Cul-de-Sacs and the Ingredients to Make a Town or Neighborhood

by Dom Nozzi, AICP

What makes a town or neighborhood? How do we know that a place is designed to successfully create a town or neighborhood?

Recently, these questions came up for me when a friend of mine indicated that a new urbanist “town” in his Florida county was not really a town. He also indicated his fondness for disconnected cul-de-sac neighborhood streets (albeit linked with bike paths).

The Problem with Cul-de-Sacs

When I thought about what my friend had said, I first wanted to remind myself of the problems I have come to learn about in both my research and in my life experience with cul-de-sacs.

Studies show, overwhelmingly, that those living in disconnected cul-de-sac subdivisions drive significantly more car miles. Such residents therefore walk, bicycle or use transit significantly less than those living in comparable neighborhoods with connected, gridded street design (with relatively short street block lengths).

It is not a coincidence that the timeless, lovable, compact towns that were built when most people walked are also towns that, almost invariably, have connected, gridded streets with short block lengths. This is predictable, as a connected, gridded, compact street pattern is much easier to use by pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users (which were the primary forms of travel when such streets were built). Only a car-dependent society is able to tolerate disconnected, curvilinear streets.

As a result, I am not surprised that I know of no disconnected cul-de-sac subdivisions where a meaningful number are walking, bicycling or using transit.

Disconnected cul-de-sac subdivisions forces all residents to drive a car nearly everywhere for at least two important reasons: (1) cul-de-sacs result in substantially increased distances, as disconnected roads very often force you way out of your direction of travel (or force you to backtrack); and (2) because contemporary, “modern” cul-de-sac subdivisions almost never incorporate any shops or jobs in the subdivision. Consequently, even if the streets in a cul-de-sac subdivision are connected in the future by bike paths, as my friend suggests, the distances remain enormous.

Furthermore, by disconnecting streets with cul-de-sacs, nearly all car trips are forced onto a tiny number of major roads (called “collectors” and “arterials”). That means that even with a relatively small number of motorists, the roads quickly become congested and angry demands start emerging almost immediately from residents of cul-de-sac subdivisions to install turn lanes and additional travel lanes (further making bicycling and walking less safe).

Because all trips are forced onto a few large roads, it is extremely inefficient to spend huge sums of money to build smaller roads that hardly ever get used (except by the tiny number of houses fronting the cul-de-sac).

Inefficiencies are also created with such disconnected roads in the delivery of public services such as mail delivery, garbage pick-up, fire response, police response, and medical response. Providing these services becomes significantly more costly due to back-tracking and indirect routing that cul-de-sacs cause. One typical and almost inevitable result: the local government is forced to raise taxes to pay for the higher service costs.

When streets are connected and therefore without cul-de-sacs, by contrast, car congestion is much less likely as car trips are dispersed on several connected roads. That means, among other things, that road expenditures are much more efficient. We’re not spending huge sums to provide for two or three car trips each day.

As for connecting cul-de-sacs with bike paths, it’s a nice idea that most town planners earnestly call for when subdivision plans come in, but the reason that only one out of a thousand cul-de-sac subdivisions have such path connectors is that contemporary cul-de-sac subdivisions are catering to an isolationist, privatopia lifestyle where folks are TERRIFIED that bike paths will be used by homeless, criminal, drug-dealing terrorists. Such people would either not buy a home if the cul-de-sac subdivision had such paths initially installed (lending institutions might also not lend if such paths were proposed), or they would scream bloody murder if there were a proposal to retrofit the paths at the end of cul-de-sacs after the homes were built and occupied.

Given all of the above, cul-de-sac streets effectively isolate households from fellow citizens. Such isolation fits well with those seeking a “cocooned,” privatized lifestyle that turns its back on the public realm. Such places are typically where we find people spending every night in isolation in front of their Big Screen TVs, and never interacting with their neighbors. The design, in other words, is one where we find a collection of loners.

