Thursday, June 13, 2002

No outlet: You can't/get there from here

Families love cul-de-sacs, planners don't

By Cindi Andrews,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        DEERFIELD TOWNSHIP — Michelle Teyke and her husband and their two daughters and all their neighbors and nearly everyone, it seems, in Cincinnati's newest suburbs have a piece of the suburban dream: a house on a cul-de-sac.

        Families can't get enough of these no-outlet streets, where kids can play ball and and neighbors can host block parties without worry of traffic or noise.

        “That's one of the main reasons we chose this house,” Mrs. Teyke says of her home in southern Warren County.

[photo] An aerial view of the Village Drive community in Warren County shows Montgomery Road at the bottom and the single entrance to the series of cul-de-sacs that make up the neighborhood.
(Michael Snyder photo)
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        But now, the beloved cul-de-sac is losing favor.

        The streets may give the illusion of private lanes, but they also create gridlock on the few main roads that serve them, transportation analysts say.

        Instead of fostering community closeness, cul-de-sacs can isolate neighbors on one street from those on another. And because they don't connect, cul-de-sacs contribute to a need to drive almost everywhere, the experts say.

        Some communities around Seattle and elsewhere are restricting use of cul-de-sacs, an idea “that really bears investigating,” Warren County Engineer Neil Tunison says.

        The cul-de-sac design of many neighborhoods follows that of a tree, where the trunk is the main roadway in and the multitude of branches are no-outlet streets.

        “Our streets are trees, and what we really need is a network,” Mr. Tunison says.

        Experts call it the “cul-de-sac-ization” of America — a concept that's caught on in suburbs across the Tristate, where new subdivisions sprout almost daily. Once unceremoniously known as a “dead-end,” the cul-de-sac has all but replaced the old neighborhood model of interconnecting streets laid out on grids.

[photo] Using a cul-de-sac as a makeshift playground in the Landen area are (from left) Kate Etter, 6, Sarah Weaver, 11, her sister, Christina, 8, and neighbor Nick Niehaus, 9.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
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        Southern Warren County is one of the Tristate's most concentrated examples of cul-de-sac-ization.

        Of the 120 subdivisions under construction in the county, 95 percent include cul-de-sacs, Mr. Tunison says. The county's latest Homerama community — Vista Pointe at River's Bend in Hamilton Township — has half a dozen dead-ends.

        French for “bottom of the sack,” the cul-de-sac was first conceived as a way to make use of hilly land. By the 1970s, it was a suburban staple.

        But now, areas such as Warren that have grown exponentially in the past 30 years are struggling with the resulting traffic problems.

        In the past decade, planners around the country have begun encouraging developers to build neighborhoods based on a neo-traditional or New Urbanist philosophy.

        Among other features, they have connecting roads that hark back to when Hamilton County towns such as Mariemont and Greenhills were built. Mariemont was laid out on a grid of mostly straight streets. Many of Greenhills' residential streets are curvy, but they still ultimately cross each other.

        “To get people to change their attitude on some of these issues is going to be a great education process,” Mr. Tunison says. “But if we are going to make changes we have to do it rather quickly, because things are changing rapidly.”

"A tremendous burden'

        Warren County's population grew 39 percent from 1990 to 2000, and housing units increased 44 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In Hamilton Township alone, developers built 27 subdivisions for a total of 9,379 new housing units, University of Cincinnati planning student Chris Ruthemeyer found in a recent study.

        The county, midway between Cincinnati and Dayton, used to be mostly farmland. Its few main roads are mostly two-lane and winding, and started out as horse-and-buggy paths.

        The trunks of the many new, tree-shaped subdivisions funnel traffic onto one or two of these “arterial” roads. Because few subdivisions have shops in them, people have to use the arteries every time they need to buy a gallon of milk or pick up dry cleaning.

        Growing suburbs in Butler and Clermont counties and Anderson and Colerain townships in Hamilton County face similar problems, says Brenda Scheer, professor of planning at the University of Cincinnati.

        “It puts a tremendous burden on one road,” she says.

        It also means if there's a crash — or even construction — on a main road such as Socialville-Fosters or U.S. 22/Ohio 3, drivers through much of Hamilton and Deerfield townships will spend time stuck in traffic. Because so many streets don't connect, alternate routes are few and, literally, far between.

        And then there are emergency issues. Fire departments have long complained that neighborhoods with just one entrance pose a safety hazard. A traffic accident, water main break or other problem could block off one whole street.

        Because of such concerns, the Deerfield Township Fire Department recently began insisting on having at least two entrances to all subdivisions, Chief Bill Kramer says.

        Some single-entrance communities, such as Heritage Green, have even been retrofitted with an emergency entrance, he says. A crash gate that fire engines can quickly open or drive through keeps out nonemergency traffic.


        Cul-de-sac communities also discourage walking and social interaction, some planning experts say.

        “If you want to walk anywhere, you have to walk back to the main road,” Ms. Sheer says. “It really discourages pedestrian activity, so in the end you have to drive your 10-year-old to a place you used to ride your bike as a kid.”

        Neo-traditionalists want to re-create the good old days when houses were closer together and residents could walk to the corner for milk. Connecting neighborhood streets is part of that picture, says Steven Bodzin, spokesman for the 10-year-old Congress for the New Urbanism, based in California.

        Those who live on cul-de-sacs say the layout fosters closeness among immediate neighbors. In Lisa Hackler's subdivision in Mason, families from several cul-de-sacs often come together for parties, she says.

        She also likes that her young kids can ride their bikes without competition from speeding cars.

        Michele Weaver's family loves basketball, and so their Deerfield Township cul-de-sac features a hoop.

        “It's like having your own little playground,” Mrs. Weaver says.

        Such raves are why developers keep building cul-de-sacs.

        Government, too, can be a willing accomplice. Despite growing concerns about traffic congestion, many communities' regulations still encourage developers to lay out tree-shaped subdivisions.

        Warren County regulations say “the street pattern shall discourage through traffic in the interior of a subdivision.”

        Zoning rules likewise often discourage or prohibit other elements of the neo-traditional style, such as smaller lots and intermingled residential and commercial uses.

Less of "no outlet'

        In contrast, some communities — especially around the Seattle area — require subdivision streets to connect unless the terrain or existing development makes it impractical or impossible.

        Tom Hill, Olympia's development engineering supervisor, says the wide, connecting streets there have encouraged neighbors to use their front porches more instead of retreating into private back yards.

        And even without a cul-de-sac, kids occasionally turn a street into a kickball field, Mr. Hill says.

        “The sense of neighborhood and community has increased on balance,” he says.

        Neo-traditional neighborhoods have begun creeping into the Tristate in the past year, too. Ryan Homes is giving the concept a try in subdivisions under construction in Lebanon and Columbia Township.

        The response? So far, so good, says Jim Obert, planning director for Great Traditions Land & Development Co., developer of the Lebanon subdivision.

        “A lot of people think it's cute,” Mr. Obert says. “It's returning to Grandma's house.”

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