We Need More Purpose-Built Car-Free Neighborhoods Like Culdesac Tempe

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Living and getting around a city in the incredibly car-centric United States and living in a city somewhere else — say a city in a European country with a long history that predates the automobile — is a study in contrasts. What works for transportation somewhere like Copenhagen or Amsterdam, for example, doesn’t translate so easily to many of the cities in the US. Not only is there a major difference in the availability of public transit, but the infrastructure and the general attitudes toward cyclists and other human-powered micromobility options on the roads and streets here in the US is quite different as well.

At CleanTechnica, we hear all the time that many of the new micromobility and small zero emissions vehicles we cover are great and all, but are rather impractical in most of the US because of how spread out everything is. I don’t know that that’s totally accurate, as there are a lot of bike commuters out there who make it work every day, but I understand the thinking behind it.

Upgrading roads and streets to better integrate cycling — and to improve the safety of cyclists — is one great way for cities to enable a low or zero emission transportation system, and it’s cheaper than building out a comprehensive transit system, so kudos to the urban planners who are actively working toward those ends. However, bike lanes and bike paths are just one piece of the puzzle (plus actually getting more people on their bikes every day), as is working to convert certain neighborhoods to be more walkable and bikable. But what if neighborhoods and developments were built to be car-free right from the get-go, and are conveniently located for most dining and shopping and entertainment needs? It seems that that would be an attractive option to people who are ready for post-car living (or low-car living, at least).

I recently stumbled across a car-free development in Tempe, Arizona, and then shortly afterward I read that Kyle was just there for an event with Lectric eBikes, and that set off my synchronicity radar, so I felt compelled to bring it to the CleanTechnica audience.

Culdesac Tempe is the name of the the neighborhood, with Culdesac being the name of the developer behind it, and it is being billed as “The first car-free neighborhood built from scratch in the United States.” I haven’t been able to verify that claim, but it doesn’t seem too far out considering how backasswards most modern US cities have grown to be, where the car (and nowadays the truck) is king, and everything else is designed around driving and parking full-sized vehicles (usually with a single person in them), and people come second (or third). Anyhow, that’s neither here nor there, unless firsts are important to you, but what Culdesac is doing is worth paying attention to, even if you’ll never move to the Valley of the Sun.

According to Culdesac, the Tempe neighborhood includes “Seventeen acres of award-winning homes, vibrant retail, and beautiful open space. On a light rail station, next to downtown.” It offers some 700 furnished and unfurnished apartments for rent, a fitness center, an on-site light rail station and an on-site e-bike shop, walking and cycling paths, shared courtyards and a central plaza for events, a dog park, and more. Some 55% of the site is open space, with “zero asphalt on site.” There are options for short term and extended stay rentals, as well as storage units, offices, and “micro-retail units.”

The company Culdesac, which is a real estate developer and property manager, “designs, builds, and manages walkable communities,” with the Tempe location being the first of its communities.

“We build neighborhoods that embrace community, open space, and mobility. We offer residential units at a variety of price points integrated with local retail, commercial uses, and open space for nature and public plazas.

“Our communities prioritize biking, walking, and transit over cars and parking. We partner with leading mobility companies to deliver convenient and affordable transportation services. This creates a vibrant urban lifestyle without the need for a private vehicle.”

The co-founders, Ryan Johnson and Jeff Berens, both grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, and wrote that their “first couple decades were lived mostly through the windshield of a car,” because going anywhere required driving, and that that was just the way it was. The traditional argument is that  “Phoenix is built for cars → Therefore all people have cars → Therefore Phoenix needs to be built for cars,” but they wondered how that cycle could be broken.

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They posited that it all starts with transportation, and that “How we move determines how we live.” With the fairly shift toward shared mobility and ride-sharing and micromobility, it becomes increasingly possible to at least begin to transition away from mostly privately owned (and usually solo-driven) cars and trucks, and that allows for a different style of design, such as that of Culdesac Tempe. In 2019, they described a different possibility and a vision of a post-car neighborhood in Tempe like this:

“Restaurants and shopping will be a short walk, rather than a strip mall miles down the road. Front doors open into leafy shared courtyards, not rows of car tailpipes. Trips to the grocery store for ice cream means pulling out your sandals for a stroll, not pulling out of your driveway into traffic.”

The car-free living situation at Culdesac doesn’t have to mean only walking, as residents get discounts on Lyft and Waymo rides, free metro rides, access to car-sharing and on-site scooter rentals, can catch the light rail at an on-site station, and the neighborhood has more than 1000 bike parking spots, so there are plenty of options.

According to the website, studio apartments start at around $1300, 1 bedroom apartments starting around $1400, and two- and three-bedroom units for around $2100 and $2900 respectively, so this isn’t some elite development where the average joe is priced out. And while this kind of car-free neighborhood isn’t for everyone, it certainly seems like a huge step up from much of the other housing situations in the Salt River Valley. If you’re interested in exploring the possibility of living there, or you want to look further into what could be possible with a purpose-built car-free neighborhood in your city, head over to the Culdesac website or drop by 2025 E Apache Blvd in Tempe.

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