The Cul-De-Sac Backlash

by Bradford Plumer | February 9, 2010

Via Sarah Goodyear, it looks like a number of city and regional planners are starting to declare war on the cul-de-sac:

Early last year, the state of Virginia became the first state to severely limit cul-de-sacs from future development. Similar actions have been taken in Portland Oregon, Austin, Texas, and Charlotte, North Carolina.

What they are beginning to realize is that the cul-de-sac street grid uses land inefficiently, discourages walking and biking, and causes an almost complete dependence on driving, with attendant pollution and energy use. Furthermore, town officials are beginning to realize that unconnected streets cost more money to provide services to and force traffic onto increasingly crowded arterial roads, which then, in many cases, need to be widened (more tax money).

There are quite a few reasons why homeowners are attracted to cul-de-sac layouts—the lack of through traffic, for one, makes the area quieter and (or so the perception goes) safer for kids to play outside. But many localities now seem to be discovering the less-apparent downsides. Even if you're not very sympathetic to the notion that suburban-dwellers are too reliant on their cars, a number of recent studies suggest that the inefficient road networks created by cul-de-sacs also inflict real costs on residents.

So, for instance, one study of the city of Charlotte found that places where the streets weren't very well connected (thanks, in part, to the heavy use of cul-de-sac) required a lot more fire stations to be built, costing the area more money. Another study found that areas with poor connectivity have much worse congestion—up to 80 percent worse—because the main roads and arteries are more likely to get clogged. So it's not just that cul-de-sac layouts dissuade people from walking or biking; they also seem to be imposing costs on local governments. Though it's unclear whether this backlash is a growing trend or just a few isolated incidents.

(Flickr photo credit: Lins Art)

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