The cul-de-sac, that symbol of suburban bliss, seems to be going out of favor.
May 1, 2009
Christopher Swope
By Christopher Swope  |  Former Editor
Christopher Swope was GOVERNING's executive editor.

I grew up on a cul-de-sac in New Jersey. That great big roundabout of asphalt in front of my house was my playground. The neighborhood kids and I would ride our Big Wheels for hours while our moms chatted in the driveway. In the street, we improvised sports of every kind. Tennis was played without the annoyance of a net. And stickball games often turned on dramatic home runs which, according to the ground rules, had to be crushed over a power line and into the mangy field where more houses were to be built.

Thirty years later, this version of suburban bliss seems to be going out of favor. The latest blow comes from Virginia, where new regulations mean that few cul-de-sacs will be built in the future. Developers can still put them in if they want to. But the state DOT, which maintains even the smallest local roads in Virginia, won't take care of the new ones. The regs also narrow the allowable width of subdivision streets from 40 feet to between 25 and 29 feet.

What's Virginia got against the ultimate icon of suburbia? Ironically, it boils down to the very quality that always made cul-de-sac streets popular with parents and lucrative for homebuilders: They are roads to nowhere. Building little pockets of asphalt isolation may create quiet and safe places to raise children. But it's no way to make an efficient transportation network.

By design, cul-de-sacs dump all traffic out to the same arterial roads. The result is that a few busy thoroughfares perpetually need widening. Virginia doesn't think it can afford that model anymore. "When you have 350 to 400 miles a year of new roads you have to maintain forever, it's a budgetary problem," Governor Tim Kaine recently told the Washington Post. "But it's not just about the money. It's about making connections between land-use and transportation planning and restricting wasteful and unplanned development."

The new buzzword, both in the Virginia suburbs and in densifying suburbs all across the country, is connectivity. Old-fashioned street grids allow cars-not to mention ambulances and fire trucks-to move more freely around bottlenecks. That fits nicely with the other big idea of the moment, walkability. A new batch of suburban developers, the creators of town centers, New Urbanist neighborhoods and high-rise condos near transit stations, has found these models to be at least as profitable as dead-end hamlets ever were.

Are cul-de-sacs bound for extinction? I doubt it. Even if they were, the ones built over the past half-century would be with us for decades to come. But if they did go away, that would be fine by me. Kids will always find a place to romp and play games. When you think about it, the playgrounds, recreation centers, parks and sports fields that city and county governments provide are probably better places for that than a patch of asphalt anyway.