The Strib [Hearts] The Burbs

In their attempts to appeal to suburban readers the Star Tribune does a lot of things which, from my point of view, seem stupid. But their recent article in defense of cul-de-sacs really takes the cake.

Here’s a representative sample:
Like many suburban families, the Aasens prize how quiet and child-friendly their lollipop-shaped street is. But not everyone shares that affection. In Minnesota and across the nation, concerns about traffic congestion and increased road maintenance costs are causing a growing backlash against these icons of suburban life.

Local governments across the country, including some in Minnesota, have passed zoning ordinances to limit cul-de-sacs. In Oregon, which embraced "smart growth" land-use concepts decades ago to combat sprawl, 90 percent of the state's cities have ordinances limiting new cul-de-sacs.

Minnesota cities are more permissive, but some are also taking steps to limit new ones. City councils in St. Cloud and Northfield, for example, prefer to routinely deny new cul-de-sacs unless there is a physical necessity for them.

The problem with this quote is that it really soft-pedals the criticisms of the cul-de-sac. The Strib claims that “Smart Growth” advocates don’t like the dead end streets because it’s hard to plow them.
An oft-cited concern with cul-de-sacs is that they often result in overly congested connecting streets. All those cars from neighborhoods of dead-end streets have to go somewhere, critics say.

But traffic isn't the only concern. When Josh Tenney, a 27-year-old truck salesman, moved into his "sweet little" cul-de-sac in the northern suburb of Hugo two springs ago, he never once thought about winter.

"Where does all the snow go? Spread across all the yards," he said. "Where does the sand and salt go? Spread across the yards. Where do all the rocks, gravel, and winter trash go? You guessed it, spread across the yards."

While I appreciate the particularly Minnesotan cul de sac criticism, being hard to plow is just the tip of the snowdrift when it comes to culs-de-sac and their problems.

Here’s three big reasons:

  1. They’re a pedestrian wasteland. Culs-de-sac, and the sprawling, disordered, difficult to navigate neighborhoods that follow them, are too non-linear to easily have sidewalks. Even if they had them, it would be too difficult to walk anywhere, and the lack of any commercial streets mean there’s nowhere to walk anyway. For a country facing an oil-induced energy crisis, this is a problem.
  2. They can increase traffic congestion. Because culs-de-sac aren’t through streets, they force all the cars onto one or two main drags. Increased traffic levels often mean congestion, and without any alternative routes, there’s nothing PO’d drivers can do about it.
  3. Culs-de-sac aren’t safer. At least one study has shown that the “quiet and child-friendly” cul-de-sac is statistically more dangerous. Parents, constantly forced to back out of their driveways, are very likely to back over one of their own (or their neighbor’s) children. In addition, the lack of regular traffic (or neighbor’s windows) on the street makes it more likely for a burglary to occur.
Next time the Star Tribune weighs in on sensitive urban planning issues in the Twin Cities, they should have a fewer quotes from the Toll Bros. marketing department, and more real information about why traditional neighborhood design makes sense.

For a much better article on the cul de sac, see this NPR story.

1 comment:

Ray Hyde said...

Well, maybe. But subdivisions such as the one shown are designed by developers to maximize the number of lots and reduce costs. One way they do that is to minimize the amount of streets and intersections.

It might be true that a grid system offers more alternative routes, but it also offers more intersections, which are expensive, dangerous, and wasteful fo space. And it offer less space for housing, therby raising the prices. You have to pay for that increase in alternative routes.

In addition they increase the likeliehood of conflict between traffic flows, traffic lights, congestion, and pollution.

Grid systems used to be the norm, and we got rid of them for a reason.