The Great Cul-De-Sac Problem And How To Alleviate It

Are you ready to lose faith in humanity? Now, I’m not entirely against suburbs, cul-de-sacs, and curvillinear loop street layouts. I can see why people (myself included) like them and what they find attractive about them. But, things have gotten so out of hand, that the damage they cause never be fixed and is permanant. Still, there something we can do to alleviate their side effects.

Quick History:

by Norman Garrick

Long story short, people wanted to get away from the noisy, chaotic, concrete paved city and headed out into the peaceful green leafy suburbs. Decades later, protectionism, stranger-phobia, “Leave me alone”ism, “I want to have a roundabout where my kids can play street hockey”ism took over and now we have extreme exaggerations of cul-de-sacs and curvilinear loop street layouts. So extreme that they defy all logic, yet have begun to appear everywhere in more and more extreme forms.

The Problem:

Instead of creating more distance between you and your annoying loud neighbors / preventing others from driving through your street, you’re really separating yourself and your kids from your own community who live a frisbee’s throw away from you. You’re preventing your kids from socializing with their friends on a neighboring street.

To put it lightly, overdone cul-de-sacs and curvilinear loop street layouts viciously separate neighbor from neighbor, force people to drive long distances, and astronomically increase the distance from point A to point B. They are illogical.

No wonder anti-depressants are the most prescribed drug in the US. I’d like to find out what kind of neighborhood people on anti-depressants live in.

My Neighborhood:

So my brother and I go for a long walk far into our neighborhood, we go down a street that we’ve never really walked down before just to check it out and see where it leads. The street was much busier than any others we’ve seen. We walk and walk and walk and can’t really find an exit from the neighborhood. Long story short it turns out we stumbled into the massive neighborhood pictured below, from which there is no escape. It turns out this neighborhood of 427 homes and thousands of people is completely disconnected from the surrounding neighborhoods and has only ->1<- way in and out. We didn’t believe it until we got home and looked it up on Google maps.

Myth 1: The neighborhood feels so friendly, it really feels like a community.

Nonsense. It isolates people inside their own sterile community. In order to see your neighbors just a few yards away on another street, instead of a 20 second walk, you have to drive for miles in your car just to get to them. These street layouts don’t bring people closer, they tear them apart viciously and create a culture of “leave me alone”. Personally, every time I drive through curvilinear loop / cul-de-sac neighborhoods I never see anyone out socializing, as soon as I hit the city though, where a grid based street layout is used, I see kids playing and neighbors outside talking. (And drug dealers’ assistants outside looking out for police, but that’s another story)

Myth 2: There’s less traffic.

Are you on crack? The entire neighborhood gets bottlenecked into 1 or 2 streets in order to enter and leave their community. Cul-de-sacs / curvilinear loops give a few people living in roundabouts a peaceful street for their kids while everyone else living along “collector roads” have to put up with hundreds of drivers hauling ass past their house during morning and evening rush hour.

Myth 3: But it’s less densely populated and look at all these trees, there’s less air pollution.

Bullshit. Car fumes give off carbon dioxide AND pollutants. The trees will only help with the carbon dioxide. Your family, who lives on a collector road are still breathing in the pollutants of hundreds of cars driving past your house because there’s no other way out of the neighborhood.

Not to mention using more gas increases dependence on foreign oil and the amount of American dollars flowing out of the US. Which makes it kind of ironic to see American flags on so many of these homes. Not that the residents are solely to blame, it’s also the construction companies at fault here. All of this can be fixed by adding more connecting roads and providing more entrances into the neighborhood. Then again, would residents allow this?

Myth 4: I feel nice and safe tucked away in a cul-de-sac / curvilinear loop neighborhood.

The truth is, it takes the police, fire, and ambulance longer to get to your house. Anyone that’s ever been in an emergency situation knows that every second counts. And man do you loose a lot of seconds driving through miles and miles of road just to reach someone a few yards away.

Solution:

The roads and homes are already built and they’re not going anywhere. They’re stuck with that layout permanently. But we can still alleviate the anti-social element of cul-de-sacs and reconnect neighbors by putting in strategicly placed sidewalks and paths to better connect neighbors and encourage walking, biking, and socializing.

Here’s how we would fix alleviate the isolation of our extreme cul-de-sac neighborhoods.

Obviously, the logical thing to do would be to build a few roads connecting all these dead end streets. However….

