Cul-de-Sacs Are Killing Us: Public Safety Lessons From Suburbia

People choose suburban neighborhoods over urban ones for myriad reasons: because they can afford it, because the schools are good, because it’s a quiet street, or crimes rates are low, or everyone walks around with baby strollers and golden retrievers, or their family is nearby. But countless other consequences stream from their decision of where to live.

Dead-end streets are deadlier than connected street grids. Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/themuuj/2233436864/##TheMuuj/Flickr##

If people can’t or don’t walk or bike where they need to go, they’ve also bought themselves carbon emissions from excessive driving. Hours lost in traffic congestion. Growing waistlines from spending time behind a wheel instead of on two wheels, or two feet. Stress and relationship problems. And even worse: The suburb they chose “because it’s safe” ends up being far more dangerous than the city they fled.

William Lucy, a professor at the University of Virginia and former chair of the Charlottesville Planning Commission, says that people’s decision making about where to live has such sweeping ramifications that he’s concentrated his professional work on it. And it’s why he focuses on danger and death: specifically, the danger of leaving home.

At a daylong forum yesterday on intelligent cities at the National Building Museum, Lucy could barely wait to lay into cul-de-sacs, which he says were designed for safety but end up being more dangerous than through-streets.

“They turn what should be a 100-yard walk into a two-mile drive, and they put more people in cars for more reasons than they should,” Lucy said. And because they get lulled into a sense of security, he said, parents don’t teach their kids about street safety and the “difference between street and sidewalk and driveway and yard.”

But the greatest danger to a young child, he said, is being backed over by a motor vehicle – usually driven by their own parents in their own driveway. Indeed, “backovers” account for 34 percent of “non-traffic” vehicular fatalities among children under 15 years old. (“Frontovers” account for another 30 percent, meaning that 64 percent of “non-traffic” vehicular fatalities still involve children being run over, according to KidsAndCars.org.)

Because these incidents occur on private property, they’re not considered “traffic” accidents and data is not collected by national traffic safety organizations. Meanwhile, Lucy said, squeamishness over openly reporting on the tragedy of a parent killing his or her own child with a car leads newspapers to bury news of backovers – missing a “teachable moment.”

Back to the “danger of leaving home”: Lucy compares the rates of homicides by strangers and traffic fatalities. (He studies homicides by strangers because he focuses on the danger of leaving the home: 80 percent of homicides are committed by someone the victim knew.) When people choose “safe” neighborhoods, they are often trying to protect their children (and themselves) from crime. But he finds that the likelihood of dying in a traffic accident is 13 times greater than the likelihood of being killed by a stranger. The most dangerous places, therefore, are those thought to be the safest, Lucy said: the outer suburbs.

He also stressed that “more crashes” doesn’t mean “more danger.” In urban areas, where cars are going slower, there are more crashes — but lots of them are fender-benders that don’t result in injury. Indeed, Lucy said, you’ll find less danger where there are more crashes. But where cars are traveling at high speeds, crashes are far more serious – both for people in cars and people biking or walking along the road.

“Young parents are choosing a location based on schools, but unfortunately, there are not enough parents of young children who are sufficiently aware that young children grow up to be teenagers,” Lucy said. “Nothing is more dangerous than a teenager in a car on a two-lane road at midnight after having had a little too much to drink.”

Perceptions of safety can sabotage actual safety in other surprising ways. Lucy likes to say that it’s the fire department that plans a city. Fire departments argue for wide intersections with gradual corners, even onto tiny cul-de-sac streets, making pedestrian crossings longer and more dangerous. Or the fire department mandates so many expensive fire-code fixes as old buildings get retrofitted for new uses that the project becomes too expensive. And then the outcome is a vacant building, which is far less safe than an occupied one.

  • Suburban Guy

    “Lucy likes to say that it’s the fire department that plans a city. Fire departments argue for wide intersections with gradual corners, even onto tiny cul-de-sac streets, making pedestrian crossings longer and more dangerous.”
    Anyone know where I can find out more about this problem?  Research/data on the relative deaths from local traffic problems vs. house fires? 

