On Desert Transit, or the Lack Thereof

Transit anywhere can be a paradox, but especially so in the low-density Desert Southwest. Simmons Buntin explores transit, or the lack thereof, in his Tucson community of Civano, and in the high-end residential development Saguaro Ranch, as he searches for a personal auto that lightens his carbon footprint.

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While it’s a stereotype that only boys are passionate about cars, I admit to fitting the mold. My first car was a vinyl-topped 1966 Ford Mustang purchased from my father. It didn’t take much back then to work on a car — no computer chips or catalytic converters — and though I couldn’t claim to be a mechanic, I tinkered with that prize daily under the sweltering Florida sun.

Since then, I’ve driven automobiles that place me solidly as a gearhead’s square peg in a conservationist’s round hole. For example, I’ve owned a number of four-wheel drives, ranging from the utilitarian Isuzu Trooper to the iconic Toyota Land Cruiser, to help guide me further into the wild. The irony of calling myself an environmentalist and driving an SUV didn’t escape me, even when gas was cheap and global warming was just an unrecognized flicker. But life is full of contradictions, and who am I to buck that trend?

Even my latest car purchase was a paradox. I wanted both a sports sedan for on-street performance and an off-road vehicle for escapes into the southern Arizona backcountry. Was it possible to have both, especially in light of the reality of my 30-mile commute? Enter the Subaru Outback, with its manual transmission, turbo engine, all-wheel drive, and high ground clearance.

The Outback has been great fun over the last two years, even as gas prices rose and trekking declined. Though the car wasn’t a true hybrid like the many Priuses we see humming around my neighborhood’s streets, I considered it a commendable hybrid of sports car and SUV, with a tad better gas mileage than either.

A new home’s view of the Catalina Mountains from Saguaro Ranch, nestled in the foothills of the Tortolita Mountains northwest of Tucson. Photo by Simmons Buntin.

But earlier this summer, during an environmental writing workshop in Vermont, I realized that it was time to put my money where my mouth is. Or more appropriately, put my shifting hand where my heart is.

I live, after all, in a pedestrian-oriented community, and I hold the value of people over cars high on my list of essentials that make for a great community. Though Civano has yet to obtain bus or other mass-transit service—something our community was designed to accommodate just across from the neighborhood center—it otherwise supports the goal of making automobiles secondary. For example, parking spaces in the Villas and Courtyard Homes areas were purposefully under-planned. The idea was that eventually many of these residents wouldn’t need or use cars. Reality, at least early in our neighborhood’s development, says otherwise. Still, other design measures have been more successful: placing garages on alleys, thinning streets and adding shade trees to reduce traffic speed and make walking comfortable, incorporating a trail system that connects portions of the neighborhood and draws people into the neighborhood center.

The conversation up in Vermont that sparked my realization was with a man who owned a small hatchback, the Honda Fit, that scores good gas mileage yet is fun to drive. Closer to home, I’ve envied a neighbor’s flame-orange Fit since the car was purchased to replace the family minivan. Realizing that I’m not up to cycling to work like some of my neighbors, nor carpool regularly given my odd schedule of work and school, a fuel-efficient car that happens to cost new about half of what I paid for the Outback makes sense. So I put a deposit down on the popular car at a local dealer, and if I can sell my vehicle in these troubling economic times or receive a decent trade-in offer, that’s the route I’ll take.

A road at Saguaro Ranch winds among virgin forest of saguaro cacti and stunning rock formations, all tucked safely behind an imposing gate. Photo by Simmons Buntin.

In a larger sense, creating a smaller carbon footprint while spending less seems to me what many of us are after. No doubt there’s a paradox in that approach, as well, whether at Civano or another neighborhood. For example, this afternoon I visited Saguaro Ranch, a thousand-acre gated community planned for 180 high-end homes and a guest ranch, nestled among the foothills of Tortolita Mountain Park — officially in the Tucson suburb of Marana. There’s little comparison between Civano, with its mixed-use neighborhood center and compact development pattern based on the principles of New Urbanism, and Saguaro Ranch, which is accessed through a 700-foot-long tunnel blasted through a mountain at the community’s lavish entrance. Except both aggressively pursue environmental goals.

While Civano’s guiding principles are building community, connection with the land, respect for climate, and regenerations (defined in the specific plan for the first neighborhood), Saguaro Ranch seeks to design with nature, preserve the past, and practice environmental sensitivity. The tunnel, for instance, creates not only a distinct entrance and a sense of privacy for the homesites that begin at $1.5 million, but according to developer Stephen Phinney also preserves more natural area by placing the road through the mountain rather than around it. A paradox, indeed.

Though only twenty percent of the property will be developed, a network of paved roads is necessary to access the parcels, which average about five acres in size. Yet marketing materials note that “residents and their guests will be encouraged to travel through and around the community on foot, horseback, bicycle or quiet, non-polluting neighborhood electric vehicles (NEVs).” As I exited the tunnel I saw a number of these tiny multi-passenger vehicles that look, perhaps ironically, like mini Hummers. But they’re nothing of the sort. Originally designed for use in urban environments, they are powered by rechargeable batteries and can run up to thirty miles per charge. Though the posted speed limit at Saguaro Ranch is fifteen miles per hour, NEVs make up to 25.

The tunnel through the mountain: the entrance to Saguaro Ranch. Photo by Simmons Buntin.

Maybe NEVs are a solution to Civano’s public transit needs? Maybe to mine, at least?

Probably not. Unlike Saguaro Ranch, which is all but void of regular vehicle traffic so far, Civano is ripe with cars: truly hybrid, impassioned hybrid, and otherwise. While it’s difficult to drive more than fifteen at Saguaro Ranch given its tremendous views — I’d say slowly driving off the edge of the winding road because your eyes wander is a bigger risk — in our neighborhood many drivers speed well beyond the posted limit.

Economy car or NEV, what’s become apparent is the need not to avoid contradiction, but rather to run with it. We must use paradox as an opportunity for changing habits and eventually overhauling entire systems that are too consumptive or too alienating. Today I own the Outback, tomorrow perhaps the Fit. And in the future? Not only a more efficient mode of transportation, but a more sustainable community altogether.

We don’t need a tunnel to see that welcoming light.

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Tags: public transportationcommutinghistoric preservationcomplete streetssuburbsurbanism

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