Hello from the Valley of the Sun!
This is my ongoing page on The Arizona Experiment, a joyful four month uprooting of my life to come check out a new car-free community that is springing up in Tempe (a city within the Phoenix metro area.)
Interested in giving it a try?
The real apartments can be found on their main page: https://culdesac.com/ with some major end-of-year rent discounts and a free e-bike included at the moment.
Since I’m just here for four months*, I’m currently staying in one of their short-term furnished rentals, which are available at book.culdesac.com
What’s this all about and why are you there?
I’ve been a fan of close-knit, walkable communities forever and I think we need way more of them. So I was really excited when I read about this ambitious effort to build a brand new one from the ground up. Instead of just reading and writing about it, I thought it would be fun to come live here first hand.
I want to know what type of people choose to live in a place like this, and I also want to help contribute in any way I can (which includes sharing my experiences here).
So what’s actually different about a car-free community?
When you really boil it down, the main difference is that you take away the parking lots and roads and replace them with space for people.
Since cars are way bigger than humans, this has a bigger effect than you’d imagine: you can add more homes while also adding more outdoor parks and other spaces for each person. And of course, shops and restaurants.
This is great, as long as you then fill the place up with people who actually want to be together. Which is definitely not everyone, but that’s part of the point: a neighborhood like this should naturally attract more sociable, friendly people who want to spend time with other humans. And that’s exactly why I’m here.
There’s one other quirk specific to Culdesac that I really like: its support of bikes, and especially e-bikes. By consciously flooding the neighborhood with highly functional electric bikes (including giving one away with each new lease for now), they overcome one of the biggest hurdles to this superior form of transport: most American adults don’t have bikes.
Once people have bikes, they tend to use them and you really see it here. We use them for recreation but more importantly, grocery runs and other errands.
How’s it going so far?
As I write this, I’ve been here about two months but it feels like forever. In a good way!
First of all, there’s something very comfortable about the way this place is laid out in the physical sense. It’s a series of apartment blocks (called pods) each of which are woven around a set of sweet garden courtyards with common spaces between. Each pod has a gate so you have a sort of cozy, neighborly feeling and you can leave your stuff outside without worrying about it. And then between all these pods are a bunch of plazas and common areas, shops, an outrageously nice gym, a really good restaurant, and so on.
So I end up leaving my building throughout the day to go for a walk, or meet some new friends for a workout, or pick up an Amazon package from the delivery room, and just running into people. Which leads to conversations, or side projects, and suddenly nine in the morning becomes three in the afternoon.
It’s the same friendly and spontaneous environment I’ve always tried to create throughout my life wherever I go, but the layout of the neighborhood just makes it easier here.
What is missing or needs improvement?
Just like my visit here, Culdesac itself is an experiment. It’s also a bit of a startup company and a startup community all in one. Something like this has never quite been done before in recent US history, which means its future is still uncharted. I personally like this (just like I always wanted to work in startup companies during my days as a tech worker), because it means we early people can have an influence on making it succeed.
For my first month here, I could feel the neighborhood wanted to be a happening place, but it was missing a critical mass of people except at certain magical moments when everything came together.
But people have been moving in every day and the existing residents and Culdesac team (and even I) have been working, learning, improving, making more things happen and more connections between people get made. And it has been incredibly rewarding to see it really catching on here in my second month. At this point, there are people out and about every day, and something interesting happening almost every night for anyone looking to get out of the house. And the neighborhood is still only about 10% of its final size!
So while I was taking a wait-and-see attitude earlier, I now feel pretty darned confident that this place is going to succeed. As long as they keep doing the great work
Another challenge of this first Culdesac neighborhood is that the surrounding area is just a normal residential-industrial part of Tempe. Lots of high quality new apartment complexes are going up in the area, but so far the commercial side has yet to catch up.
There is a great restaurant and a spiffy (if expensive) small grocery store on-site, but everything else is more of a short bike or light rail ride away rather than a short walk. Trader Joe’s and Super Target are about 1.5 miles, and the fabulous oasis of downtown Tempe is about 2.5 miles to the West, and Mesa offers an equally cool yet totally different vibe, a similar distance to the East. But I’m hoping that as Culdesac itself builds out, there will be many more nice things on site as well.
You definitely don’t need a car to do most things, but this is true in many parts of many American cities (as long as you’re willing to ride a bike along roads that also have varying levels of car traffic). Which brings us to the main car-reducing benefit of Culdesac’s location…
The Light Rail
I was initially a skeptic of this, because while I love public transit in theory, in practice I’m more of a bike guy because it’s faster, healthier, more exciting and really I just prefer to be in control of my own transportation.
But now that I’ve used it enough for various purposes, I’m coming around: the light rail system that runs through the Phoenix metro is pretty darned good. Culdesac basically has its own dedicated stop, the trains run frequently, and the service is free for residents (and only $2.00 even if you’re just a regular civilian). The ride goes right through the downtowns of each city (Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa), which means all of these places are just minutes away. I took the following pictures on recent totally unplanned casual exploration days with my son:
Amazingly enough (to Denver residents like me), there’s also an easy, central light rail stop right at the airport. In other words, you walk out your door and go to the massive Phoenix International airport which has direct flights all over the world, for free, whenever you want. This is astoundly good for people who travel.
What about Cars?
While Culdesac is very passionate about making car-free living as easy as possible, they actually have some of the very best cars out there right on site, available for hourly rental (currently at a way-underpriced, subsidized $5 per hour including charging!). Chevy Bolts from Envoy and a Tesla Model Y from Ten4. To rent these cars, you just walk up to them in the parking lot and unlock with your phone.
These have been popular with Culdesac residents and I think they do a great job at bridging the gap between the car-free ideal, and the fact that the Phoenix metro area is the size of a small country which means public transit is only going to cut it for reaching the closer spots. Since some of the best mountain experiences in the country (including Tonto National Forest) lie just outside the valley, I’m fully in favor of people taking occasional trips in these fine long-range electric cars, out to enjoy the nature.
So far, so great. I’m very happy to be part of this experiment and can’t wait to see how it progresses over the next three months.
If you are planning to stop by, feel free to let me know! (via the email address “newsletter” at this website’s domain)
*Does MMM have a financial stake in Culdesac?
No, I am not an investor and I also don’t get paid for bringing in new tenants. Long-time readers will know that I’ve been promoting the neighborhood for a while, and I did so at my own expense. But – for full disclosure I did negotiate a special rent deal for this particular stay, in exchange for helping them out with some PR and photography/social media stuff.
While I was going to come here this winter and share the results either way, human nature is such that I am probably biased even more in their favor due to this nice “insider” treatment. So I figured it’s best to disclose it here.