The Million Dollar Question:

Would residents of cul-de-sacs and isolated neighborhoods ever approve such plans to add extra roads or connecting sidewalks?

The Experiment:

I printed out 30 surveys asking residents if they would be for or against more “connector roads” being added to their neighborhood and just finished taping them to people’s doors. I HAVE to know now, are these street layouts being requested by residents or forced upon residents by misguided street planners and construction companies? Do people want more ways in and out of their neighborhood or are they mentally trapped in their own “leave me alone” mentality?

I posted 15 surveys on homes near the entrance of the only road into the isolated neighborhood and the other 15 on the homes that are near the 3 “suggested roads” at the bottom of the neighborhood. I wonder if the two groups will respond differently…

Updates:

I’ll keep the 2 people who actually read this article updated on how residents respond to the surveys. I’d say give it a month. Come back here November for the results.

November 2, 2011 Update:
Only 5 people emailed me back out of the 30 surveys I posted on people’s doors. So I went out in person and asked 3 people in their front yards. Overall, the results where interesting, but predictable. People living in the further cul-de-sacs and isolated roads love the non existent traffic but don’t realize THEY are causing increased traffic for someone else. Those living near the streets that connect to the only road out do not like the traffic and would like more roads in and out of the neighborhood. Everyone else opposed more roads and held on tightly to their “leave me alone” mentality. Pretty much everyone was open to the idea of bike paths though.

Only 3 residents supported extra roads, with one woman who lives on the only street out of the neighborhood of 400+ residents emailing me with “traffic is a big headache. It would be safer for our children and grandchildren [if we had more roads in and out]” and another chimed in with “I am in favor of any improvement that could be made.  The traffic and speeding in this neighborhood is ridiculous. The streets need to be safe for all children living in this neighborhood the idea of bike paths or sidewalks is a great idea also.

They are NOT exaggerating their claims. While I was posting the surveys I noticed constant high speed traffic along the roads that residents use to get in and out. Everyone was hauling ass. Basically, residents were bitching that they don’t want new roads because they want quiet streets for their children yet those very same people would haul ass past the homes where other people’s children play. Yeah, there’s humanity for you. Ignorant till the end.

Those who opposed new roads mentioned their fear of increased crime and increased traffic, completely ignoring the fact that they themselves are causing massive amounts of traffic and noise for their neighbors living near the outlet roads.

City planners listen carefully: Once you build cul-de-sacs they will STAY cul-de-sacs forever. There is no fixing them once they’re put in. Residents won’t allow it. So when you lay out streets, do it right the first time because there are no second chances. Cul-de-sacs give a few residents peace, quiet, and safety at the cost of everyone else, and I don’t think that’s fair.

From reading the comments on hacker news and a few here, I think in my attempt to bust out this article quickly I failed to emphasize that I do NOT think that ALL cul-de-sac and curvilinear loop neighborhoods are bad. I myself live in a very moderate one, just a block and a half away from a major road. I am against EXTREME and OVERDONE versions of these street designs. I would HATE living in a grid street design (for reasons I’ll cover in my next article). This is about isolationist and protectionist culture taken to such extreme levels that they are illogical.

Credits:
– Cul-de-sac photo (©) used in featured image on blog homepage by Ian Lockwood.
– Cul-de-sac neighborhood photo (©) used above (with before picture in corner) by Stephanie Keating.
All copyrighted photos used under fair use for non-commercial, educational and informational purposes. 

28 Comments

  1. M W says:

    I like your post a lot! The situation you described in the third image, 2.5-miles.jpg, is something that happened to me growing up. I moved into a new area and found that there was a kid in my grade across a gap of about 25 yards of private property. New friend, right? With the layout very similar to the one in that image, we were forced to either trespass to get to each other or walk more than a mile out of our way and next to heavily trafficked roads. Talk about a negative force on community and children. Ugh.

  2. Eric Betts says:

    I look forward to seeing the results.  This is a topic I’ve pondered, but I’ve never taken the initiative to investigate like you have.  I am a non-driving adult living in the suburbs, so I’ve come to notice neighborhoods with only a single connector road.  Since I’m in Oregon, which leans towards environmentalism, I have noticed some neighborhoods that have paths, like those you propose, already connecting them to other neighborhoods.  I especially find these when there are schools nearby.

  3. SHF says:

    I’ll be waiting for the results as well, it’s a great article. Forwarding it to my architect friends.

