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.