Connectivity and cul-de-sacs

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Charles G. Hill has brought together two interesting items about cul-de-sacs, those dead end streets often hailed as the acme of suburban living. One is a Washington Post report that Virginia is requiring all new subdivisions to have streets that connect to other subdivisions, rather than dumping all traffic out through a single entrance onto an arterial street. The other is an analysis of the financial benefit to developers of not using a street grid -- grids require a developer to build more streets and leaves less land for houses.

I was struck by a comment in the Post story from a spokesman for the homebuilders' lobby:

"Cul-de-sacs are the safest places in America to live," said Mike Toalson, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Virginia, which opposes the new rules. "The first lots sold are often on the cul-de-sacs because they are safe." As for developments with single entrances and exits, Toalson said, such configurations ensure that all traffic is local, neighbors watch out for each other and speeds are kept down. "Crooks look for multiple exits."

That last comment is the opposite of reality. The less the traffic down a street, the more opportunity a criminal has to work undisturbed by passers by. A house on a cul-de-sac, especially a long one, or on any street near the back of a development, would be easier to burgle unnoticed than a house on a busy through street.

I heard recently about a family that has what sounds like an ideally quiet living situation -- on a cul-de-sac, backing up to a park, in a well-regarded suburban school district. But their house has been burglarized and vandalized repeatedly. Neighboring homes have been hit as well. The park, open only to homeowners, makes it easy for idle youths to sneak unobserved into someone's backyard. They wouldn't be noticed from the street, as few cars or pedestrians would go past -- it's not on the way to anywhere. (See Jane Jacobs' Death and Life of Great American Cities for more about the problem with parks that extend too far from the nearest traffic.)

A neighborhood with a single entrance and exit also concentrates traffic on the main collector street, while a grid disperses the traffic, without overburdening any single street. The single-entrance neighborhood creates congestion at that entrance, as left-turners and right-turners are thrown together. In my neighborhood, with a modified grid, I can pick my neighborhood exit based on the direction I need to go, so I never have to make a left turn into heavy traffic.

A grid also prevents local traffic from having to use arterials. Tulsa's 71st Street would be far less congested if there were other east-west roads providing local access between stores.

There are times when it would be nice to have a cul-de-sac. The lack of traffic gives kids a place a fairly safe place to ride bikes and scooters, shoot baskets, and skate. But there are other ways to calm traffic and provide a safe, paved place to play. One idea is the woonerf or living street. Shallow cul-de-sacs -- perhaps only a couple of lots deep, attached to a grid of streets might provide the best of both worlds: Enough traffic to deter troublemakers but bays of calm away from the main flow.

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Jeff Shaw Author Profile Page said:

Not to mention, there's more to life than the size of house. We've gotten so used to living without the aid of a sidewalk we've forgotten where kids used to play and ride their bikes, and play hopscotch, etc., when it was too dangerous to play in the street. Long live the grid with a sidewalk! (and a neighborhood store within walking distance.)

Yogi Author Profile Page said:

Very interesting. I also prefer the multiple entrances and exits for neighborhoods for the reasons you mention. The shallow cul de sac idea works. We have one two houses down from us and that is where parents take their kids to learn how to ride bicycles, kids play catch, etc. It is really a busy area but is a refuge from traffic.

Russ Author Profile Page said:

I'm a huge fan of cul-de-sacs and not of single-entry neighborhoods. I don't like grids, but I do like interconnected neighborhoods. I don't believe it has to be either/or.

I live in Overland Park, KS. I live on a 3 or 4 house cul-de-sac off of a deep cul-de-sac. The kids in the upper end of the deep cul-de-sac and our cul-de-sac have an interconnected world of backyards and front yards (and sidewalks) to play, so it's a best world situation of neighbors on all sides watching out for each other, low traffic, and community space.

At the same time, Overland Park is mostly laid out on a 1 mile grid of major streets (like Tulsa). Within each 1 square mile section are typically multiple developments and those developments are typically interconnected with each other. So, I can drive south to the south entrance of my development to 151st street. I can drive east to the east entrance of my development to Antioch. I can drive north through a neighboring development to 143rd street (we are 8 blocks per mile here, unlike Tulsa's 10 blocks). Or I can drive west through a different neighboring development to Switzer (not pronounced like the former OU coach - sorry...). I could also choose to wind through any of the 3 attached developments in our square mile to choose different exits to 151st, 143rd, Antioch, and Switzer.

Here's a map. You can see lots and lots of cul-de-sacs and lots and lots of connectivity. They aren't mutually exclusive:,-94.694638&spn=0.023057,0.038624&t=h&z=15

Jeff said:

I agree mostly with Russ and your comments at the end of the article. I live in a cul-de-sac with 5 homes. I have lived here 25 years and raised 3 daughters here, I love it. My cul-de-sac is off of a fairly main road and not connected to a housing addition other than the cul-de-sac itself. My kids learned to ride bikes here, skate,play basketball as well as ride a small 4 wheeler. The worst I have seen of a cul-de-sac is when you have bad neighbors. So a cul-de-sac itself is not bad depending on how it is done and if you like the neighbors.

S. Lee Author Profile Page said:

A neighborhood arrangement that work well for us kids in the 60s can be seen by searching Google maps for something like 4140 N. Detroit Pl. Tulsa, OK. I don't think that is an actual address (I hope). Google street view will deposit you where N. Detroit Pl. swings aroung to become N. Elgin. This is sort of one big U shaped neighborhood.

The big-ish yard with the reddish house was the neighborhood sports field. The street sign you see was third base; it was also the hide-and-go-seek base. First base was a bush by the porch of the house. Second base and home plate can be inferred from those.

Swing your view around until you see the yellow house. That was where I lived. It was light green back then. As you head toward that house, look to the west side of the street to see the sewer that invariably ate our baseballs if we didn't cover it with boards. One time when a ball needed to be retrieved, we kids dropped the grate down into the sewer and couldn't get it out. The city tarred the grate into place. It took us quite a while to scrape away at the tar and free the grate.

The big gap to the south of my old house was woods with bicycle trails back then. Flatrock creek is to the back of lot, and could usually be counted on to yield a few crawdads under the rocks. More bicycle trails were on the hill behind that.

Up over the hill was the old Northland shopping center. That was where the city fireworks display used to be. We could enjoy the aerial fireworks from our yard.

The woods and hill made great places for kids, their bicycles, and their BB guns.

See-Dubya said:

Just had this debate at work the other day. I like cul-de-sacs, although I didn't choose to live on one. The market seems to like them too.

I would dispute that criminals don't look for easy-on, easy-off access. I have a friend in Maryland who's had a huge crime wave in his apartment complex, near the intersection of two major roads. These are home invasions, carjackings, muggings--and the crooks are always gone before the cops get there.

Wren said:

To the author of this article: Can you cite back to any scholarly journal or newspaper articles or books to support your argument? The reason I ask is I'm actually doing a policy paper on this very subject right now (well, really the subject is a sort of defense of new urbanism), and I can find plenty of works against street grids and thoroughfares (saying they lead to increased crime rates), but not many in support. I'm not allowed to cite a blog, or I would use your article here... unless you tell me you are a specialist in this field or have a doctorate. Please respond asap, and thanks!

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