  4. To un-self-depricate you; I think more people are reading this, just few are finding comments to post. Anyway, I’ll also be waiting for the results.

  5. fnazeeri says:

    Nice post!  Of course, we don’t have these problems in the “old” big cities that are stuck in the “grid” model.  If you want to move to the big city, let me know…we’re always looking for talent.

  6. Greg says:

    Great article — thanks.

    Out of curiosity, in your experience, do these “curvy” suburbs usually have sidewalks? Here, in Quebec (Eastern Canada) a lot of these “family-oriented” neighborhoods don’t have any, which sort of blows out the “safe for children” argument…

  7. foxylad says:

    Ah, USA! I come from a less car-centric society (New Zealand), and all residential areas (new and old) have your pedestrian walkways. 

    I remember once visiting Florida, and wanting to dine in a restaurant literally 200m (sorry yards) from my hotel. Walking there was not quite impossible, but definitely life threatening – no sidewalks, pedestrian crossings, bridges or tunnels to cross a major road in between. Every single native I mentioned this to had difficulty conceiving that walking was even an option.

    So I applaud your brave decision to venture out on foot. I hope more of your compatriots join you, and you discover another amazing advantage that the car-encased are denied – meeting and talking to like-minded strangers.

  8. Good research here. Those neighborhoods drive me crazy. Please post the results when you have  them,

  9. Joe M. says:

    I would guess the two people’s houses you want to bisect would say “no”. Everyone else will say yes. If you asked me if I wanted foot traffic and or road traffic going right in between my house I would certainly say no. If you forced it I would probably try and sell and move before it was put in. It does probably work out better for the neighborhood though.

  10. Prophasi says:

    Both structures have pros that folks like, whether you empathize or not. The advantages you cite (vibrant communities, people hanging out on the street, and so forth) aren’t prized by everyone as much as they are by you. It might be insular cultural groups, older folks, people who want quiet and fewer kids, and yeah — people who want to be with others of the same income bracket. (And they’re not inherently closed-minded bigots by possessing those traits, as you maybe half-jestingly imply with the black minority comment.)

    To a couple of the myths:

    Myth 1: Who are you to say how people *feel* about their neighborhood is nonsense? I guarantee there are some out there where all the neighbors know each other, their kids play, they have block parties and BBQs, and there’s a strong fabric of trust; there are others where they’re shut off and don’t go to the trouble of knowing each others’ names. There’re grids like both, too. To pitch them all as being “nonsense” is to sweep away all pretense of objectivity.

    Myth 2: How much traffic someone gets varies widely with the street. In your red zone, I’d bet traffic is next-to-none on E. Radiom, Amona, E. Lemona, and Hallock; light on Nemo and Damson; medium on W. Radiom and W. Lemona; and “heavy” on the rest. But consider even Erie and Avila, which are “heavy”; no car would take both of them, and many probably take neither: their realistic peak per rush hour is what, maybe 50-75 households? Compare that to the entire neighborhood and its surrounding hoods being a giant grid, where every single street is a route to every other street, and I don’t think the outcome is clear at all. But it’d be dumb to get a house on N. Radio or N. Hale to avoid traffic, sure.

    Even if it all averaged out the same – and I’m not sure it does – there are unquestionably clear opportunities to avoid almost ALL traffic in these communities if you choose the right house, which you probably couldn’t do reliably in most grids.

    An added question, especially when it comes to dangers to your kids, is whether people are more inclined to speed in a closed community or in a grid. Daily I see dozens of people on main roads take a hard turn and tear off into residential streets to circumvent a red light. The last thing they want to see when they meet back up with the main road is the people who waited, passing them by.

    Myth 3: For the reasons above, less traffic traveling by my house — which is clearly possible in these neighborhoods — means less pollution in the form of noise, smoke, and gas fumes.

    Myth 4: This is a very real consideration. I’d have to think it would take longer for emergency vehicles to get into a closed community, all else being equal, let alone issues with the gates, etc.

    Not to say the grid system doesn’t have its merits, and I *do* agree with you on many of them. But I don’t think I’d want to see either system entirely eliminated… much less with the presumption that there are just millions of closed-minded people out there who are dead wrong about where they want to live, because they’re simply not as enlightened as your humble author.

    • Jeremy secretly lives in a cul-de-sac and doesn’t want to tell us. lol, naaa just kidding. 

