Neighbourhoods

Culs-de-sac a Dead End in Neighbourhood Design

By Michelle Martin
Published September 25, 2011

Twenty years ago, I worked in Mississauga at a job that required the use of my personal vehicle to visit various work sites, some of which were in newer subdivisions comprised of crescent roads and culs-de-sac in which I frequently became lost when I was new to the position.

By contrast, the Toronto neighbourhood where we lived was so navigable and well-connected to Mississauga by various east-west routes that I never even used the QEW to go to work.

After leaving easy-to-navigate New Toronto for a quick and easy commute along the Lakeshore or the Queensway to start a shift, those curvy suburban streets drove me nuts, wasting my time and my gas.

These days, I typically don't have to be frustrated trying to find an address among roads to nowhere unless I am picking up a son or daughter from a Stoney Creek mountain location. We live on a lower city street with an early 1900s grid design, and never even considered a cul-de-sac address when we moved to Hamilton.

I was reminded of those Mississauga driving adventures while surfing over Arts and Letters Daily to an article in The Atlantic which points out that the humanly intuitive grid design that was largely abandoned in American neighbourhoods had been used in world cities for over a thousand years. Its abandonment has led not only to more driving and less walking and biking, but also, according to one study, more traffic fatalities:

In their California study, Garrick and Marshall eventually realized the safest cities had an element in common: They were all incorporated before 1930. Something about the way they were designed made them safer. The key wasn't necessarily that large numbers of bikers produced safer cities, but that the design elements of cities that encouraged people to bike in places like Davis were the same ones that were yielding fewer traffic fatalities.

These cities were built the old way: along those monotonous grids. In general, they didn't have fewer accidents overall, but they had far fewer deadly ones. Marshall and Garrick figured that cars (and cars with bikes) must be colliding at lower speeds on these types of street networks. At first glance such tightly interconnected communities might appear more dangerous, with cars traveling from all directions and constantly intersecting with each other. But what if such patterns actually force people to drive slower and pay more attention?

-- Emily Badger, Debunking the Cul-de-Sac

My husband, on his daily commute to the suburbs of Burlington, observes that many rush hour commuters drive dangerously on the main arteries by speeding, following too close while flipping the bird, and running yellow lights.

He hypothesizes that they do so because of latent frustration at having had to drive around in circles to get out of their neighbourhood and onto one of the north-south routes that leads to the QEW or the 401.

Another aspect of grid design that contributes to its superiority is the ease with which a person can keep track of cardinal directions and note landmarks at various corners in the grid.

A neighbourhood that is more navigable is more fault tolerant - you can find your way back more easily if you become lost - and so safer, as well as more inclusive. Not everyone has the money to walk around with a smart phone that has the Google maps app and a GPS, just as not everyone can afford a car.

In the same Atlantic article, Badger refers to the concept of "location efficiency," described by Scott Bernstein, president of the Center for Neighbourhood Technology. We all need to get to where we need to go in a manner that is efficient, pleasant, and suits our budget, whether we walk, take transit, or yes, drive:

What is harder to measure is the value of simply being connected - to where we want to go, but also to each other. Bernstein's location efficiency data speaks to some of this. He's even found that foreclosure hotspots tend to be focused in places with the least location efficiency - in spread-out subdivisions, where a family already stretched to the limit can go broke driving 10 miles each way for a gallon of milk.

Our own family simply would not be able to afford to get to all the places we need to go in a day if we always had to drive to them, let alone drive many kilometres for a milk run.

That's why we moved to an older, location-efficient neighbourhood in the first place.

Michelle Martin lives in Hamilton. The opinions she expresses in Raise the Hammer are her own.

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By TnT (registered) | Posted September 25, 2011 at 21:01:11

There is a quiet trend of people doing just this: moving into lower city grids. The Central Mountain is like this too.

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By JK (anonymous) | Posted September 26, 2011 at 09:02:01

I hear you on curvy streets. Paris is the worst for this.

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By JK (anonymous) | Posted September 26, 2011 at 10:43:19 in reply to Comment 70058

Los Angeles, however: Now there's a place that really got it right.

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By joejoe (anonymous) | Posted September 26, 2011 at 09:13:15

Disagree entirely Michelle! One of the (few) things I envy about sub-divisions is the kid friendly cul-de-sacs. I grew up on a cul-de-sac just steps from a main road. All my main road friends came over to my street to play. My current street is a dead-end. It's adjacent to a very busy street. How would the quietness of my street be impacted if it were connected to the main road? I don't want through traffic toying with my kids all day.

And grid designs are boring. The few streets in Toronto that curve and the rare ones with dead ends or cul-de-sacs have real character, because everything else is the same.

Nope, If you're suggesting we should make everything grid-like just to ensure drivers don't get antsy I'm not buying it.

Sorry!

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted September 29, 2011 at 17:14:34 in reply to Comment 70059

Look in Westdale. Not a cul de sac to be seen, but I defy you to call Westdale's residential neighborhoods unsafe for children. Conversely, they're walkable and bikeable and close to commmercial areas, unlike the modern keyhole-intensive suburb.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted September 30, 2011 at 08:37:03 in reply to Comment 70158

Westdale is an interesting case: the streets don't look like a "boring" grid because of the radial/spiderweb design, and yet they function like a grid: there are multiple, not-terribly-confusing routes across the neighbourhood.

With the exception, of course, of the traffic pinch-point caused by McMaster if you are in a car.

I still wonder that more suburbs are designed like this way.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted September 30, 2011 at 10:01:15 in reply to Comment 70182

Unfortunately, the B-Line/planned LRT stop goes against the grain of this radial pattern - it's not aligned to one of the roads that let you quickly walk into the heart of Westdale.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted September 30, 2011 at 15:15:45 in reply to Comment 70188

Unfortunately, the B-Line/planned LRT stop goes against the grain of this radial pattern - it's not aligned to one of the roads that let you quickly walk into the heart of Westdale.

How so? I got sad and stopped paying attention to the LRT plans a little while ago. Where is the Westdale-ish stop meant to be?

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted September 30, 2011 at 16:43:02 in reply to Comment 70217

Longwood and Main, same as the current one. Next stop is McMaster. It's a fine location for a stop (close to Westdale SS, spacious, best option for Westdale North homes, etc), but it's a block or so away from either of the nearest "spokes" of Westdale leading into the village. Really, I exaggerate the problem because I'm just completely selfish - I'm at Haddon, smack-dab halfway in the middle of the gap between this stop and the McMaster stop (which is one of the larger gaps in the B-line).

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted September 30, 2011 at 17:20:04 in reply to Comment 70219

Longwood and Main. Well, that makes sense, given the high school and the new McMaster campus. And it's barely a five-minute walk from King and Marion ... and just as far from my own house as King and Marion, actually. But it doesn't feel like a "Westdale" stop; if feels far away.

Not quite like the old King trolley which did a turnaround at King & Sterling. :)

But if there will be a McMaster stop - and there simply must - then it doesn't make sense to have another stop closer to Mac than Main and Longwood.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted September 26, 2011 at 21:48:41 in reply to Comment 70059

See, and I grew up on a quiet "side street" in "the Grid" of Central Hamilton Mountain, and I thouhgt it was great. It's almost as quiet as a cul de sac, but you have many more efficient travel options. I'd never live on a "main street" nor would I choose a cul de sac. Side streets are for me!

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By Bunkford (anonymous) | Posted September 26, 2011 at 09:36:53

Dangerous driving is caused by cul de sacs? That's reaching awfly far. Suggesting that a few turns through a subdivision are more stressful than arterial congestion, long red lights, advance left turns, high speed limits, and the multitude of highway frustrations is simply inane.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted September 27, 2011 at 07:41:30 in reply to Comment 70061

The long red lights, advance left turns, high speed limits are there because those roads are fed by suburban streets that have few or no straight-running alternative routes.

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By JM (registered) | Posted September 26, 2011 at 12:30:01 in reply to Comment 70061

it's because of the cul-de-sacs, and lack of overall connectivity, that we have all those stressful things you note above (long red lights, congestion, etc.)

dead end streets, and crescent streets only connect to a collector road - which is forced to take all of the local traffic, which is then funneled out to a single connection point on the main arterial causing the long wait and such high volume of traffic!

this can all be avoided when alternate routes are available, such as in a grid network. together with the propert street design (tree-lined, on street parking, narrow, etc.) people will naturally drive slower and it will be safe for kids to play

just this year i purchased my first home, in an older grid designed neighbourhood where i plan to start my family (and see many other kids on the street). i also enjoy being able to walk around the corner to buy my milk!

