June 4, 2006

Battleground Cul de Sac

Are cul-de-sacs a suburban utopia or the cause of many traffic woes? The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) looked at the issue earlier this week with a piece that notes "In Charlotte, where the suburbs have emerged as a leading cul-de-sac battleground, a recent study by transportation planners found that almost all of the city's heavily congested intersections were located near residential developments from the 1960s, '70s and '80s, which are filled with cul-de-sac neighborhoods. The biggest traffic problems aren't in the old central cities these days, says Orlando, Fla.-based traffic engineer Walter Kulash, 'but rather in the suburban periphery. ' "

In fact, it makes complete sense that if you add population density without adding road networks to help handle that traffic density, you're going to worsen traffic tieups. Because residents of cul-de-sacs add traffic to everyone else's roadways while not making up for it by helping to take anyone else's through traffic. As I mentioned in a post last year, "People who live on cul-de-sacs may like them, but they hardly improve things for everyone else in a community. In fact, they end up adding more traffic to neighboring roads while not offloading any of the burden."

I'm not alone. "Because most of the roads in a neighborhood of cul-de-sacs are dead ends, some traffic experts say the only way to navigate around the neighborhood is to take peripheral roads that are already cluttered with traffic," the Journal says. "And because most cul-de-sacs aren't connected by sidewalks, the only way for people who live there to run errands is to get in their cars and join the traffic."

Thanks to William Hanson, chair of the Framingham Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee, for the citation.

The Journal also counters that the "free market" shows support for cul-de-sacs, because homebuyers are often willing to pay a premium to live on them. But this gets to the heart of my problem with claims about the "free market" -- if individuals just pay for the benefits of something, while shunting the costs of their choice onto society as a whole instead of bearing the full costs themselves, of course a choice is going to look attractive. But that's because the market is being skewed. If cul-de-sac residents paid the true costs of their choice, by having to pay additional property taxes, say, in return for dumping more traffic onto everyone else's roads while not helping to ease everyone else's burdens, you might see truer cost/benefit "free market" actions.

Take one of my biggest "free market" pet peeves, the private automobile driver, who by driving more still no longer comes close to paying more of the full cost of road construction and repair (let alone issues like driving up the cost of heating oil for everyone else, causing pollution that everyone has to pay for, and so on). "The money from gasoline taxes no longer comes close to meeting needs," Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels admitted in the New York Times last month. "Nationally, the gap between road-building needs and projected tax revenue is estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars, and growing. Almost every governor I talk to faces a seemingly intractable shortfall."

Hmmmm. Sounds like someone's subsidizing automobile traffic in this country, doesn't it? When everyone collectively has to pay a share of your driving costs whether you drive 3 miles to work each day or 30, can we really say that the "free market" is choosing private autos over public transportation? Of course not. Yet that's the claim by people who oppose "subsidizing" decent rail and other public transit in this country while refusing to acknowledge how much all taxpayers subsidize our individual automobile driving as well. If the choice is that we'd rather more heavily subsidize the private car than public transit, that's one thing. But to claim that consumers in the "free market" are opting for automobiles instead of subsidies for public transit is disingenuous to say the least, if you don't mention how much we're already subsidizing private vehicles.


  1. A couple of thoughts on cul de sacs.
    First, they are not as safe from traffic as many parents believe. A young girl was crushed by a backing trash truck on a cul de sac near here a while back. And I hear complaints about speeding teenagers on cul de sacs.
    Second, as children grow older, they will want to travel beyond the entrance to the cul de sac. At which time, they will have to deal with a hierarchical street structure that puts 6 and 8 lane arterials in their path -- the deadliest roads for pedestrians.
    Third, cul de sacs often accompany restrictive zoning that separates land uses and puts destinations beyond walking distance. I interviewed a mother who moved from Chicago (urban grid) to Montecito, CA, (typical suburb) and went from allowing her children to walk to destinations in the neighborhood to having to drive them everywhere. I also interviewed children in a family who moved from suburban Mechanicsburg, PA, to a downtown neighborhood. They did complain about more traffic. However, they also talked about how they were able to access more destinations on foot.
    There is a neighborhood near here with an old-fashioned grid system. There are basketball hoops set up in the streets. The key is a street design that does not encourage speed -- 20 feet between the curbs with parking on one side, short blocks, large street trees, etc.

  2. There are a few places in our Metrowest area that could use a break in traffic. A conncector road from Concord St. northbound, to Hartford St. in Natick is one spot. If your drive Hartford St west toward the intersection of Bishop St., you'll see where it would end up. This spot was slated to become a connector about 1949, never happened, but might offer relief to the residents of Hartford St. going east toward Speen.
    Another location would be the power lines running next to the St. Linus Church in Natick where a connector road to the Rte 9 shopping district, and even to Shoppers World if a bridge were to go in, might offer relief to traffic congestion on Speen St.
    It take imagination, and money. Problem is, we have no imagination in our town's Administration, and the money goes toward other things.
    I'm sure there are many other spots where additional roads could help move the cars. Who will work to improve traffic congestion? I'm afraid we're all too weary from sitting in traffic to bother working on it.