For all of the above reasons, it is not surprising that the State of Virginia has recently banned or at least strongly discouraged new cul-de-sac subdivisions.

What Are the Essential Elements for Creating a Town or Neighborhood?

By striking contrast to the disconnected, cul-de-sac subdivision, there are at least four features that must exist for the creation of a quality town or neighborhood.

  1. First, houses need to be within a short walking or bicycling distance of the most important regular tasks of the household. Those tasks (or trips) include jobs, shops, services, culture, public meeting places (such as parks, squares or plazas) and civic institutions.
  2. Places conducive to true towns and neighborhoods provide “Third Places” (think of a neighborhood pub, or the TV show “Cheers”). Neighborhoods and towns also provide “social condensers” and other features which nurture a sense of community and sociable conviviality and neighborliness. Sidewalks – the most common form of social condenser — are therefore found on both sides of most or all streets. Each day, people interact with many others in their vicinity, and regularly enough so that a resident typically knows a large number of people on a “first name” basis. As Jane Jacobs famously noted, lowly, unpurposeful and random as they appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life must grow.
  3. Neighborhoods and towns have connected streets with short block lengths, and the streets have low design speeds. Such design is essential for minimizing trip distances and maximizing travel safety, both of which are extremely important in inducing travel by foot, bicycle, and transit. The geographic size of the place and the design of its streets are such that it is safe, convenient and pleasant to walk, bicycle, use transit or drive a car to get to most or all of the important needs in one’s day-to-day life. By contrast, places without such street design tend to induce exceptionally high levels of car travel, which isolates people from their fellow citizens, increases travel dangers, and harms residential property values.
  4. Finally, residents of real towns and neighborhoods tend to know the boundaries of their town or neighborhood, which gives their place an identity. One result is the possibility of feeling civic pride, which is essential in creating the all-important desire to protect and improve your town or neighborhood.

Are cul-de-sac streets conducive to building towns or neighborhoods as I define these essential elements above? In my view, the isolating, inefficient, car-dependent world produced by cul-de-sacs create the antithesis of a “neighborhood” or “town.”

The vast majority of cul-de-sac subdivisions that have been built in America since the 1930s are unlovable, unsustainable and therefore doomed to have a short life before they are abandoned and bulldozed.

Well-designed places are those containing the four ingredients I describe above, and are likely to produce, in the long run, places we will love, protect and cherish.

_________________________________________________

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4 Comments

Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design, Walking

4 responses to “Cul-de-Sacs and the Ingredients to Make a Town or Neighborhood

  1. George Krpan

    I live in a gated community on a cul-de-sac in suburbia. The dwellings are free standing, two story, 1400 sq ft townhomes, close together, no front lawns, and small back yards. Thus, the density is higher than in the surrounding more traditional housing tracts. I don’t feel isolated from my neighbors as our front doors are so close to each others. There is a pool area, a playground, and a city park adjacent. There are no sidewalks but it’s safe to walk or play in the street because of the gates and the kids do, just as I did as a kid. The cul-de-sacs are shallow and eminate from the main thoroughfare which has gates on each of it’s ends. The merit of this layout is that it doesn’t create any mazes. I bike everywhere. Anything I could possibly want is within 5 miles, a trifle for someone who has cycled 20+ years as an adult. If I didn’t have to go see my mom in the rest home 22 car ravaged miles away my car trips would be few and far between.
    If the gates weren’t there, there would be cars shooting through and ruining the safety for no advantage gained and we’d probably feel like locking our doors, something we don’t feel the need to do at the present. Not bad for Los Angeles County. The price of the townhomes is much lower than in the surrounding more traditional housing tracts. A friend from a wealthier part of our city tells us we live in the poor part of town but that he’d rather live where we live.
    I’m just trying to point out that cul-de-sacs, gates, and suburbia can be done right.

