Living in Tucson without a car

Walkable 4th Ave.
Walkable 4th Ave.

Yes, it can be done — if you live in one of the walkable neighborhoods — and if you don’t have to commute to work. I work on my laptop in local coffee shops, so as long as there are plenty nearby (with free Wi-Fi), I’m happy.

macbook air & iced tea at Exo Roast
Working with my Macbook Air at Exo Roast.

I’m living near downtown Tucson, also near the University of Arizona. I’ve been here since January 1 and I’m leaving on June 1. I bought a bike to use here, but I could have easily gone everywhere I need to without one, because it’s all very walkable. There is also a streetcar that I rarely use because it’s quicker to hop on my bike.

Streetcar in Tucson
I don’t ride the streetcar often, because it doesn’t go very far yet, and I can ride my bike more quickly. I hope it will be expanded in the future.

When I was deciding where to live for the winter, I looked into New Orleans, Playa del Carmen Mexico, and Tucson. Tucson won out because of cheaper rents, great winter weather, and a walkable neighborhood near the university. I have no regrets — I’m really glad I came, Tucson is great!

I can walk or bike to several different interesting neighborhoods: West University, Downtown, Armory Park, and a few other places. Each neighborhood has a slightly different character, and all are walkable or bike-able — and interesting. The roads are wide and there are good bike lanes. Compared to biking in Boston (where I lived and biked during my whole adult life), it’s a breeze! There are a lot of potholes here, but it’s easy to avoid them on the wide streets.

Iron Horse on Walkscore
When you use, check the individual neighborhoods — some neighborhoods have a much higher walkscore than the city as a whole.
Outside of Exo Roast coffee shop
Exo Roast is one of my favorite coffee shops to work in (fast Wi-Fi).

Compared to cities like Seattle (where I lived last summer), Tucson is small (and flat). The downtown is really small, with not very many tall buildings. The rest of the city is spread out and very flat, surrounded by mountains. There are plenty of ugly strip malls and divided highways, but there are also some interesting neighborhoods, each with a different kind of history and charm.

View of Tucson from Sentinel Peak.

The downtown area was only recently developed and now it’s no longer a run-down wasteland. It has a streetcar, lots of upscale foodie restaurants, co-working spaces, coffee shops, bars, two major music and theater venues, musical instrument stores, vintage clothing stores, government buildings, banks, and a big public library. It’s interesting to me that downtown has no major department stores like Macy’s. It doesn’t even have the big drugstore chains like Walgreens or CVS. All of that is in the car-oriented areas of town.

downtown public library in Tucson
Main branch of the public library in downtown Tucson.
Sparkroot coffee shop
Sparkroot (downtown) is a nice place to eat and work with my laptop.

I’m in a neighborhood called “Iron Horse” (because of the railroad) and it’s only a 5 minute walk to downtown in one direction and a 5 minute walk to “4th ave” in the other direction. “4th ave” is a neighborhood near the university, filled with little stores that sell candles, incense, hippie clothing, and that sort of thing. There are also quite a few good coffee shops and restaurants, a food coop, authentic Mexican food places, and a very good indie bookstore. If you go closer to the university campus, there is another neighborhood that seems designed for students and visiting parents – with Urban Outfitters, Starbucks, a bunch of restaurants, clothing store, art supplies, CVS, and that sort of thing. On the campus itself there are several museums and a planetarium — I’ve been to two of those so far.

Iron Horse is a designated historic neighborhood.
Hippie-Gypsy store
Hippie-Gypsy store
U of A campus
University of Arizona campus.

There is another neighborhood I hang out in sometimes — called Armory Park. It’s south of downtown and has some interesting houses because it’s where the bosses of the railroad workers lived in the old days. That’s where I stayed in the Airbnb back in November.

5 Points Market & Restaurant
5 Points Market & Restaurant in Armory Park. One of my favorite places to eat.

I like that it’s so easy to bike or walk to these neighborhoods. Everything is so close and I can hang out in a different neighborhood every day.

