The USA’s most eco-friendly cities to visit
As pressure mounts for cities around the world to do their bit when it comes to fighting climate change, travelers are increasingly conscious of the impact they could be having on the planet.
From using more renewable energy or encouraging residents and visitors to use public transport, cycle and walk, cities are doing their best to be more sustainable.
So, which are the most sustainable destinations in the US? To find out, we’ve analyzed some of the country’s most visited cities on a range of sustainable factors.
The USA’s most sustainable destinations
1. Portland, Oregon
In first place is Portland, Oregon, which is well known for being a progressive city, so it makes sense that sustainability would be important here.
The state of Oregon has the highest rate of renewable energy usage of any on our list (43.1%) and also scores highly for its low light pollution (6,590μcd/m2) and the number of sustainable hotels (9% of total hotels).
Portland has regularly ranked highly in lists of the Greenest Cities in America and was one of the first to introduce a comprehensive plan to tackle CO2 emissions.
2. Seattle, Washington
Not too far from Portland is the second-placed city of Seattle, Washington. The city is known for being a technology hub and has experienced rapid population growth, but it was also the first to pledge to become climate neutral, doing so back in 2010.
Like Portland, Seattle scores highly for its usage of renewable energy (38.4%) as well as for its average air pollution (6μg/m³), people who walk or use public transport (44.8%) and sustainable hotels (9.19%).
Seattle relies heavily on hydropower and only uses fossil fuels for a very small percentage of its electricity.
3. New York City, New York
Despite being one of the biggest and busiest cities in the world, New York takes third place.
NYC was the top-scoring city for not one, not two, but three factors: sustainable hotels, people walking or using public transportation, and length of cycle paths.
The sheer size of the Big Apple has forced it to tackle its carbon footprint head-on, investing in a comprehensive public transport network, constructing green office buildings and pledging to drastically reduce emissions.
The USA’s least sustainable destinations
1. Nashville, Tennessee
Coming bottom of the rankings is Nashville, Tennessee, one of the fastest-growing cities in the country.
Nashville is the lowest-scoring city when it comes to its air pollution (14.3μg/m³) and also scores poorly for its cycle path infrastructure, with just 0.6 miles of protected pathways.
2. Columbus, Ohio
The second-lowest scoring city is Columbus, the most populated city in the state of Ohio.
Ohio has a very low rate of renewable energy usage (4.4%) and the city of Columbus has a high level of air pollution, at 13.6μg/m³.
The high levels of pollution in the area are largely caused by the Ohio State University’s McCracken Power Plant, the landfill operated by the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio (SWACO), and the Anheuser-Busch Columbus Brewery.
3. Houston & Dallas, Texas
Both are very busy cities, with Houston having one of the highest levels of automobile usage in the country, while Dallas is also a major transportation hub with numerous highways converging in the city which is also home to a major port and one of the world’s busiest airports.
The destination with the most sustainable hotels
New York City, New York – 14.33%
Staying in a sustainable hotel can help to somewhat offset the effects that travel can have, as they make an effort to keep their energy consumption to a minimum.
The city that has the highest percentage of properties marked as being sustainable by Booking.com is New York, with 14.33%.
The destination with the highest public transport use
New York City, New York – 71.6% of people walk, cycle, or use public transport to work
Using public transport, walking or cycling is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint, and by far the city where car usage is at its lowest is New York.
Here 71.6% of people use something other than a car to get to work (or work from home), with the city having the largest single-operator rapid transport system in the world, providing 24/7 service to 472 rail stations.
The destination with the greatest renewable energy use
Portland, Oregon – 43.1% renewable energy consumption
Unfortunately, renewable energy data is only available at state level rather than city, but the state where renewable energy makes the largest share of consumption is Oregon, at 43.1%.
Oregon’s electricity supply is dominated by hydroelectricity, with over 80 renewable hydropower facilities in the state.
The destination with the lowest air pollution
Tucson, Arizona – 4.8μg/m³ annual air pollution
Air pollution is a serious problem in many cities around the country, but the destination with the cleanest air is Tucson, Arizona.
Located in the Arizona desert, Tucson is the second-biggest city in the state but averages just 4.8μg/m³ a year.
The destination with the lowest light pollution
Tucson, Arizona – 3,530μcd/m2 artificial brightness
Light pollution is a form of pollution that perhaps gets less attention, as not only does it take away the beautiful night sky, but it also makes it much harder for some species to survive when they’re impacted by so much artificial light.
Once again, Tucson comes top here, with the city establishing dark sky ordinances way back in 1972 to limit the levels of light pollution.
The destinations with the lowest carbon footprint
Houston, Texas & Los Angeles, California – 14.6t CO2 per person
Two cities are tied with the lowest CO2 emissions per person, with both Houston and Los Angeles producing 14.6 tonnes per person.
While they’re both extremely busy cities, both have high population levels too, so their per capita emissions actually aren’t as bad as many other places.
The best destination for cycle paths
New York City, New York – 124.19 miles
By far the city with the best infrastructure in place for cyclists is New York City, with just under 125 miles of protected cycleways to use.
The traffic congestion and relatively flat terrain make cycling popular in New York, not just for the many delivery cyclists who make use of the paths, but increasingly, commuters too.
The destination with the least congestion
Minneapolis, Minnesota – 10% congestion score
Traffic congestion is an obvious cause of emissions and air pollution, but the city that struggles with this the least is Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Here, the average journey in peak traffic takes just 10% longer than it would do without any traffic.
A list of 50 of the most visited cities in the US was studied, with any that didn’t have full comparable data for each factor being removed.
The remaining cities were then analyzed on the following factors, with each one being given a normalized score out of 10 before an average of these scores was taken.
The percentage of the total hotels listed on Booking.com that have been designated ‘Travel Sustainable properties’.
Public transport use
The percentage of people that either walk, cycle or use public transport to get to work, or work from home, according to the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
Renewable energy use
The state’s renewable energy consumption as a percentage of total consumption according to the EIA’s Primary Energy Consumption Estimates. Note that this factor relates to the wider state rather than the city itself.
The annual air pollution in the city for 2021 according to IQAir’s world’s most polluted cities data.
The artificial brightness in the city center according to LightPollutionMap.info.
The total carbon footprint per person according to the Global Gridded Model of Carbon Footprints (GGMCF).
The total length of the city’s protected bike lanes according to PeopleForBikes’ Protected Bike Lanes 101.
The city’s congestion score according to TomTom’s Traffic Index 2021. This shows the average journey time compared to those in free-flow conditions.