What could be more American than the suburban cul-de-sac, that leafy and lonely fixture of post-war development? For better or worse, the quiet, meandering dead-end arteries are America's post-war contribution to landscaping history. Now, as planners try to adapt the American dream to the new realities of sustainability, cul-de sacs are under attack.
Earlier this year Virginia became the first state to encourage walkable neighborhoods by limiting the use of cul-de-sacs. State rules now require that subdivisions have through streets connecting them to adjacent residences and shopping areas. Developments that ignore the new rules will be denied snowplowing and other state services. Research shows that neighborhoods with more street connections and intersections reduce car use. Some of the country's most progressive-minded cities, including Portland, Oregon, and Austin, Texas, have also made it difficult to build new cul-de-sac subdivisions.
Planners are at odds with real-estate developers who say buyers still gravitate to cul-de-sacs. Those quiet streets with five houses clustered around a circular driveway look like places children can frolic in safety, and homeowners like the idea of access restricted to a single road. "The first lots sold are often on the cul-de-sacs because they are safe," Mike Toalson, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Virginia, told the Washington Post. "Crooks look for multiple exits."
But appearances can deceive. All indications are that cul-de-sacs are less safe than pre-war neighborhoods layed out in the traditional grid. An article by Philip Langdon in the Jan/Feb 2009 issue of New Urban News shows that, according California accident statistics, cul-de-sac neighborhoods see more car crashes than the denser pre-war neighborhoods. The older grid patterns also have quicker response times for fire trucks and other emergency vehicles. And accidents and crimes in the older neighborhoods are more likely to be reported faster since they have more people on the streets.
Not surprisingly, the recession has also cast doubt on the financial underpinnings of the suburban cul-de-sac. In August, The New York Times profiled a single cul-de-sac, called Beth Court, in Moreno Valley, California where half the homes have been in foreclosure since the housing bubble burst. The homes are now worth less than half the price paid for them.
Planners say the circular, meandering cul-de-sac layout requires circuitous drives to even the closest locations John Michlig, who writes a suburban planning blog called Sprawled Out, says that it takes city crews six times as long to performance cleaning and other services in his Wisconsin suburb as it would in a grid neighborhood.