Man moved to car-free Arizona community, loves it despite challenges

John-Robert Rodríguez (left) moved into a car-free community, Culdesac, in Tempe, Arizona in 2023.
Courtesy of John-Robert Rodríguez; Culdesac

  • John-Robert Rodríguez moved to Culdesac, a car-free community in Arizona, in October 2023.
  • He has never liked driving and believes that fewer cars can foster more community.
  • Life in Cudesac is great, but he still has to deal with the car-dependent world outside its gates.

This spoken essay is based on a conversation with John-Robert Rodríguez, 24, a teacher in Tempe, Arizona, who lives in the car-free community Culdesac. Rodríguez moved to Culdesac, which has about 150 residents so far but will eventually house 1,000 residents in 760 units, in October 2023 from Pflugerville, Texas, after growing up in Florida. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

I heard about Culdesac when it was still in development.

I went for a tour in August 2023, and it looked just like the models. It looked just like the community said it would look all those years ago.

I don’t drive. I have a license but I don’t drive.

I moved in October.

When you start to de-depend on cars, you start to see more people. When you go to a city, the more cars you see on the road, the less people you will see on the sidewalks. People need to be outside to build community.

Rodríguez said he has never been a fan of driving.
Courtesy of Rodríguez.

I’m just going to go home from work on the railroad train and bump into my next-door neighbor. I think we are on the same train schedule. We talk on the way or when we come back together, and I really like that kind of casual friendship.

I feel like I’ve missed that before – it’s like you either have those very close connections or they’re strangers to you. I like her.

I felt very dependent on the car in Florida and Texas

I moved to Culdesac and also ABOUT Culdesac. This was one of the main reasons I decided to move.

I signed up with my email at some point years ago.

They sent an email to 2023 saying, “Hey, by the way, our first phase is opening and we’re looking for residents. We saw that you were interested.”

I didn’t realize it was going so fast. The thing I cared about all those years ago exists now.

Some of Culdesac’s residential buildings.
Culdesac.

I grew up in South Florida, but my parents moved to Texas when I was in college. For the last five or six years my family has been in Texas. I have lived in the suburbs in both Florida and Texas. It has been my whole experience – and not just the suburbs of a big city, but a suburb of a suburb.

It was so far from the city, from the community and from everything that makes life livable.

I heard about Culdesac and said, “That sounds like somewhere I want to be.” I decided to pack up my life and go there.

Something I really didn’t like about South Florida—although it’s more of a suburban thing than a South Florida thing—was the lack of community. I didn’t know anyone despite living in the same house for most of my life. I didn’t really know my neighbors. My classmates lived in the same town, but it wasn’t like you could just randomly say, “Hey, do you want to hang out and then go out?” Especially if you’re a teenager and don’t drive.

You have to plan everything, and I really didn’t like that aspect. There is no way to move.

In Texas, choosing to be car-free is not a choice. You are not a participant in life. If you don’t drive anywhere, you can’t do anything.

Life in Culdesac is pretty idyllic so far

That’s one of the things I’ve loved about Arizona. Sure, it’s different because I’m carless now, but I imagine growing up in Tempe or the Phoenix area, having rail and buses is an option for you. That’s not something I’ve had in South Florida or Texas, where you literally can’t get around unless you drive.

I’m on a one bedroom split level so my living room and kitchen are downstairs.

My apartment is located next to the grill in the common area. I can see the grill from my room. So I’m like, “Oh, who’s down there? Let me say hi.” So it’s nice to have that. It is very accessible.

The way these buildings are constructed encourages these interactions. Chat with people as you pass by, or go to events.

We had a K-Pop night a few weeks ago. I have never seen so many people in Culdesac. I met a lot of people that night.

There is a purpose behind planning. There are areas where you can go, versus Texas where I feel like they just dump things on the side of a highway and hope for the best.

You really see how ugly the landscape is, with highways and parking lots and shopping malls. It’s not somewhere you feel like you want to live or where you want to do things. Against Culdesac – the intentionality of the design, the colors, the murals, the art, the space, the location.

I feel like I’m more motivated to be human versus being in my house and shutting out the world around me.

It definitely doesn’t feel European – it’s not like I’ve been transported to Venice or Florence. It’s a very American take on European style. It feels unique that way.

My rent is $1,400 and utilities are probably another $150 a month – but I’ve also been using the heater like crazy because I’m freezing all the time. I didn’t know Arizona got cold, so my last electric bill was a little more than I anticipated.

The world outside Culdesac still relies on machines

Culdesac is like an island in this car-centric country.

We’re close to Arizona State University so it’s more walkable and the rail isn’t so close which is nice, but there are still times when I have to deal with cars in ways I wish I didn’t have to.

Light rail station near Culdesac.
Culdesac.

I work in South Tempe. It takes me 40 minutes to get to work. I have to cross a six-lane road and then I have to walk through this massive parking lot because the school is in a weird place.

I wish it wasn’t just a Culdesac thing to highlight the hike.

When I moved here, I thought, “I’ll never see a car again. I’ll be completely car-free. It’ll be fine.” But no, you still have to deal with that aspect of it.

Even when I was in high school, I really hated cars. I had a lot of friends die in car accidents over silly things like racing – which is very common in Florida because we lived near US-1, which is a major highway, and it’s a long way past the Everglades. People raced there all the time, so I just didn’t want to drive. Because of this, I was always looking for alternatives to driving.

It’s so car-centric – not just the way people build, but the way they think. How people navigate their lives. Having a car is a must. There is no alternative.

I was constantly looking for either a way to escape this place or a way to live without a car and make it workable. In many places you can be mostly car-free, but you won’t have the same quality of life.

Even the phrase “no cars” implies that cars are the default, and that’s an addiction we have.

In the context of this country, it’s a brave choice to give up a car, but honestly, I’ve been carless before I was “carless”. I just don’t like cars. I don’t like driving.

People will ask, “What was it like to give up the car?” I didn’t give up anything. The GAIN a lot moving here. I got a lot more and life became easier. I feel no loss in any way.

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