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By Anon (anonymous) | Posted September 26, 2011 at 09:44:11

Interesting read Michelle. We just bought a house on a cul-de-sac, the house is situated about 1/2 way down the street near a 90 degree turn of the road. We like quietness and this road definitely seems that. I was looking up articles on the web and have noticed that cul-de-sacs are generally speaking highly desireable in the real estate market. I do agree though that some people take the extra safety factor perceived from cul-de-sacs too much and don't teach their kids road safety as much thinking because of the lesser traffic therefore the street is so much safer. That is dangerous thinking.

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By MSTJEAN (anonymous) | Posted September 26, 2011 at 10:14:30

I agree. Hamilton is a planning disaster. The sprawl is absolutely out of control at this point. Kilometres of never ending low level suburban hell.

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By bob lee (anonymous) | Posted September 26, 2011 at 17:58:05

I wonder if it might be that modern suburbs create the illusion of safety. People move there based on a misapprehension about the safety of inner cities. They let their guard down and take less care. In the city people are more watchful and guarded. In my neighbourhood you'll take your kid to the park or give them strict instructions on how to use the sidewalks. I'm on a grid but it's an absolutely terrifying one from a safety perspective, with cars hurtling by off one-way access points.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted September 26, 2011 at 23:30:33 in reply to Comment 70075

One way streets that people drive like freeways are a big safety drawback in the lower city, that's for sure. If King and Main were 2-way streets, it would increase the location efficiency as well-- there's a fair amount of driving around in circles to get to the desired destination because of one-way streets, and doubling-back if you drive past the destination because you couldn't get into the correct lane on time since everyone is driving on Main and King as if they're the bloody 401.

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By TnT (registered) | Posted September 27, 2011 at 10:41:40

I live right on Cannon St E and have a young daughter. I’ve never been afraid for her safety. She doesn’t get to play in the front of our house by herself, which I guess is the suburban dream. However, we walk to one of the many parks in the area and have as much fun playing there as anywhere really. I saw a movie called Radiant City and it made the claims that more children are killed in modern suburbs than inner cities by cars. Cars are also the leading cause of death in the suburbs, according to that movie anyway.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted September 27, 2011 at 11:21:45

As a teenager I had a lot of friends from Burlington and the mountain. That taught a lot about suburbia that way. I learned that some people have to walk for forty minutes to get to a corner store. I learned you can get away with nearly anything at night, since there's no "eyes on the street" in such a low-traffic environment. As I got older, I saw what happens as kids grow into bar-hopping age living 40 minutes past the nearest bus stop - they drive home drunk. I could go on....

Even if a given metre of suburban road is safer, suburbia as a whole isn't since you have to cover many more metres to get anywhere. This is compounded by having many more drivers who aren't used to bikes or pedestrians.

Beyond the safety issue, what happens in a decade or two when it comes time to redevelop in these neighbourhoods - how many homes will need to be demolished so we can re-establish a street pattern suitable to anything other than ultra-low-density residential?

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By highwater (registered) | Posted September 27, 2011 at 12:14:24 in reply to Comment 70084

Post-war suburbia at least had the advantage of being close to nature, so while the corner store might have been 40 minutes away, the woods were just down the street - giving kids the same opportunities for freedom, independence, and risk-taking as denser, walkable, mixed-use neighbourhoods.

Sadly those woods are gone. Paved over by next generation sprawl that is pretty much the worst of both worlds.

Comment edited by highwater on 2011-09-27 12:15:40

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By DavidColacci (registered) | Posted September 27, 2011 at 13:00:13

I remember a couple of years ago when the North End Neighborhood was attempting to get the city to reduce speed limits, there was alot of discussion regarding road/neighborhood safety. One of the observations around traditional suburban safety myths was that that roads were safer for children in the burbs than the inner city.

This turned out to be opposite, road fatalities in suburban neighborhoods are higher.

Roads are wider, speeds are higher. Less care is taken.

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By JK (anonymous) | Posted September 28, 2011 at 10:04:39

Maybe it was an anomalous year, but more than a quarter of last year's local pedestrian fatalities were downtown, between John, Queen, Young and York, in locations with Walk Scores of 92-100. Almost half were in a 4km stretch of the lower city between Main West and John, and more than half were south of Fennell.

http://raisethehammer.org/blog/2068/map_of_fatal_pedestrianvehicle_accidents_in_2010

I don't have a map of proximate cul-de-sacs, unfortunately.

