Infrastructure & Environment

Dead-End Revolt

Cul-de-sacs have fallen out of favor with many urban planners.
by | November 2001
 

Too much traffic. Too many delays for fire trucks and other emergency vehicles. Too little sense of community. After more than a decade of unfettered subdivision development, communities were eager to address some of the problems associated with burgeoning suburbs. The time was the early 1960s. The solution was the cul-de-sac.

The cul-de-sac began modestly--as a means of extending streets onto properties that couldn't support an urban grid, such as narrow canyons or winding creeks. In the '60s, however, real estate developers transformed the cul-de-sac into the centerpiece of a new suburban lifestyle. Cul-de-sac subdivisions were deemed safer for children because traffic from outsiders was almost nonexistent. Consumers snapped them up and close-ended roads soon marched across the suburban landscape. "Just aesthetically, people like them," says Dominic Chavez, government relations liaison at the Real Estate Council in Austin, Texas. "Those are the first lots that sell in a subdivision." While their popularity among homebuyers remains undiminished, cul-de- sacs are under attack. Critics blame "the lollipop-shaped, dead-end roads" for producing enfeebled "cul-de-sac kids," bored teenagers who turn toward delinquency, isolated "soccer moms" and stranded senior citizens. More concretely, they point out that cul-de-sac subdivisions are disgorging new streams of traffic onto already overloaded arterial roads, creating massive traffic congestion and forcing local and state governments to spend millions on road construction. Urban planners have taken note. Increasingly, they're taking action.

A handful of municipalities have come out against the cul-de-sac in recent years. Nowhere is the anti-cul-de-sac animus stronger than in the Pacific Northwest. Olympia, Washington, became one of the first cities in the region to limit its use.

"The preferred method prior to 1992 was cul-de-sacs built on subdivision layouts," says Todd Stamm, Olympia's senior city planner. "We actively discouraged through streets." The result, however, was growing traffic delays and pressure to widen area roads. So Olympia changed course.

New public works standards adopted in 1995 allowed for cul-de-sacs only "as a result of topographic constraints, wetlands, water bodies, and body shapes." Now, according to Stamm, "we still see occasional developers who go looking for those properties. But it's not the norm to build them where there's undeveloped flat property out there that can be stubbed out."

In 1997, Austin Planning Commission member Dave Sullivan proposed banning cul-de-sacs in new developments. Local real estate developers were not amused. They protested that banning cul-de-sacs would deprive consumers of properties they liked and exacerbate Austin's affordable- housing crisis by increasing the costs of building new houses. Sullivan backed away from a ban and moved instead toward a compromise plan that will increase walkability.

Indeed, rather than calling for a complete ban, most cul-de-sac critics are pushing development plans that call for sidewalks, shorter blocks, smaller lots and pedestrian walkways between neighborhoods. Such requirements aim to create a more "porous" grid for traffic and more walkable neighborhoods. The new goal is "connectivity."

In June, Baltimore County adopted a new set of "performance standards" for residential cul-de-sacs. The standards call for using cul-de-sacs "if it is demonstrated that a street connection is not feasible due to site conditions such as severe grade transitions or sensitive natural features." If cul-de-sacs are used, the standards say, "they should connect a balance of street elements."

"The key word is balance," says Pat Keller, Baltimore County's planning director. "That's all we're really talking about." Cul-de- sacs "are still premium, good lots. There is a value there. But what happens when you have a hundred percent cul-de-sacs is that people can't get anywhere. The roads are totally clogged."

Are suburbanites really ready to give up their cul-de-sacs for connectivity and more walkable neighborhoods? Austin's Dave Sullivan is hopeful. "Even people who never walk," he points out, "a lot of them jog."

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