  2. Thanks for your detailed comments, George. I agree w/ some of what you say. But I am convinced that your neighborhood and the surrounding community would be better off w/o the gates and cul-de-sacs. Emergency response and services such as garbage & mail delivery would be more efficient (therefore less expensive). I fully understand your concern about how a more permeable design (no gates, more street connectivity) could lead to higher levels of higher speed car traffic, but don’t forget two things: (1) By insulating your neighborhood from that via gates and disconnected streets, your are exporting higher speeds and higher car volumes to other neighborhoods, which is less than fair. (2) There are quite a few highly effective design treatments for streets that significantly reduce car speeds and volumes w/o needing to resort to gates or cul-de-sacs. “Fortressing” yourself from “problems” has, throughout history, worsened the problems. Eventually, I am confident that “suburbia” will increasingly be designed in more traditional, equitable, connected, mixed, higher-density ways (it is already happening throughout the US, in part due to rising gas costs, changing demographics, and slumping suburban housing values). It sounds like your subdivision has already incorporated some mixed uses to reduce distances. I applaud that. Thanks again for your thoughts.

  3. George Krpan

    Thank you for your comments and thank for your blog. I have long been a fan of James Howard Kunstler. I went to see him speak at Art Center in Pasadena just after The Long Emergency came out. I was the only attendee who arrived on a bicycle, who didn’t drive a car there. Loved him in Radiant City!
    Speaking of that movie, my suburbia is nothing like that one. I spent my teenage years in that kind of suburbia, 60s and 70s Orange County, CA. My family moved from an older suburb, Pico Rivera, where we spent a wonderful childhood but was beginning to go down.
    We were part of the white flight. We were probably better off moving, a couple of years later I saw two of my former classmates at a bus stop, stoned on something, and I learned that one of my playmates died of alcoholism. At the same time, I was never happy in OC. I wasn’t happy but I couldn’t put my finger on it. It wasn’t until decades later when I read The Geography of Nowhere that I had a clue. Pico Rivera was a post war suburb, closer to downtown, built on a human scale. It was easy to get anywhere on my Stingray and wasn’t the least concerned about safety. OC was safe too but I felt totally isolated. The nearest store was miles away. The thoroughfares were lined with pink cinderblock, the back fences of the houses. You walked between them and the ugliest bottlebrush plants. I still shudder when I think of it. Thank God that suburban paranoia hadn’t yet reared it’s ugly head. I was allowed to leave the house on my own whether by foot or Stingray. If not for that I would have been hopelessly isolated.
    I totally empathize with children of today. When I first moved here, Westlake Village, I was amazed by the lines of cars delivering children to school.
    I would agree with you regarding gates and cul-de-sacs but I live in one of the most traffic ravaged places in the world. Perhaps in the future when car use declines as people are priced out they will become an irrelevant hindrance but until then they are improving the quality of life in this particular suburban setting.
    Cheers to you I’m am totally into what you’re saying on you blog..

  4. George Krpan

    I just re-read your comments regarding mail and emergency services.
    Mail is not delivered to the door. There are several mailboxes with 25 or so compartments. The postman unlocks a big door on the back giving access to all the slots but the residents can only unlock their little door on the front. He/she spends a tiny fraction of the time, leg work, and gas per resident than for the usual suburban development. As I said, the cul-de-sacs are very shallow, mine has 4 dwellings, AND there is no street parking. Each unit has a two car garage and room for two more in the driveway. Fire trucks would not necessarily have to drive into the cul-de-sac, the hoses would reach, but if they did it would be easy to back out. I believe that without the gates there would be more crime here and law enforcement would spend more time here. As it stands, the crime is nil. The major thoroughfares are far from crowded even during rush hours.
    I thought of something funny to tell you. The Amgen Tour of California bicycle race finished here last Sunday. The finish was in neighboring Thousand Oaks, home of the title sponsor, Amgen (makers of EPO, the drug Lance Armstrong is said to have used).
    The funny thing is the image that the bike race gives T.O. verses the reality of riding a bike there, so mean! It’s OK, I have a plethora of insults specially tailored for it’s species of driver.

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