How to Build a Car-Free Community? For Whom? And What to Expect?


  • Hue-Tam Jamme Arizona State University
  • Deborah Salon
  • Nicole Corcoran
  • Rababe Saadaoui


mobility, car dependency, mixed-methods research design, case study




The automobile is a technological invention that revolutionized the way people move, work, shop, and relate to each other. Private car ownership and mass adoption of the car-centric lifestyle, starting in Europe and North America and then expanding to the rest of the world, have led to the most inequitable and unsustainable urban forms, economies, and societies. Reversing these trends is a tremendous challenge. Despite its social, economic, and environmental costs, the private automobile continues to attract people because of its comfort, convenience, and status symbol. Yet, shifting away from automobile dependence is necessary for societies to achieve urban sustainability and livability.

This paper is centered on an in-depth case study of a social experiment called Culdesac Tempe, that is, the first intentionally car-free neighborhood in the United States. Note “car-free” refers here to a way of life that is free of car ownership and private car use. In no way does it designate people or places that are deprived of all car use. Located in one of the most sprawled and car-centric metropolitan areas in the country, that of Phoenix, AZ, Culdesac Tempe proposes a groundbreaking design model for its context, as it includes zero private vehicular parking for residents. The neighborhood is currently under development. Upon completion, by 2025, it should provide housing to approximately 800 residents (renters only).

What are the social determinants of interest in living at Culdesac Tempe? How do these factors relate to anticipated challenges and benefits when living at Culdesac Tempe? And what can we infer from the Culdesac Tempe case about interest in car-free living across urban and suburban contexts throughout the United States?

To address these questions, we assembled a rich dataset including a national survey (N=2,155) and a mix of qualitative and quantitative data collected through research activities with prospective Culdesac residents – interviews, focus groups, seven-day travel diaries and another survey (N=88). We estimated the factors associated with interest in car-free living within a binary logistic regression framework. We drew on content analyses of interview and focus group data to identify individual motivations for adopting a car-free lifestyle and advance a theoretical framework about the relationships between anticipated challenges and benefits when living at Culdesac.

The findings show that people of widely diverse backgrounds are interested in living car-free. The demographic composition of prospective Culdesac residents is nearly similar to that of the broader metropolitan area; and most sociodemographic characteristics are insignificant in the national statistical model. We found surprisingly strong interest in car-free living among US urban and suburban adults: 19% said they are interested in living car-free, while another 41% said maybe one day. Our statistical analysis shows that interest in car-free living is largely dependent on how often the respondent drives now, as well as if they had experiences living car-free in the past. Finally, participants expected important trade-offs between transportation challenges and sociability benefits.

We conclude that due to the diversity of those interested in car-free living, and the positive influence of exposure to car-free living and car-free infrastructure on interest, US urban planners and designers should continue to make significant efforts to meet large and untapped demand for car independent living. Further research is needed to measure the effects of the Culdesac experiment on sustainable urban mobility, livability, and social connectedness.