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Culdesac Tempe founder sees a car-free future for the Valley

Ryan Johnson
Lauren Gilger/KJZZ
Ryan Johnson

On Apache Boulevard in Tempe, a little ways east of ASU’s campus along the light rail line, one of many apartment complexes is being built in the Valley.

But this one is a little different.

“This is Culdesac Tempe, and right now we’re on the Paseo. Instead of a road full of traffic, this is only used by fire trucks and food trucks,” said Ryan Johnson.

He’s the CEO and co-founder of Culdesac Tempe. They bill themselves as the first car-free community built from scratch in the country. That’s right, I said car-free — in the Phoenix metro area, one of the most car dependent major cities in the country.

But Johnson isn’t deterred.

“So this place is built for people,” he said. “Most projects are built starting with thinking about how it’s going to be parked, and cars dictate the design and instead we focus on people.”

They’re in phase one of building and opening the 17-acre community, now with about 180 residents living there as of May 1. By phase three, they hope to have 1,000 people living here, Johnson said.

“So the idea here, we tongue-in-cheek call it Mykonos-inspired desert modern.”

Here’s the rub: If you live here, you can’t own a car. Or at least you can’t park it here. Johnson himself says he hasn’t owned a car in 14 years.

Instead, you get discounts to on-site rideshare services, light rail passes and a free e-bike to the first 200 people who move in. But they’re still in the middle of a not very walkable city, and temperatures are reaching the 110s.

So The Show asked Johnson more about it all on a tour earlier this spring.

Full conversation

RYAN JOHNSON: You don’t get the heat island effect, so this apartment complex actually feels 15 degrees cooler than the apartment complex next door. And that’s because there’s not a drop of asphalt. There’s narrow corridors that create lots of shade, and then the white buildings reflect heat.

Culdesac community in Tempe
Lauren Gilger/KJZZ
Culdesac community in Tempe

LAUREN GILGER: So that was because we’re in a really hot place, I’m sure, but also just for walkability, because you wonder this when you hear about a car-free community in Phoenix, what happens in the summer when it’s 115, right?

JOHNSON: Yeah. The image people have from the heat is it’s actually getting from the grocery store into their car with the greenhouse gas effect, and they might burn themselves on the seatbelt. That’s actually not 110. That’s 175.

And when you’re using this portfolio of transportation options and you live in a place that doesn’t have as much of the heat island effect, in many ways it’s better this way.

GILGER: Let’s keep walking. Yeah, it feels very (winding). People get lost when they first move in?

JOHNSON: Yeah, it’s a bit like a casino in that way. But eventually it’s clear where everything is. And then it starts to have lots of interesting nooks and crannies. There’s prospect and refuge. So right here you can see that down this path there’s a winding corner where it’s interesting. You look down there, you say, “Oh, I wonder what’s down there.” And the spoiler is that the pool’s down there.

GILGER: So I wonder, the interesting thing about that is can you build it from scratch? When we talk about traditionally a walkable neighborhood, it’s like taking a city that’s been there a long time and making it more walkable, especially if we’re talking about it in Phoenix. But how did you go about sort of trying to build it from the ground up and manufacture it in that way?

JOHSON: So we wanted to go to a location that had the right kind of job growth to support additional population and also find a city that welcomed growth. And we worked with lots of different stakeholders to find out what was important to everyone. And we brought forth this plan that shows that you can build walkable neighborhoods successfully in the U.S. in the 2020s.

And part of what we’re doing is, you know, we have plans to grow, but also we want to show other cities and other developers that these kind of projects can thrive. And the tailwinds in terms of transportation are so strong.

There’s lots of mobility technologies, including simple things like the light rail, but also things like Lyft and Waymo that still so few people have tried them. And as those trends play out over a number of years, we’re going to see millions of more car-free people.

GILGER: So you feel like you’re sort of on the beginning of this trend. Phoenix and Tempe — the Valley — is such a car-driven and car-centric kind of place and culture. I wonder about trying to find the people who are interested in that. Do you think that this is just underestimated, many people are ready for this?

JOHNSON: Yeah, it’s substantially underestimated. There's so much demand for this, especially once people experience it. Over half the U.S. wants to live in a neighborhood like this, including 92% of Gen Z. And so we need to build millions of more units like this.

GILGER: I want to back up and talk a little bit about you, where you’re from, how you kind of came up with this idea, to be the first car-free community and to put it in a place that is so car-centric.

This is a really interesting idea, and it’s gotten a ton of press and a lot of attention. Tell me about you and where this idea came from.

JOHNSON: I grew up in Phoenix, and for college I turned down MIT to take the Flinn Scholarship — that’s something for 20 students a year in Arizona — and went to (University of Arizona). And a couple things happened from that scholarship. One is that they sent the class abroad. and I saw great cities like Budapest and Tokyo and Amsterdam and said, “Wow, there’s lots of great ways to make cities.”

