Are cul-de-sacs to blame for stifling urban communities?

The image of the suburban cul-de-sac elicits large houses, green lawns and children playing outside. But cul-de-sacs are killing communities, according to new research.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

The image of the suburban cul-de-sac isn't complete without a serene setting of large houses, emerald green grass lawns and a young child riding a tricycle out front.

The cul-de-sac, it seems, is the most iconic of suburban essentials.

But according to new research by Lawrence Frank, a professor who studies sustainable transportation at the University of British Columbia, cul-de-sacs are killing communities.

Studying neighborhoods in King County, Washington, Frank found that residents in areas with the most interconnected streets travel 26 percent fewer vehicle miles than those in areas with many cul-de-sacs.

Moreover, as a neighborhood's overall walkability increases -- that is, resembles more of an interconnected grid, rather than a series of dead-ends -- so does the amount of walking and biking. In fact, air pollution and body mass index decrease on a per capita basis.

Local officials are beginning to see cul-de-sac backlash. Last year, Virginia lawmakers passed a law limiting them in future developments.

The original appeal of cul-de-sacs is that they reduced traffic, shedding a street's role as a way to get from point A to point B and reducing it to a mere access road to private residences.

The down side of this scenario, of course, is a uniquely American one.

Infrastructurist explains:

The problem is that this design inherently encourages car use, even for the shortest trips. It also limits the growth of communities and transportation options...The argument that cul-de-sacs increase safety because they limit traffic is also misguided — the more empty and desolate a suburban (and often affluent) street is, the more likely crime is to occur. Also, it's much harder for emergency vehicles to reach these homes if they’re sequestered in the belly of a web of disconnected dead-ends.

From a local government standpoint, cul-de-sacs are more expensive to maintain and incur costs elsewhere, by requiring city planners to make arterial routes wider.

Image: Design For Health/Active Living Research

[via Harvard Business Review]

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards