America has, since the mid-20th century, encouraged automobiles to dominate the built landscape. A variety of regulations, subsidies, and other government policies have engineered the outcome, and one primary example at the local level is parking minimums. As I wrote in a previous Catalyst article, this leads to a vicious cycle, as valuable space is allocated to cars, forcing residents to rely on them and preventing other development and transport styles from achieving mass adoption. But some master-planned developments are bursting this bubble by encouraging walkability and reducing the role cars play in neighborhood life. A leading one in Tempe, AZ, going by “Culdesac,” forbids parking altogether.
Tempe is not exactly an urbanist paradise, with a population density of 5,101/sqm (versus 8,662 in an inner-ring Boston suburb, for instance), and a car ownership rate roughly around the national average. Metro Phoenix is also growing significantly, adding about 700,000 since 2010, and much of that growth can be characterized as auto-dependent sprawl.
Culdesac Tempe is the opposite—a $170 million planned development set to open next year, it touts itself as America’s first car-free development. Residents are explicitly forbidden from parking within a quarter-mile radius of the project. At phase 1’s full buildout, the 761-unit complex will house 1,000 residents and is adjacent to light rail and bus lanes, providing more convenient access to downtown Tempe and Arizona State University. NextCity reports that leases and deposits have increased recently as the complex prepares to open.
“As of last week,” writes Sandy Smith, “33 leases have been signed for the 260 units slated to open between summer 2022 and spring 2023, and another 300 prospective tenants have put down $100 deposits to remain on the project’s waiting list.”
Studio apartments currently are projected to rent for $1,090/month, and 1-bedrooms for $1,250, which is markedly lower than Tempe’s median 1-bedroom rent. Culdesac’s marketing department wrote in an email that their refusal to build parking helped shave possibly $60/month off rents, and freed up lots of space to build common areas.
To that end, Culdesac is branding itself as a 5-minute city that is built like a town center. It has retail to provide for residents’ everyday needs and common areas where they can socialize on tree-lined public squares or by the pool.
Culdesac’s zero-parking model has generated skepticism. As Car and Driver puts it, Tempe was “built for cars, or at least with the assumption that cars were how people got around,” and further, “four months of the year in Tempe have average temperatures of 100 degrees or higher.”
But it would be more accurate to say Culdesac does not require car ownership for residents to live practically and comfortably. Recognizing that residents will still need cars, though, it enables a way to use them. Culdesac has partnered with several shared mobility companies. Residents will receive unlimited public transit passes and 15% cuts off Lyft rides. A carshare company called Envoy will offer car rentals for as little as $5/hour. Bird is getting an exclusive operating agreement to provide shared scooters within a 1-minute walk. There will be an in-house shuttle service, and the complex will include over 1,000 bike parking spaces.
This access to alternative mobility will be crucial to success. TechCrunch reports that providers are already shifting to a “subscription” model rather than charging per ride, which could encourage developers to follow Culdesac in connecting residents with subscriptions, allowing them to access bikes and scooters at any time. But there may be less need in the future for transport trips, anyway: some speculate that the increase in work-from-home, oft-used as an argument against urbanism, will in fact reduce outbound commuting.
Culdesac is of course an untested model—the development is n0t complete, although the deposit wait list is encouraging. But I have run into projects nationwide that mirror Culdesac’s traits. Project Open in Salt Lake City, while not explicitly car-free, is a self-described net-zero project that is reserving some of its parking garage area for shared vehicles and bike-share. San Antonio’s Pearl development is a cluster of revived warehouses that behaves like a city-within-a-city. The Pearl’s parking, limited to begin with, has been placed on the periphery while the center of the development is for retail and parks. In August of 2020, Singapore began work on Tengah’s Park District, which places road and parking infrastructure below grade.
The philosophical point made from all these developments is not only that different design leads to different behavior regarding mobility and transport; but that the segregation of cars from economic activity, even if subtle, leads to much nicer civic spaces.
The prospect of more Culdesac-like projects happening in the future hinges on cities loosening parking minimums (Culdesac itself got a waiver from Tempe). Luckily, many cities are going this route, with Hartford, Baltimore, and San Francisco scaling back or outright eliminating parking minimums.
Getting more Culdesacs will also require changes within the private sector, from developers who are willing to stray from their traditional suburban pro formas to financial institutions that bet on unorthodox models. Car and Driver notes that Culdesac CEO Ryan Johnson aspires to build something similar in cities such as Dallas and Raleigh, and maybe other developers are waiting in the mix. The proliferation of such car-free or “car-light” development would reduce the auto dependence that governments have imposed on cities.
This article featured additional reporting from Market Urbanism Report content manager Ethan Finlan.