When you look towards the horizon you see a different mountain range in each direction. I never get tired of looking at those mountains. I have a couple of friends here, one has a car, and one has a motor scooter that holds two people, so I’ve been lucky to see some places in and around Tucson that are too far to easily bike to. Every time I move to a new location,  I make some new friends — and people like to show off the place that they live in. New local friends are the perfect tour guides!

Here are some of my favorite places in Tucson so far:

  1. The food co-op where I get all my groceries: Food Conspiracy Co-op (great name).
  2. Exo Roast – a coffee shop where the smell of fresh roasted beans is lovely (and I don’t even drink coffee!), and the Wi-Fi is faster than most other places around here.
  3. Antigone Books – a really great indie bookstore, powered by solar energy.
  4. La Indita – a little place with really good Mexican food.
  5. B-Line – local coffee shop/bistro with good food, reliable Wi-Fi, lots of free iced-tea refills, and a friendly staff.
  6. Cafe Passé – another good coffee shop with a nice patio out back.
  7. Epic Cafe – a coffee shop that reminds me of old hippie hangouts in the sixties, with a few outdoor tables – good place to meet friends for conversation.
  8. Sparkroot – downtown coffee shop with interesting modern decor and very tasty food.
  9. The Screening Room – independent movie theater downtown — with lots of interesting special events, including the Arizona International Film Festival.
  10. The Loft Cinema – well-known independent cinema that shows all kinds of indie films and has some great series. Only downside is that it’s in a car-oriented neighborhood — not fun to bike to. Best to go with a friend who has a car or motor scooter.
  11. 5 Points Market & Restaurant – fantastic food and a small market at Five Points in Armory Park. Good Wi-Fi, great atmosphere, great food — can’t be beat.
  12. Goodwill store on 4th Ave — a large thrift store with ever-changing inventory — one of the best thrift shops around.
  13. St. Vincent De Paul near 5 Points in Armory Park – another great thrift store, even bigger than Goodwill, with lots of great stuff including furniture, records and CDs, and all kinds of retro southwest stuff.
Food Conspiracy Co-op
Food Conspiracy Co-op, with plenty of bike racks..
Coffee roaster in Exo Roast
The coffee roaster in my favorite coffee shop, Exo Roast.
Patio at Cafe Passé
It’s fun to sit out back at the patio of Cafe Passé.
Antigone Books
An excellent indie bookstore, solar-powered.
The Screening Room
The Screening Room is only a 5-minute walk from where I live. I enjoyed the Arizona International Film Festival here.

A bit farther out (requiring a car), here’s what I’ve visited so far:

  1. Mt. Hopkins scenic drive in the Santa Rita mountains – south of Tucson. Beautiful views on the drive up to where the Fred Whipple Observatory (Smithsonian) is located (wasn’t open when we were there).
  2. Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum – A beautiful outdoor place with all kinds of desert animals and plants — the hawk demo is especially fun.
  3. Sabino Canyon – We rode to the top in a tram with a narrated tour and walked back down, stopping at beautiful vistas and pools of water that we waded in.
  4. Nogales, Mexico – just across the border, a one-hour drive from Tucson. I went with a local friend who gets cheap, quality dental care at Dental Laser. We had lunch at La Roca before walking back across the border to the parking lot on the U.S. side.
  5. Sentinel Peak – also called “A” mountain in reference to the huge University of Arizona “A” on the side. Fantastic views of Tucson. See my Periscope video made at the top.
  6. Tanque Verde swap meet – a huge maze of tables and stands selling everything under the sun. Fun browsing.

And I’m sure I’ll visit more interesting places before I leave at the end of May.

Mt. Hopkins scenic drive
Mt. Hopkins scenic drive in the Santa Rita mountains, south of Tucson.
Fred Whipple Observatory (Smithsonian)
Fred Whipple Observatory (Smithsonian) is on top of one of these mountains.
Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum
Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum.
Sabino Canyon
Sabino Canyon.
Nogales, Mexico
Nogales, Mexico, 1 hour drive south of Tucson.
Dental Laser, Nogales Mexico
Dental Laser in Nogales, Mexico. People from the U.S. come here for quality dental work at very low prices.
View of Tucson from Sentinel Peak
View of Tucson from Sentinel Peak. My friend Jerry brought me here on his motor scooter — it’s a short drive from downtown.

If you are thinking of moving to Tucson and you want to be car-free, I suggest living in one of these neighborhoods near downtown. There are plenty of fun and interesting art, music, and cultural activities to keep you busy, too.

If you do need a car from time to time, traditional car rentals are fairly cheap here, and the ride-sharing services Lyft and Uber are available.

And to start your apartment search, try Bright Properties — they were super-helpful and they have several good places in these walkable neighborhoods. I love living in Don Martin Apartments.

Don Martin Apartments
Don Martin Apartments courtyard.
Don Martin Apartments, hallway and common area.
Don Martin Apartments.

So if you are thinking of spending a winter here, and you want to live without a car (perhaps you are also a digital nomad?), I recommend one of these walkable neighborhoods in Tucson, from November through May.

The image below is from the Weatherline app for iOS. Look at the highs and lows from January through May in this chart. It’s late April now and still quite comfortable. The high of 85 only happens for a little while — mostly it’s in the upper 70s and low 80s. You can set up several locations in this app and then swipe between them, for easy comparison when you are deciding where to live at different times of the year.

Tucson monthly weather averages
The Weatherline app for iPhone is an easy way to compare monthly weather averages between cities.

For more photos and impressions of Tucson, see my post, “From Seattle to Tucson,” about the two weeks I spent here back in November when I was looking for an apartment.

And just for fun, I made a board on Pinterest (with a map), of my favorite Wi-Fi hangouts in Tucson.

4 thoughts on “Living in Tucson without a car

  1. J

    Lots of good advice here, Nicole! I just wanted to add a note about downtown. It was the center of Tucson for more than 100 years from the middle of the 19th century, full of businesses and people. As with a lot of US downtowns, Tucson’s decayed as the city spread out in the second half of the 20th century. Redevelopment has brought a lot of new activity downtown — though businesses now tend to be more for pleasure than for basic needs like groceries and hardware. But a new large grocery store is coming, a 24-hour CVS isn’t far away along the streetcar line, and a short bus ride east along Broadway will take you to a major shopping mall, El Con. I think downtown will be a better and better place for nomads to live.

  2. Thanks for adding this! Good for my readers to know. I actually think it’s nice that most of the business downtown are for pleasure. I hope more cities will remake themselves in ways like Tucson has downtown — making neighborhoods easier to live in without needing to own a car.

  3. wilson

    Nicole, you can get from where you live, Iron Horse, to The Loft using Sun Tran bus route #4 or a combination of the Sunlink street car and Sun Tran #4. You’ll need some kind of a pass, which of course, costs money. Agree that the trip isn’t pleasantly bikeable due to all the car traffic in between–the University of Arizona blob.

    The Tucson-Pima Library (including the downtown Valdez Library) has excellent wi fi and most branches are within walking distance from major bus routes. Problem is, these libraries don’t sell coffee and aren’t tres chic being libraries and all.

    Agree that downtown is a grocery desert.

    If you can swing a car ride up to the Catalina Mountains to Summer Haven and Mt. Lemmon, do so. And hike and stroll like crazy. You’ll understand our “sky islands” and every time you look up at them from the city you might think of how different they are from our little desert city. They moved the late Charles Bowden to write Frog Mountain Blues.

    1. Thanks for your comments! In fact I’m going to Mt. Lemmon tomorrow with a friend who has a car – should be fun!

      I do have a SunTran pass, so maybe I’ll try that sometime for getting to The Loft. The only downside is waiting for the return bus ride – sometimes it can be a long time between busses at night. I do have the apps on my phone to show when the next bus is coming – that helps.

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