more pedestrian-friendly, more bike-friendly so some routes that are more rural become more possible, like TCAT putting bikes on buses,” Armstrong said. “The Transportation Demand Management program is talking about parking lots on the outskirts of town and then you would have bike-share services and better busing … it’s not like the rural (area) has been forgotten.” 

The city is also working toward a better sidewalk system and has made some significant strides, de Aragón said. He said homeowners are charged a fee that goes toward maintenance and creation of sidewalk networks. 

Linderman Creek, which is a low to moderate-income housing development in Ithaca’s northwest, is one of the communities being helped by increased accessibility to sidewalks as a means of alternate mobility. 

“In January this year we’ll have a big opening for the Hector Street Complete Street Project,” said John Licitra, manager of the Ithaca Sidewalk Program. “That was awarded a New York State Transportation Alternative Program grant for 1.4 million dollars. The new sidewalk along Hector Street by Vinegar Hill to 500 feet past the Ithaca city line into the Town of Ithaca and Linderman creek. That’ll be pretty exciting.”

Outlined in the City of Ithaca comprehensive plan from 2015, a long-term goal for the community is to “achieve a sustainable system offering viable alternatives to private automobile trips.”

The plan points out that, “some areas of the city lack basic pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, and improved access is needed to major employers and destinations. For many, traffic, topography, and convenience are also obstacles to active transportation.” 

For those choosing to take the TCAT, transit to some of those “major employers and destinations” such as Walmart or Wegmans has already seen an improvement with the addition of Routes 14 and 14S that connects West Hill to shopping. 

Of the No. 1 ranking, she said, “It catches your attention — it’s wonderful, it’s a great thing to share … for me it’s just a conversation starter, it’s not an endpoint.”

Anna Lamb

Anna Lamb is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at alamb@ithacavoice.com