The Curse of the Cul-de-Sac

It might be time to move out of the suburbs.

Until about 100 years ago, almost every city in the world was laid out on a rectangular grid. New York City and Washington D.C. are prototypical U.S. examples; most European capitals are also. Starting around 1930 however, city designers abandoned dense urban grids for garden communities with meandering streets and cul-de-sacs.  These new cul-de-sac neighborhoods were thought to be safer and more private alternatives to the pollution, poverty and overcrowding of traditional cities.

Most of us still think this way but research shows that this belief is wrong.  Garrick and Marshall compiled data on 230K car accidents over 11 years in 24 medium-sized California cities.  All cities had a similar number of accidents but those built on grids had a much lower percentage of deadly ones.   In fact, fatal crashes were >270% higher in the cul-de-sac communities than the ones built on grids.

According to Marshall:

A lot of people feel that they want to live in a cul-de-sac, they feel like it’s a safer place to be. The reality is yes, you’re safer – if you never leave your cul-de-sac. But if you actually move around town like a normal person, your town as a whole is much more dangerous.

The researchers also found that people who live in cul-de-sac neighborhoods drive about 18% more than people who live in dense grids.  This is not surprising since it’s a lot harder to walk to the grocery store, the post office or to a restaurant. I’ve noticed my own annual driving mileage has increased since I moved from a grid neighborhood to a cul-de-sac one. In some sense, the communities were built for cars, not for people.

Increased driving leads to higher costs which might help to explain why U.S. foreclosures have been more common in suburbs than in urban areas.  In addition, although this isn’t a formal study, residents who have less opportunity to walk seem to be less healthy than their urban counterparts.

Cul-de-sac communities force us to drive more, are less safe, and may even make us less healthy.  Why do we all want to live there?

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5 Responses to The Curse of the Cul-de-Sac

  1. Timo Elliott (@timoelliott) April 10, 2012 at 7:28 am #

    I’m a confirmed city dweller — for health reasons. The research says that:

    “you’re more likely to get in a traffic accident, die of a gunshot wound, suffer from high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes if you live in a rural area”

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304793504576434442652581806.html

    Oh — and it’s a lot more sustainable. Cities are the future, and will only become nicer and nicer to live in over time (imagine no car noise when all the cars are electric!)

  2. Robert E April 10, 2012 at 3:22 pm #

    Thought you’d like to be reminded of the outfit called New Urban Builders. A small, California developer trying to create neighborhoods that are walkable. Where the garages are off alleys in back of the house, instead of the single largest design element in front of the house.
    What the real problem of cul-de-sac living gets back to what KPIs are important – number of homes. Typical American cul-de-sacs are designed to maximize individual units. New Urban Builders uses strategic goals of thoughtful architectural choices that create the great neighborhoods.

  3. trainsofthought2013 May 24, 2013 at 2:27 pm #

    For your traffic research it might be interesting to collect British figures. A few recently created ‘cities’ and old centers destroyed by bombing and modern planning are sometimes on grid systems. But the vast majority are definitely not. Streets are commonly not straight, bending and twisting over the landscape. Adjacent streets are rarely quite parallel, and intersections between streets frequently do not line up. Weird bends and angles are everywhere. When we enter unfamiliar towns, we wish for a grid system to find our way around. Once settled, we are horrified at the thought of such bland planning surrounding us. So most British towns and cities are quilts of hundreds of little misshapen and distorted grids.

  4. ronlehman March 10, 2014 at 9:22 am #

    Walkable/ bike-able cities like Vancouver are hard to beat, although cul-de-sacs are great for street hockey!

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