    I’m finding that in local municipalities, the committees responsible for traffic safety are dominated by fire department personnel.  And their first priority for any street design is: Can the fire truck get thru? 

  • Suburbia is not sustainable without cheap gasoline. Suburbia and the suburban built environment are already accused of  being the number one factor in the epidemic rates of childhood obesity. We surely know bettwer ways to build communities.

  • Ride or Pie!?

    I remember Mia Birk from Alta Planning talking about this issue. She pointed out that it’s absolutely crucial to convince fire departments if you want to build bike infrastructure and that you should be prepared to face a lot of opposition from them. I suspect that her book Joyride might have some references to the data you’re looking for.

  • “Suburban Nation” by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck says this:

    “When fire departments are allowed to usurp the role of town planner,
    they generally commit two errors. First, they put more weight on fire rescue
    than on the prevention of injury in general; they try to minimize emergency
    response time, without considering that the resulting wide streets lead to an
    increased number of traffic accidents, since people drive faster on them. Fire
    departments have yet to acknowledge that fire safety is but a small part of a
    much larger picture that others refer to as life safety. The biggest threat to
    life safety is not fires but car accidents, by a tremendous margin. Since the
    vast majority of fire department emergencies involve car accidents, it is
    surprising that fire chiefs have not begun to reconsider response time in this light; if they did, narrow streets would logically become the norm in
    residential areas. In the meantime, the wider streets that fire departments
    require are indeed quite effective at providing them with the quick access to the accidents they help cause.

    The second mistake fire departments make is purchasing over-sized trucks, vehicles that have trouble maneuvering through anything but the widest of streets. Sometimes these trucks are required by outdated union regulations, but often they are simply the result of a town’s desire to have the most effective machinery it can afford. Unfortunately, a part of a truck’s effectiveness is its ability to reach the fire in the first place. Once purchased, the truck turns from servant to master, making all but
    the most wasteful and unpleasant street spaces impossible. When a giant truck is the design template, there is no choice but to build streets that are too wide to support pedestrian life.”

  • Anonymous

    It seems to me that the problem of poor pedestrian and bike connectivity with cul-de-sacs isn’t that hard to solve.  Buy just building small cut throughs on the end of cul-de-sacs you can have most of the advantages of a grid street network for bikes and pedestrians while maintaining low traffic residential streets.

  • Anonymous

    Fire departments typically measure their performance in terms of how quickly they respond to emergencies, so preventing them doesn’t improve their performance metrics.  

  • Spot on. Cul-de-sac doesnt have to mean dead end for pedestrians and cyclists.

    Heres another example:
    http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=93611&aq=&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=45.063105,93.076172&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Clovis,+California+93611&ll=36.806338,-119.648216&spn=0.003954,0.005681&t=h&z=18&lci=bike

    This particular example IS a car-dominated area, as all the commerce is 2+ miles away. But that doesnt have to be the case. By allowing commerce to sit on all the major corners, you can have cul-de-sacs and walkability.

  • Anonymous

    But that’s only half the problem. In other words: half the problem is that’s it’s too easy to drive, and half is that it’s too hard to bike/walk. They both must be dealt with simultaneously to solve our problems: biking must be made easier while driving harder. Cul-de-sacs may not limit bike/pedestrian through ways directly (as you point out), but they are inherently part of a car-centric urban design that, by definition, encourages driving. If you have awesome bike/pedestrian infrastructure but it’s still super easy and cheap to drive, people will still drive. So you can’t just have cul-de-sacs with bike/pedestrian infrastructure and expect to really make fundamentally changes to our car-centric society.

  • Anonymous

    @jd_x:disqus Lots of people want to live in suburbs and there will be more suburban development.  Requiring good design that doesn’t make walking and biking stupidly difficult is cheap to do up front and expensive to add later. Not only does it make a safer, healthier community but it also makes transit more competitive.  Also, such communities are better able to accommodate higher residential densities and transit without giving up a suburban feel.  

  • Anonymous

    I think the argument that it’s “too easy to drive” will not get any traction anytime soon.

