Ecocity Snapshots

A Step in the Right Direction

Car-free neighborhoods, like this one in Oslo, should inspire developers to take a step in the right direction.
Written by Rick Pruetz

by Rick Pruetz, Vice President, Ecocity Builders

The first car-free development in the United States was recently unveiled in Tempe, Arizona. One 17-acre infill project may not seem evolutionary considering what our car-obsessed culture has done to air quality, climate, and the planet in general (not to mention the health, safety, and livability of our cities.) But hopefully, it will demonstrate the multiple benefits of building cities where people can walk, bike, or take public transportation to everyday destinations and forego the financial burden of owning, operating, repairing, insuring, and parking a motor vehicle.

The Tempe development, named Culdesac, groups clusters of three-story apartment buildings, shared open space, and micro stores along a network of pathways plus a wide walkway designed to offer emergency-vehicle access to the entire complex. An adjacent light rail stop allows residents to reach work places, schools, entertainment, and shopping venues within the cities of Phoenix and Mesa as well as Tempe using public transportation. The complex provides complementary light rail passes as an added incentive for residents to remain car-free despite Culdesac’s location within a metropolitan area where more than 92 percent of households own a car.

The developers chose to locate Culdesac in Tempe in response to this city’s determination to grow up rather than grow out. The city looks for creative ways to densify without cars using infrastructure investments and policy decisions that motivate people to change long-held transportation behaviors. The city adopted a transit-oriented development overlay aimed at redeveloping a commercial corridor that had become rundown and partially abandoned. The overlay facilitated a Planned Area Development master plan that allows Culdesac to achieve an overall density of 40 dwelling units per acre despite its notable open space amenities and retail opportunities. Tempe waived parking requirements in light of the adjacent light rail stop and Culdesac’s inclusion of space for bike parking, bike repairs, and even a bike store. In addition, Culdesac provides rental cars for those inevitable trips to places that are unreachable using either active transportation or public transportation.       

Culdesac residents are not sacrificing a quality environment in their quest to achieve a car-free lifestyle. The common areas and courtyards are enlivened with drought-tolerant landscaping and splashes of color reminiscent of Greek-island architecture, conveying the vibe of a European village. The building orientations shade the pathways and open space, a welcome relief in this desert climate.  

The financial advantage of car-free living has been highlighted by the persistently high cost of car-related expenses despite reduced inflation within the overall economy. As I write this in April 2024, fuel and auto insurance premiums continue to plague drivers and high-interest rates on car loans are adding to the already extraordinary burden that car ownership imposes on household budgets. The American Automobile Association estimates that buying, insuring, fueling, repairing, and parking a new car costs $10,000 annually. Consequently, ecomobility is a social equity issue considering that $10,000 can represent anywhere from a third to half of the annual income for someone earning minimum wage.    

Culdesac offers a glimpse of what cities might become by bringing our now-predominant dependence on private automobiles into balance with other transportation modes. It will take many similar, interconnected projects to make meaningful progress toward climate action, safety, health, and livable-city goals. But Culdesac nevertheless offers one more example of the benefit of building cities that promote ‘access by proximity’ as well as other goals of the Ecocity Standards. Although Culdesac may be a small step, it is nevertheless a step in the right direction.           


Sisson, P. 2024. Bringing Culdesac’s Car-Free Vision into Focus. Planning. Chicago: American Planning Association.    

Wilson, K, 2024. State DOTs Spend Even Money on Highway Expansion Than We Thought. Streetsblog. Accessed at State DOTs Spend Even More Money on Highway Expansions Than We Thought (

About the author

Rick Pruetz

Rick Pruetz, FAICP, is Vice President of the Ecocity Builders Board and an urban planner who writes about sustainability, most recently Ecocity Snapshots: Learning from Europe’s Greenest Places and Smart Climate Action through Transfer of Development Rights.