In my opinion and the experience I’ve had as a City Engineer, roads in general are a blessing – but Cul de Sacs are a curse. And I’m not just talking about the planning aspects in terms of traffic circulations and the creation of neighbourhood identities, but on the cost of providing services to these half finished thoroughfares.
It appears that I am not alone in this slightly divisive feeling…
But this fall, Virginia, under the leadership of Gov. Tim Kaine, became the first state to severely limit cul-de-sacs from future developments. New rules require that all new subdivisions attain a certain level of “connectivity,” with ample through streets connecting them to other neighbourhoods and nearby commercial areas.
If subdivisions fail to comply, Virginia won’t provide maintenance and snowplow services, a big disincentive in a state where the government provides 83 percent of road services.
Why are cul-de-sacs plowed last?
Cul-de-sacs are not plowed last. They are just the most time-consuming streets to plow. On average, it takes 35 minutes to clear a cul-de-sac of snow. That is eight times longer than it takes to plow a through street of the same size. Cul-de-sacs are also more difficult to clear because of the limited space in the parkway to dump snow without burying driveways, mailboxes, street lights or fire hydrants.
The increasing number of cul-de-sacs and other dead-end streets has multiplied the amount of time it takes to clear streets in Naperville. Today, Naperville has more than 1,200 Priority Three streets, compared to about 350 such streets just a few years ago.
The Not So Humble Cul de Sac
The Cul de Sac has been the domain of the real estate agent with the promise of higher property values, safer streets and kids riding their bikes around the peaceful pavement, but the reality is that the kids are disconnected from the rest of the community as the inter-connectedness is gone, and in some instances, property prices have plummeted. Among the many reasons for the angst felt by planner and engineers alike, the Cul de Sac is partly responsible for an increase in trips generated per day as a network dominated by Cul de Sacs fails to provide the necessary intersection nodes necessary to support small scale commercial activities, and forces these activities to the main roads, strip malls and box stores.
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.
Is there a Future for this Relic of the Age of Happy Motoring?
Any form of street that takes longer to plow, is measurably less safe and may raise the cost of providing services to all residents is likely to go the way of the Dodo as belts are tightened and greater emphasis is placed on efficiency and sustainability. It could be that the age of the Cul de Sac as a planning tool and road network feature is coming to an end. I must say that this brings me no sadness.