Traffic: Curse of the Cul-de-Sac

The other day I set off from my house on a walk. I was headed toward downtown, about two miles away, to get some lunch, and I decided to walk through the park on my way. At the park, I ran into a friend who was sitting on a bench, reading a novel. She too was on her way downtown (by bicycle) for work and had stopped to read for a bit before her shift started. We chatted briefly and then I went on my way.

Walking through the park was by no means an obligation. The area in which I live is an old neighborhood, laid out during the 1800s in a grid pattern, and so my route choices are numerous. But the park is a pleasant place to pass through and, apparently, my friends think so as well. For this reason, chance meetings are frequent and enjoyable parts of my daily walk. But I haven't always lived in such a community-oriented neighborhood. For a long time I lived in Southern California where, ironically, the epitome of safe, tranquil communities has long been defined by cul-de-sac development.

If you set out for a destination in a grid-connected neighborhood, you have many route options to choose from. You can get to a neighbor's house or to the grocery store with equal ease. Neither destination requires that you drive, walk, or bicycle along dangerous and unpleasant traffic-heavy streets. Setting off for a walk in a cul-de-sac neighborhood is a different matter altogether. Unless your destination is another tract home, you have no choice but to walk or ride next to cars blasting by at high speed. All roads lead to bigger roads. Bigger roads lead to bigger parking lots. Perhaps you'll see someone you know on your way to the store and wave to them through your windshield or honk your horn in acknowledgment. But generally, spontaneous encounters are not encouraged by cul-de-sac layouts. If you live in a cul-de-sac neighborhood, your choice is clear: stay in your neighborhood bubble or get in your car. The freedom from pesky traffic comes at the price of reduced mobility and increased isolation. Because of the shapes of our neighborhoods, we've become bonded in servitude to our automobiles.

It wasn't until after World War II that the cul-de-sac gained in popularity. It was designed to reduce traffic flow through neighborhoods, something it is exceedingly good at. Advertisements for development projects often feature photographs of children playing and riding bicycles in the middle of culs-de-sac, and the lots surrounding them often sell at 20% premiums. But a backlash against culs-de-sac is growing. Communities in Portland, OR, Charlotte, NC, and Austin, TX, have begun banning cul-de-sac development.

There are a number of problems with culs-de-sac. Perhaps foremost is the irony of their relationship with traffic. The very design of cul-de-sac neighborhoods demands the use of large, multi-lane arterial streets to access and exit them. Entry points to neighborhoods are limited by such designs and traveling anywhere requires the use of traffic-heavy streets. The irony, then, is that the mechanism designed to protect us from traffic forces us to become traffic and deprives us of the freedom to choose our mode of transport.

A Better Way
There is certainly a market demand for low-traffic neighborhoods. But demand for housing that allows efficient access to shopping, community, and entertainment facilities is is also high. One proposed solution to this planning conundrum is that of the fused-grid model. The fused grid, "represents the synthesis of two traditional North American approaches to residential neighborhood planning: the traditional, nineteenth-century grid, and the curvilinear pattern of looped streets and cul-de-sacs of modern suburbia. The goal of the fused grid is to provide a balance between vehicular and pedestrian movement, and to create safe, sociable streets and easy connectivity to community facilities. These attributes are achieved while retaining the land use and infrastructure advantages of conventional suburban plans, compared to the traditional grid." (

The fused-grid model, developed by urban planners at the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, takes the benefits of both grid and cul-de-sac design and fuses them. The result is that neighborhoods retain the efficient use of space allowed by cul-de-sac development, while retaining the efficiency of travel allowed by classic grid designs. They do this by connecting the dead-ends with shared green space incorporating pedestrian and cycling paths. It then becomes possible to walk or bike across neighborhoods rather than around them.

The benefits of such an arrangement are obvious. Freedom of choice, in both route and mode of transport, is reintroduced. The chances for spontaneous encounters with neighbors are increased. And no longer would we have to drive to leave the neighborhood. With the fused-grid, we can have tranquil neighborhoods with through-ways that lead to more than just dead ends. And once again, driving could become a choice, rather than an obligation.