And also, I used the scholarship money to get into real estate, built a portfolio of 60 bedrooms, just learning how to renovate property, manage, etc. I became passionate about cities. My career was in transportation with trains and helicopters and buses, including working for the New York City Subway.

Culdesac community in Tempe
Lauren Gilger/KJZZ
Culdesac community in Tempe

Then I joined as part of the founding team at Opendoor. But it comes back to Culdesac because while that business was growing, all of the transportation technologies were moving quickly, where Lyft and Waymo and electric bikes were all progressing. And what we saw at Opendoor was enormous demand for walkable neighborhoods.

And people didn’t always ask for it by name. Actually, the most common thing they would say is that they wanted something “cute.” And when you ask them what that means, it means they want to have a coffee shop. They want to know their neighbors have thoughtful architecture.

And when you look at what homes people want to buy, a lot of the homes that were built before cars in these kind of neighborhoods did so well. We just weren’t building them. And we realized that new designs that use these new transportation technologies was how we were going to bring walkable neighborhoods back. And that was the genesis for Culdesac.

GILGER: So it was a homecoming for you in the end. I want to talk a little bit about choosing to do it here. There are obviously economic reasons to doing it here. But I wondered even more specifically, why this plot of land? Why this part of the city?

There’s not a ton of walkable stuff around here, right? You see a lot of open space and brand new buildings building up here as well as Culdesac. Are you hoping that you can create everything people need just right here?

JOHNSON: So we found this parcel. It’s 17 acres and right on the light rail. It’s actually really hard to get something that’s that good. And we knew with that kind of scale we could add a lot of amenities. And we’ve actually catalyzed a lot of things being built around the area.

One of the things we’ve done is we worked with the city to build a protected bike lane that’s going in now, it opens later this year and that gets to Tempe Marketplace. There’s so many people that would bike if it were safer.

And so we can make the connections to the rest of the neighborhood fantastic. We can also add lots of amenities here.

GILGER: I wonder if you’ve gotten pushback. I wonder what critics have said. Because there’s been a lot of good press, but when you do something on the front end of a trend, a lot of people are going to say, “You’re crazy. You cannot create a car-free community in the center of Phoenix.” What do you say?

JOHNSON: Yeah, a lot of skeptics. A lot of people need to see it to believe it. And that’s why it’s so different now, being open. When we started a while back, people said, “Wow, it’s going to be hard to get the demand. It’s going to be hard to get the neighbors to love it.”

And now it’s open, and neighbors love it. The demand has been fantastic. And people say, “Actually, this is the future.” So say I have a car, but I want to live in a place like this. What do you do?

So if you want to have a car, there’s plenty of other places. There’s lots of great neighborhoods in Arizona. So the key thing here is that you can’t park on-site. And so if you wanted to have a car, you’d have to park elsewhere, but you really would want to live somewhere else if that’s what you wanted to do.

GILGER: Is that in the requirements? You said you have a basic leasing application, you say, “Do you have a car? Sorry, you can’t live here.”

JOHNSON: We can’t prevent somebody from owning a car. But it says that you can’t park it on site or in the immediate surrounding area.

GILGER: Do you hear concerns from folks who were trying to move here when that happens? Like, what do they say?

JOHNSON: Well for a lot of folks, they aren’t quite ready for that. What we hear a lot is that people are interested in learning more about that lifestyle. It’s a big change. I mean, patterns take years to evolve.

I had an SUV in college. Understanding what it takes to be a power user of mobility and logistics technologies — once people experience it and they know other people that are living like that, then they see how wonderful it is. So initially, a lot of people start with a lot of curiosity. And then once they learn more, we see a lot of people that are ready to take the plunge.

GILGER: OK, but I’m sure you also have people who live here who just kind of park on the street next door and walk over and still live here, right?

JOHNSON: So the vast majority don’t have a car.

GILGER: So the thing I want to ask is a little bit about, I guess, the kind of mind shift. There’s a lot of theory behind creating something like this. You’re reminding me of conversations I’ve had with people who are at the forefront of self-driving car technology, which lots of people will still say, “That’s crazy. I’m never going to do that.”

But I wonder how you would think about getting people to change their mindset and how quickly you think that will happen in a community like this.

JOHNSON: Yeah, a lot of these trends are working in parallel if you just think about the broader country. So still less than half of people have tried Lyft or Uber. And the next generation, we’re fortunate in Phoenix to be the launch place for Waymo. Then that’s going to create millions of more car-free people. Also electric bikes — it’s not just a little bit different from a bike, it’s a completely different transportation mode.

And also it’s not always a sacrifice. When somebody wants to do a weekend trip in Sedona, we have car rental on site, rentable by the hour. It’s a little bit of a shift from just having a car parked everywhere, but it also comes with freedom.

GILGER: All right. Well, thank you so much for sitting down with me and answering every question I can think of about this. Thank you very much.

JOHNSON: All right. Yeah. Thanks for coming.

Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.
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