Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Dead End of the Cul-de-Sac?

Perhaps it was because I live on a cul-de-sac that the article in Sunday's Washington Post caught my eye. After all, it had this subhead: "Targeting Cul-de-Sacs, Rules Now Require Through Streets in New Subdivisions."

Even if I weren't in my current living situation, however, I would have detected something in the article that made me uneasy. Written by Eric M. Weiss, it describes a top-down, one-size-fits-all effort by the Virginia government to dictate zoning and planning requirements for new suburban developments, effectively prohibiting the option for creating cul-de-sac streets anywhere in the state.

Here are the opening paragraphs of Weiss's piece, which was featured on Sunday's front page:

Virginia is taking aim at one of the most enduring symbols of suburbia: the cul-de-sac.

The state has decided that all new subdivisions must have through streets linking them with neighboring subdivisions, schools and shopping areas. State officials say the new regulations will improve safety and accessibility and save money: No more single entrances and exits onto clogged secondary roads. Quicker responses by emergency vehicles. Lower road maintenance costs for governments.

Although cul-de-sacs will remain part of the suburban landscape for years to come, the Virginia regulations attack what the cul-de-sac has come to represent: quasi-private standalone developments around the country that are missing only a fence and a sign that says "Keep Out."
Well, yes. Neighborhoods with cul-de-sacs are much safer -- in terms of being protected against crime -- than other types of suburban (and urban) neighborhoods. They also are safer for children and pets because of the absence of fast-moving, through traffic.

The Virginia government's monolithic emphasis on transportation, which is more salient in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads than in other parts of the state, may have the unintended (or is it intended) consequence of making suburban neighborhoods less attractive to potential homeowners who are seeking refuge from the grime and crime of the cities.

Writing in Reason magazine in 2005, Stephen Town and Randal O'Toole told the story of one cul-de-sac neighborhood in England:
Burras Road was a pleasant cul-de-sac of 21 new homes in Bradford, England. Its residents were blissfully unaware that, just east of the site, approval for a proposed new shopping center required the breaching of their cul-de-sac by a bicycle-pedestrian path.

Planners favored this requirement because, they say, cul-de-sacs do not encourage movement and therefore are "auto-dependent" and "anti-urban." Opening up the site would connect residents to local services, and the path would promote walking and cycling.

The path connecting the shopping center to the cul-de-sac opened in 2000. Although there is no evidence that the path has led residents to drive less, it did have a profound effect on their lives. During the next six months, a neighborhood that had been virtually crime-free saw its burglary rate rise to 14 times the national rate, with matching increases in overall crime, including arson, assault, and antisocial behavior.

Because a secondary school was located west of the cul-de-sac, the pedestrian path opened the neighborhood to a constant stream of students and others going between the school and the shopping center. Crime and vandalism became commonplace. "The path turned our piece of paradise into a living hell," one resident complained.
Moving beyond this single anecdote to more thorough research, O'Toole and Town refer to architect Oscar Newman's 1972 book, Defensible Space,
which showed that the safest neighborhoods maximized private space and minimized common zones. Safe areas also minimized "permeability," that is, the ease of entry to and exit from the neighborhood or housing area. Cul-de-sacs are thus a crime-prevention device, and any breaching of cul-de-sacs will predictably increase crime.
Turning to government reports, Town and O'Toole note:
... the British Crime Survey, regarded by the U.K. government as the most reliable guide to crime, found that houses on main roads were at more than twice the risk of being burgled as those in a cul-de-sac. The Department of Justice's Closing Streets cites numerous studies in the U.S. showing that reducing connectivity reduces crime. It also finds that "most research supports the idea that burglars avoid houses in cul-de-sacs."
They also point to a real-world experiment where the conversion of grid arrangements to more closed systems led to a decline in crime rates:
When Dayton, Ohio, asked Newman to apply defensible-space concepts to a neighborhood suffering high rates of drug-related violence and property crime, his solution was to gate numerous streets--in essence, to turn a traditional street grid into cul-de-sacs. Within two years, violent crime in that neighborhood fell by 50 percent and overall crime by 25 percent, even as crime in Dayton overall increased by 1 percent.
While the chances of local governments in Virginia will destroy current cul-de-sac arrangements as well as prohibit new ones is small, planners should keep this information in mind. Do we want our suburban neighborhoods to become what British police refer to as "crimogenic"?

On the lighter side, it is just a wee bit ironic that "Cul de Sac" is the name of a syndicated comic strip by Richard Thompson, whose home base is the Washington Post (and who lives in Arlington, Virginia, one of D.C.'s inner suburbs). What will Thompson's readers think if the cul-de-sac goes the way of the buggy whip and spats?

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

But VDOT is not outlawing cul-de-sacs.

They are simply no longer going to use public money to maintain roadways that have a semi-private function. Cul-de-sacs are essentially shared driveways, are they not? We expect driveways to be paid for by the individual users, but we demand that taxpayers cover the costs of our cul-de-sacs. That's the kind of socialism that does leads to pretty severe market inefficiencies and outright injustice; kudos to VDOT for fixing this problem.

I don't want to pay for somebody else's driveway. I don't care how safe it makes them feel.