    Rather, in terms of suburbs, I think it’s better focus on loosening regulations that force car-centrism, such as strict zoning which forbids mixed-use and parking regulations which require owners to cater to cars at the expense of others. “More freedom to try new ideas” is a whole lot easier to argue for than “let’s make that thing you do all the time more expensive”.

    I do like the Davis layout, and will hopefully visit sometime. But it’s hard to see how existing suburbs could implement it, barring a Detroit-scale wholesale removal of many houses.

  • Suburbanliving

    I’m tired of reading articles that generalize suburbia. People generally live where they can afford to live. If urbanites use public transportation, why do all if the new condos have parking garages? Could urbanites be commuting to the burbs to work, shop, and play. I know some that do.

  • Jkspinning

    New condos have vast amounts of parking because the zoning requires it.

  • Jkspinning

    Its really the garbage trucks. They are the biggest vehicles on local streets.

  • DanaPointer

    What is Suburbia? 2 of the some of the fastest growing city-regions in last couple decades were San Jose and Irvine. Is Irvine a city? Most people do work there and it’s a commuter destination. But then where are the suburbs of the Irvine, beach towns like Laguna?

    I think this article lays down a straw man of a suburb, that at least as a concept in California stopped making sense some decades ago, and now both bay area and SoCal just consist of interconnected web of urban sprawl. There is not hub and spoke system of city and suburbs, not in CA anyway.

  • Mark Plotz

    The fire department needs to be consulted at the beginning on traffic calming projects, and when bicycle and pedestrian facilites are being considered.
    Any guess on what percentage of their dispatches are actual fires? About 1 in 10 is the consistent response I get. The rest? Medical emergencies and traffic crashes. When you get them to admit that, then they’ve basically admitted anything that can be done to calm traffic, will make their lives easier. And save lives too.
    These guys in suburban fire departments ought to do a rotation in Washington DC, where they can learn how to drive down narrow streets. Maybe then they’ll realize how good they’ve got it.

  • This is not to mention how EXPENSIVE culs-de sac are:
    http://www.milwaukeemagazine.com/insider/default.asp?newmessageid=25937

  • Nat

    In Pittsburgh, where many of the streets were built before cars were invented, the neighborhood groups worked with the city to obtain smaller fire trucks and pick ups to haul garbage.

    Now all we need are water lines that maintain pressure to the hydrants.

  • Jass – That map is pretty awesome! I love the walkway that runs through the whole cul de sac area. It’s like a ped/bike highway, completely free of cars!

  • True Freedom

    not only because of zoning.. but because urban condo dwellers also USE their cars.  Sure, they may not drive as much as other folks, but high density condos do nothing but add to the car load on our local streets.  There’s no way around it unless we create sufficient transit density first… like NYC… which will likely never happen here in LA.  So, with continual building of high density housing (condos) we’ll just be making our traffic, congestion, time in traffic, and congestion worse.

  • Anonymous

    @baklazhan:disqus said: “‘More freedom to try new ideas’ is a whole lot easier to argue for than ‘let’s make that thing you do all the time more expensive'”.

    Well, how you market/pitch things is certainly one thing to consider, and perhaps you are right in that regard. But with regards to what is actually happening, there is a finite pool of resources, so if you’re taking some of those to develop bike/pedestrian infrastructure, they have to come from somewhere. And that’s usually from automobile infrastructure. I think it’s misleading to pretend like that is NOT the choice we need to make, because it IS the choice we need to make, even if people don’t want to hear it. It’s a zero sum game, so what is a gain for bikes and pedestrians is a loss for cars … at least resource-wise. Of course, it’s actually better for everybody (pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers) to do this because less people will drive which means you need less resources for driving … and we reduce pollution, obesity, and resource consumption and make our cities more pleasant places to live.

  • Anonymous

    @8dccc2a199c54b51c165b229472c5e95:disqus  Nobody would disagree that people live in suburbia because they can “afford” to. But if you have been paying attention to the gist of this website (which reflects a growing movement around this country), what many people are trying to point out is that the *true* cost of living in suburbia is externalized, so suburbanites aren’t really paying for it. And if they did (the costs were internalized), they would find out it’s not so cheap after all.

