The story of Phoenix, Arizona is the story of sprawl. After World War II, when cars, air conditioning, and home loans became affordable for the middle class, Phoenix’s population boomed. In keeping with the development paradigm of the times, the city spun off suburbs, cul de sacs, and strip malls at a dizzying rate in the mid 20th century. Today, Phoenix is dependent on the car, but it doesn’t have to be.
Car-centric suburban living has upsides such as space, privacy, and affordability. “Suburban development…has given a lot of people the opportunity to own a home that they would not have without [it],” says Craig Krumwiede, a leading residential developer in the Valley.
While suburban homes are indeed cheaper per square-foot than urban dwellings, much has been sacrificed in the pursuit of more space for less. Long commutes and long driveways lead to breakdowns in the family, the community, and the environment.
A Swedish study on the social impact of commuting time concluded that the separation rate for long-commuting couples is 40% higher than for other couples. Additionally, a 2001 study found that neighborhood social ties are “significantly and substantially” inversely correlated to the percentage of residents who rely on an automobile. Furthermore, cars play a large role in climate change. Transportation is responsible for 28% of US greenhouse gas emissions, and suburban households have a higher carbon footprint than urban households.
These outcomes are detrimental at best, and unsustainable at worst.
Two Phoenix suburbs––Tempe and Scottsdale––offer dueling approaches for 21st century development. Where Tempe embraces the challenge of reducing car usage, Scottsdale remains stubbornly fixated on the preeminence of the automobile.
In 2008, the Phoenix metropolitan area broke ground on a light rail that connected Phoenix and Tempe. While Scottsdale was embroiled in a decade-long debate about how transit would affect the “character” of the city, Tempe had already begun developing a dense, mixed-use downtown district.
Former Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano, who served from 1994-2004, ushered in the city’s urbanization with the creation of Tempe Town Lake and the approval for the initial light rail route. Reflecting on his development policies, he says, “You’re advancing an agenda for the long term future of your quality of life, your economic life, the attraction of jobs, and the attraction of urban redevelopment.”
City planning expert Bob Graves says that Tempe’s strategy is to become a “‘20 minute city,’––one with a vibrant mix of commercial, recreational, civic and residential establishments that for most residents are within a one-mile walking distance, a four-mile bicycle ride or a 20-minute transit trip.”
Tempe’s development follows two main philosophies: Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) and New Urbanism. TOD aims to make the transit system a central part of development so riders have somewhere to go when they get off the train. New Urbanism advocates transforming sprawling suburbs into walkable cities with inviting open spaces and storefronts, with a similar emphasis on human-scaled development.
Mixed-use buildings, mass transit, walkable storefronts, open spaces, bike lanes: these are all features that make New Urbanists and Transit-Oriented Developers smile, and they have become ubiquitous in Tempe.
Tempe’s strategy for reducing car dependence is going so well that the ironically named development company Culdesac chose the city to be the location of “the first car-free neighborhood built from scratch in the US,” which breaks ground in 2021. The community features “lush and secure parks, wide tree-lined walkways, active plazas, and a beautiful central park.” It is located on a light rail stop 2.5 miles from downtown Tempe, and car ownership is contractually prohibited.
Scottsdale, meanwhile, has resisted the light rail for years. When a light rail expansion was included in the city’s Master Plan in 2016, the city council shot it down, arguing that it was too expensive and that better alternatives are available. The city’s official Transportation Master Plan for that year included two new trolley routes and one new bus route. Suffice to say, Scottsdale is yet to move the needle in terms of reducing the number of cars on the road.
Tempe’s innovative urban design is enacting real change compared to Scottsdale’s conservative approach. Between 2009 and 2015, the percentage of Scottsdale households without a car stayed constant at 4.5%. Over that same timespan, Tempe saw a 47% jump in households without a car, rising to 11.1% in 2015.
In order to achieve a better future for our cities, sprawling suburbs have to take deliberate action to reinvent their city centers. Mass transit and mixed-use land policy are keys to creating density out of sprawl, and making our cities more livable, prosperous, and sustainable.
Ryan Goodman is a Phoenix native and a Junior at Duke University studying Public Policy.