      Oh there’s definitely pros and cons, this article is just to cover the extremes of cul-de-sacs. My next one will be handling the topic of grid vs cul-de-sac and I’ll also introduce a new street layout I came up with to get the benefits of both without adding on miles to your commute just to escape your neighborhood.

  11. EliSklar says:

    I liked your post a lot. I’m not living in the US so I’m unfamiliar with the extreme cases you’ve suggested above, but I do know the problem although in Israel it is not really a problem, because most of our cities and towns are tiny compared to american neighborhoods.

    And from reading the comments here and there, there are a little more than 2 people who have read your post, so keep it up :) 

  12. jumpmancol says:

    Looking forward to seeing the results of your surveys!

  13. Kirk D says:

    My sister-in-law and her family live in Crystal Lake, IL — they have many of these adjoining sidewalks between streets — it really does make a difference and seems to *join* neighborhoods — very nice indeed.

  14. Mkph says:

    The survey has a typo where it reads “Construction would NOT be payed…” it should read “paid” instead.

  15. Marcel Granier says:

    Very interesting research, please keep us updated. I agree with you that not all cul-de-sacs are bad and I believe it is mostly a matter of scale. You are talking basically about CSD (Conventional Suburban Design, cul-de-sac, collector roads, etc) and PSD (Pedestrian Supportive Design, not necessarily traditional grid design). Look into “rosewalks” (basically the sidewalks you propose to connect isolated streets) and have a look at Daisy L. Kone’s: Land Development, which covers a lot of these topics.

  16. EliSklar says:

    Oh shit.

    I’ve just moved to a new place (a week ago, before I’ve read this article), and I’m really bothered by the street noise that I have in this house. And this is a quite neighborhood, because I really like my peace and quite, and I work a lot from home. And this god damn place is noise as hell. Bikes mainly, cars too, lots of people walking, even late at night.
    I’m not crazy, I just don’t like noise all the time.

    Your post somehow stayed in my mind, no reason why, but it was stuck there since the moment I’ve read it.

    Just now, going to take a leak another bike passed, made a lot of noise, but the thing is that I can’t even blame them, because it’s A FUCKING ENTRANCE TO A CUL DE SAC. Checking google maps, FUCK THAT SHIT, IT IS, IT IS A CUL DE SAC.

    http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=%D7%A9%D7%98%D7%99%D7%99%D7%A0%D7%A9%D7%A0%D7%99%D7%99%D7%93%D7%A8+%D7%AA%D7%9C+%D7%90%D7%91%D7%99%D7%91&aq=&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=37.598824,111.796875&vpsrc=6&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Moshe+Steinschneider,+Tel+Aviv-Yafo,+Israel&ll=32.061482,34.802735&spn=0.004919,0.013647&t=m&z=17&iwloc=A

    God damn it. Seriously? major facepalm.

  17. Edward says:

    Your Third and Fourth examples are the same, you just reversed the route.

    • Yes I know. I used to live there and the shortest route is very different depending on the direction of the route. There is a divider in the center of N Goldenrod Road and the only way around to reverse the route is to keep driving away from your destination until you reach a u-turn lane, do a u-turn, then finally head back. It’s actually quicker to just take an entirely different route all the way around to another street. It’s ridiculous.

  18. JP says:

    G’day from down under mate, 

    I think your article is very US-centered. I live in Canberra, Australia. This city as you may know was planned from 0 to be the capital of the country. There are lots of cul de sacs here (and I actually live in one), but we also have sidewalks and bike paths like the ones you propose all around which connect (walking and riding)  areas which are otherwise disconnected by car. Even more so, there are lots of undepasses where you can walk or ride through a medium or high traffic road safely.  
    Example: if I had to drive from my place to the closest bus stop I would have to go 2.8 km. But I can walk across the park in 2 minutes: 
    http://g.co/maps/adsyj 

    Cheers!

    JP

  19. Marg says:

    Great article, stumbled on by accident. We are trying to build on a cul-de-sac which exists because its on top of a hill.
    Finding a street in a cul-de-sac…
    is like finding a needle in a haystack.
    It’s like being trapped in a maze. The depressing thing is that a lot of new suburbs here in Australia are being built this way.
    Your article should be mandatory reading for every council. Definitely it should be on town planner curricula.

  20. Frank Close says:

    Still a solid article.

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