The suburbs are full of of cul-de-sacs. Homeowners might prefer them because of the quiet and the space that they allow for kids and vehicles. They can help developers and builders fit more houses into spaces.
At the same time, cul-de-sacs may be the bane of New Urbanism as neighborhoods with many of them do not have a consistent street grid and they are primarily lined by private single-family homes. One video promoting New Urbanism put it this way: The greatest threat to our planet is…
Yet, cul-de-sacs do provide one additional advantage in today’s world. They can limit the effectiveness of Waze and other traffic or mapping apps: cars and traffic cannot cut through cul-de-sacs. I saw this argument recently in a 2001 newspaper article where a suburban leader said they had restricted commercial development to main roads and highways and the high percentage cul-de-sacs and loops among the residential roads kept neighborhoods quiet. With more cul-de-sacs, more traffic is routed to arterial roads, streets that can usually accommodate more volume. Cul-de-sacs help make residential neighborhoods harder to navigate; I can think of several residential neighborhoods in my area that make it very difficult to find your way through if you are not familiar with it because of the winding roads and dead ends.
New Urbanists would argue that this is not ideal: more cars on arterial roads is going to lead to more congestion (as opposed to a grid system that provides drivers lots of options), arterial roads may be less friendly to pedestrians and bicyclists, and we should be working to reduce driving anyhow rather than planning communities around cul-de-sacs that depend on cars.
Speed bumps, roadside speed monitors, and other devices might not be enough to stop through traffic in residential neighborhoods. Permanent cul-de-sacs could do the trick – but at a cost to the overall fabric of the neighborhood and community.
A new study suggests the bulb cul-de-sac helps foster cohesion more than other street designs:
In sociologist’s terms, Hochschild ultimately concluded that people who live in traditional bulb cul-de-sacs have the highest levels of attitudinal and behavioral cohesion (covering both how they feel about their neighbors and how much they actually interact with them). People who live on your average residential through-street have the lowest levels (in between the two are “dead-end” cul-de-sacs that lack that traditional, circular social space)…
In his latest research, Hochschild visited 110 homes in demographically comparable Connecticut communities, a third of them located on bulb cul-de-sacs, a third on dead-end cul-de-sacs and a third on through streets. In each case, he tried to interview sets of four adjacent households (as in the diagram above) to home in on how people relate to their immediate neighbors. He asked each household about 150 questions about how they rate their relationship with their neighbors, how often they help each other and socialize together. His results controlled for differences in income, the number of children in a household, and the length of time a family lived on the block…
Hochschild theorizes that there’s something more than self-selection going on here. Hardly any of the people he talked to said they moved to a cul-de-sac in search of (or even anticipating) its neighborliness. Rather, the design of the street itself seemed to facilitate it. If you want to throw a block party on a through-street, you need a permit. If you want to do the same on a cul-de-sac, the street is already effectively blocked off. In a cul-de-sac, Hochschild found, it’s much easier to privatize public space, either by turning the street into an extension of the driveway, or by landscaping the rights-of-way as if they were a private lawn.
Cul-de-sacs create a kind of natural panoptican around children at play. They also give rise to what Hochschild calls “geographically common problems” to be solved, like fallen trees or unplowed snow blocking every family’s exit.
Would evidence from a study like this convince people who don’t like cul-de-sacs that they have some merit? How exactly do you weigh the benefits of community versus the downsides of cul-de-sacs?
Another issue critics might have of cul-de-sacs, even with Hochschild’s findings: they may be good for building internal solidarity with the nearby families – who probably tend to be like you since they live in similar kinds of housing – but that doesn’t necessarily lead to broader social ties and civic engagement. Is a more cohesive cul-de-sac then more likely to engage others outside the cul-de-sac? Or does the time spent building cohesion limit the group’s reach? Such a study could also push those who critique the loss of community in suburbs or amongst sprawl to be more specific with what they envision for community. New Urbanists talk about community all the time but what exactly does that mean? Is it characterized by knowing your neighbors, interacting regularly in public spaces, participating in local politics, all of the above, or something else? Community can exist on multiple levels and it strikes me the cul-de-sac community is an extension of the American household to the similar, nearest neighbors but possibly not much further.
New Urbanists, advocates for more traditional grid street designs, would be happy to read this article that “Dubunk[s] the Cul-De-Sac.” This is a good summary of research that has been gaining attention for some years now and suggests that the now common suburban street is more harmful than the traditional grid.
While these knowledge is well-known amongst planners, I wonder how typical Americans would respond to this. How can one calculate the trade-offs in safety and alternative routes granted by the grid versus having a home on a quiet cul-de-sac where kids can play basketball, street hockey, ride bikes, and more right in front of the house?