    And sure, nobody said people in cities don’t also drive, or that there aren’t people in the suburbs who walk or take public transit. But we don’t look at individual cases but statistics when trying to determining policy and otherwise debate these issues. If you look at the statistics from any source you want, you’ll find that a much, much higher percentage of people in urban areas take public transit, walk, and bicycle as compared to the cities. So the bottom line is: the suburbs are much more dependent on cars than urban areas.

  • Katie Matchett

    Reid Ewing has published some of the (very limited) research on this issue, you can read more in “Emergency Response and Other Agency Concerns” (available here http://www.cues.fau.edu/cnu/docs/Traffic_Calming_State_of_the_Practice-Chapter_7-10-Ewing.pdf).

    The Strong Towns Blog also did a nice piece on overcoming opposition to narrow streets earlier this year (available here http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2011/2/28/overcoming-opposition-to-narrow-streets.html)

    One thing to bear in mind is that emergency personnel who are argue for wider streets to promote quick response times aren’t usually thinking about fire–it’s response to cardiac events that is driving the push for wide roads.

    A response time of five minutes or less can make a difference when someone is having a heart attack. Thus, if a jurisdiction’s emergency response times are near the five minute mark, road design could matter…but adding a few traffic humps or narrowing a road isn’t going to have a measureable impact if response times are already much greater than (or less than) five minutes.

    Point being, when a local committee is discussing traffic safety and emergency response times, the conversation can’t be as simple as “is traffic calming going to slow down the fire department?” The overall problem, in the context of that specific jurisdiction, needs to be evaluated.  

    Katie M.
    http://www.wherethesidewalkstarts.blogspot.com

  • You know, suburbs don’t require cul-de-sacs. 

    Many older New Jersey suburbs were built before the cul-de-sac craze.  Many were built before WWII and the car craze too.  What we have instead are many dense suburbs on grid or modified grid networks that are very walkable and bikable, neighborhood schools and easy to reach, vibrant, traditional downtown business districts.

    I think the suburbs can be very sustainable as long as they are design right.  It’s not all or nothing, black or white as many people make it out to be.

    Still, I agree cul-de-sacs can be evil (we’ve seen some great examples of cul-de-sac fixes in the comments), along with modern street design standards.

  • Bob Davis

    This story goes back a ways, like 1965, but it will illustrate one of the subtle appeals of the cul-de-sac:  When the Watts riots broke out, one of my colleagues told me how the folks at the start of their dead-end street had acquired two old clunkers and parked them so that if rioters came to their area, they could roll the old cars down to create a roadblock.  Never mind that they lived many miles from the riot zone, they wanted a defensible space with about the same idea as the “portcullis” in an English castle.  And most of them had guns that they were prepared to use.  Of course this was another case of much effort for a non-existent threat.

  • Joe R.

    Yes, the reason many choose suburbs over the city is because it’s cheaper.  It’s only cheaper because real estate taxes and other prices don’t reflect the true cost of infrastructure which serves few people per square mile.  Just eliminated these externalized costs would make denser living more attractive.  I personally don’t care where someone chooses to live.  I do care though when we’re indirectly subsidziing them through a system which encourages sprawl.  Oh, and either get rid of the mortgage/real estate tax deduction, or allow rent to be deducted.  That’s a part of the tax code which heavily favors sprawl.

  • Suburbanliving

    JD_x, I did read the point of the article. It is to eliminate car centric communities. Let’s think about it? People move to the burbs when they have kids. They need something to cart the kids around in. So even if the suburbs are laid out in a grid, they aren’t going to ride their bike to buy groceries for a family of 6. Maybe your suggestion should be for societies to reduce the numbers of kids in society, thus eliminating the need for multi-passenger vehicles. Just a thought.

  • Jsimpson

    Except that isn’t true. According to this (http://www.brookings.edu/es/urban/census/freyfamilies.pdf) household study from 2000, only 32% of suburban households have children under 18 living in the household. The idea that we should design our entire urban fabric around the 1 or 2% of households that still have 4 or more kids seems simply ridiculous.

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