The Case Against the Cul-de-Sac: Build Streets That Connect

Suburban cul-de-sacs are one of the fundamental units of a development pattern that is coming under increasing strain and scrutiny around the country. In Charlotte, NC, Streetsblog Network member The Naked City argues against spending precious transportation dollars on building roads that encourage the traditional sprawling pattern of four-lane highways and residential dead ends:

229372938_cdf43c8aa7.jpgPhoto by northfield.org via Flickr.

[W]e should get smarter in using state and federal transportation money restricted for streets and roads. There are plenty of legitimate projects in Mecklenburg County that are sorely needed, as development has overtaken old farm-to-market roads. But instead of building the typical NCDOT-style four-lane country highways, build four-lane boulevards. This is, after all, a city.

Build plenty of streets that connect. The more connections, the less the load on any one road. And can we stop calling them "roads"? They’re streets. Streets are what you have in cities. Roads are what you have in the country. Did I mention that this is, after all, a city?

On
those interconnected streets, build (or require others to build) sidewalks and bike lanes. If key thoroughfares need connecting, buy the houses that stand in the way, and connect where needed.

The Naked City’s author, Mary Newsom, notes a recent development in Virginia that has to do with this kind of connectivity:

Note what the state of Virginia has done. The state recently decided it will no longer maintain (or even plow) state-owned streets in new subdivisions that don’t meet state requirements for connectivity and sidewalks. Here’s a link to a WashPost story.
The reasoning is sound: State taxpayers are funding road widenings that wouldn’t be necessary if subdivisions and other developments were required to connect with each other. And disconnected neighborhoods pose a serious problem for emergency services.

Meanwhile, Jennifer Sharpe reports for NPR that in Santa Monica and Los Angeles some residents are trying to  create human connection within cul-de-sacs using a rather old-fashioned idea — the commune.

Elsewhere around the network, Baltimore Spokes discusses the civil disobedience known as "road witching", Orlando Bike Commuter reports on legally sanctioned blindness to bicyclists in Tennessee, and Livable Streets for West Palm Beach presents some terrific photos of working bikes from around the world.

  • It’s really quite amazing how this development pattern has grown to thoroughly dominate all new development. And it’s not just the US or England (where it started with the “Garden Cities” movement), either. A map of the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur looks exactly like any Los Angeles suburb (and the houses aren’t all that different, either). And I can assure you that not everybody living on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur has a car, but you wouldn’t guess it by looking at the built environment.

  • Anne M.H.

    None of these people is raising a family, that’s quite obvious. If they were, they would know that cul-de-sacs create a sense of community that is unmatched by a drive-through street. I have lived on both, my kids are 10 and 11.

    When we moved to the cul-de-sac neighborhood, we had a sense of community within days, quite literally. People gathered in the circle to get to know us. Kids visited others’s homes, and even very young children could safely cross the street to play without too much supervision. We lived there for three years, and I still miss it.

    Now, we live on a drive-through street, which is very convenient for people getting from one place to another in our town. It’s heavily used. But we are going on six years in this home, and we still don’t know some of the kids at the far end of the street. We know our immediate neighbors. I supervise my kids much more closely on this street, because it’s dangerous. People drive very fast. Even though my kids are older now, there is no sense of safety.

    Transportation wonks want to make the world over to suit policy theories. But I say communities should come before theories.

  • None of these people is raising a family, that’s quite obvious.

    Not obvious at all. Plenty of us have kids. We just don’t have the same idea of what constitutes “community” and the best way to get it.

    Growing up in the Catskills, I knew a lot of kids who would have loved to have a community like that, but the other people around the cul-de-sac didn’t have kids in the same age range. Because of the cul-de-sacs and general car-oriented distances of their neighborhoods, in order to see friends they had to walk or bike on through-streets, which had higher traffic.

    Until driving age, the kids with the best social lives were those who lived within a short walk of the village green along quiet side streets with sidewalks. After driving age, the kids with the best social lives were the ones whose parents could afford to buy them the best cars – and pay for gas and maintenance.

    Now I live in an apartment building in a dense, walkable neighborhood, and my son sees his friends walking to and from school. In a few years he’ll be able to walk to visit them by himself. Our streets could definitely be safer, but we’re working on that.

    So, Anne, how about not assuming that your experience is true of everyone else?

  • I grew up in a traditional grid and ranged far and wide and had friends all over the place. Now I watch my niece and nephew being raised on a ‘sac that’s attached to a major highway, and there is nowhere to walk outside the 10 or 15 houses on their street. I think parents like the “seclusion” this brings but I can speak from personal experience that it drives a lot of their kids mental.

  • Anne M.H.

    And how many cul de sacs actually end in highways? I think this is a thin argument.

  • All cul-de-sacs end in a street with higher speed … if its not a local highway, its a road leading to a road leading to a road leading to a local highway.

    The solution for bikes is not to eliminate the cul-de-sac, but to eliminate the barrier … which can be done if all new cul-de-sacs must include a through bikeway.

    That still leaves the extra public expense for firefighting, ambulance services and police services that cul-de-sacs imposed on the wider community, but at least it addresses MY personal need.

  • Cul de sacs are fine as long as they’re linked to each other and bus stops on larger roads by pathways, bikeways, etc. Residential connectivity and a sense of community doesn’t have to be built via the road network.

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