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted September 29, 2011 at 15:32:16 in reply to Comment 70110

Screw what the map "tells" us, it was the Cul de sacs and one way streets fault.

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By TnT (registered) | Posted September 28, 2011 at 14:05:03

Those fatalities I think are a result of extreme high speeds and oneway traffic which could easily be fixed. How many deaths from cars happened on Barton Street?

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted September 29, 2011 at 15:26:14 in reply to Comment 70116

Have you looked at the map yet? Has your perception changed?

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By JK (anonymous) | Posted September 28, 2011 at 20:38:07 in reply to Comment 70116

http://www.bing.com/maps/?v=2&cp=43.25975067311676~-79.633128046571&lvl=10&dir=0&sty=r&cid=8B080F7B691F4939!174

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By one way fatalities (anonymous) | Posted September 28, 2011 at 22:23:39 in reply to Comment 70122

banned user deleted

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By SpaceMonkee (anonymous) | Posted September 28, 2011 at 15:51:57 in reply to Comment 70116

Hopefully Ryan (or someone else) will find a link to the map that was posted here a while back. The evidence/facts is/are counter to what you "think".

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By SpaceMonkee (anonymous) | Posted September 29, 2011 at 15:08:23 in reply to Comment 70117

Shame on me for bringing up facts in a polite manner.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted September 29, 2011 at 11:03:34 in reply to Comment 70117

I was wondering when you'd appear. This discussion needs a Spacemonkey. Perhaps now we can take a really good look at all the planning factors which lead to needless deaths.

As Spacemonkey's always reminding us, two-way streets have a lot of accidents too - more in fact than one-way streets. Partially, this is because there's far more two-way streets, but also, obviously, because many of the two-way streets are in suburban areas like those described above. In many ways, it doesn't really matter how main arteries are designed if side-streets go nowhere, since they'll always have too much volume.

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted September 29, 2011 at 15:21:27 in reply to Comment 70132

Hey Undustrial, Any time :)

I appreciate your comment that maybe there are more fatalities on two way streets because there are more of them compared to one way streets. I think that's a logical hypothesis. The point of me bringing up the map though was more to dispel this 'myth' that Hamilton's One Way streets are so dangerous. It was a direct response to "Those fatalities I think are a result of extreme high speeds and oneway traffic"

Obviously this person gave no thought to their comment and/or has no knowledge of the facts. Yet, he gets upvoted while my comment which politely pointed them to the facts gets downvoted. Telling?

What I find most useful or interesting about the map is that it is a 100% contradiction to the repetitive statement, heard so often here, that one way streets are so dangerous. Some people here try to make it sound as if Hamilton's one way streets are some crazy death trap. Yet, here we have the data to show that despite people's perception, there wasn't a single death on any of the major one way streets. Despite the facts, people continue to spread lies about One Way streets being more dangerous than Two Way streets.

And, although I think you raise a good point about there being a higher number of two way streets compared to one way streets, one also needs to consider that the One Way streets which do exist carry a much higher number of vehicles than most (all?) of the two way streets.

Comment edited by SpaceMonkey on 2011-09-29 15:22:49

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By Downtown Downer (anonymous) | Posted October 02, 2011 at 20:23:54 in reply to Comment 70140

Are you refering to TnT's comment above? I think that was a mere speculation and as he pointed out he lives on Cannon St and doesn't find it to be too scary for his "young daughter". I'm not sure what you are trying to corelate with your stats, but 60+kms per hour is more dangerous than lower speeds. The TnT above comment also pointed to suburbs as having more deaths caused by cars.

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By JK (anonymous) | Posted September 29, 2011 at 09:49:45

http://www.900chml.com/Channels/Reg/NewsLocalGeneral/Story.aspx?ID=1547526

http://goo.gl/oR8xm

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By Serena (registered) | Posted January 26, 2012 at 14:46:08

Cul de sacs aren't to blame. I have lived on a cul de sac for years. It's a great, quiet place to raise children. We are getting ready to move to Hamilton and are trying to find the best movers calgary has to offer. Moving trucks on a cul de sac aren't easy to maneuver.

Comment edited by Serena on 2012-01-26 14:47:05

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