In Defense of the Cul-De-Sac

The cul-de-sac is misunderstood. It is often hated and generally shunned by most urban planners in the modern age for how they break up neighborhoods and create a system in which the neighborhood streets are isolated from larger “through” streets that carry the bulk of traffic — and are often unwalkable.

bicycle boulevard, Minneapolis
Almost, but not quite, a dead-end cul de sac.

Meanwhile, look at the rise of the bicycle boulevard. What do modifications to create a bicycle boulevard do? Route most traffic to larger through streets and “chop up” neighborhoods. Bicycles and pedestrians often have the most liberty entering and exiting a section of bicycle boulevard. People who live on streets that become bicycle boulevards often rejoice that their street has been calmed.

So what does this tell us? The problem is not the cul de sac. The primary problem is the design of surrounding streets. It’s easy to use a cul de sac as some sort of indication of everything that is awful about suburbs, but it’s not the fault of a simple lollipop street design. It’s the fault of everything around it.

There is nothing wrong with an idea that some streets are designed to carry more traffic, and other streets are oriented to different uses. Every street need not be a “high street” of commerce or traffic.

There are “fixes” for some of the issues of cul de sacs that maintain a neighborhood feel. These include:

Directing Traffic in the Sac
Directing Traffic in the Sac
  • Building in “cut throughs” for pedestrians and bikes by holding onto a right of way near the top of the lollipop on which a path can be built for non-motorized traffic to cut through the subdivision. This allows both neighbors to fence in their dogs or toddlers or yard chickens while allowing folks an engineered and safe “desire path.”
  • Connecting neighborhoods to their surroundings with thoughtful through-street design and enhancements. These can include crosswalks, bike paths, sidepaths and sidewalks and pedestrian bridges.
  • Ensuring that entryways to cul de sacs are landscaped in ways that permit full view of what is going on at the ground level. Our neighborhood is willing to use orange cones to signal to neighbors when the uber-posse of children ages 2 through 9 are drawing chalk raceways in the street; not every neighborhood has a freak with traffic cones in her garage.

Grids aren’t always all they’re cracked up to be. It is far easier for me to get a pizza delivered in my current cul de sac than it ever was on my gridded piece of Western Avenue in St. Paul. Western, due to legacy geography, has various stretches that are a noncontiguous 2-3 blocks long, but keep going by the name Western because they are in a straight gridline on a piece of paper. When I lived on a one-block stretch of Western behind the railroad on St. Paul’s North End, I could never ever get a pizza delivered, because grid aside, no one could find me.

So don’t hate the cul de sac. Hate the poor planning that suggests every neighborhood street needs to go somewhere, and that a through street should be a hellish freeway that only connects cars to big boxes.

If anyone needs me, I’m going to go drop some cones and let the kids have the chalk. We have a cul de sac to turn into a giant hopscotch festival.

About Julie Kosbab

Julie Kosbab is an online marketing consultant and active transportation advocate living in Anoka County, Minnesota. She was one of Minnesota's only League of American Bicyclists Certified Instructors when certified in 2005, and is no longer lonely in that calling. A past member of the National Bicycle Tour Directors Association, she has 2 children and a garage full of bicycles. Find her on Twitter as @betweenstations, or read her (seldom updated) blog at Ride Boldly!

6 thoughts on “In Defense of the Cul-De-Sac

  1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Julie, great post. cul-de-sac’s are actually quite in line with the Dutch road planning that has provided them with such safe neighborhoods to walk and bike in. Thru streets generally require a segregated cycle track or path, non-thru streets, those for local access only, generally do not (woonerf’s however are usually thru streets but with very limited vehicle access and a 13 mph speed limit).

    Your ‘cut-thru’ is right in line with how Dutch make non-thru streets permeable to pedestrians and bicycles.

  2. Adam MillerAdam

    Not sure I understand much of what’s being argued in this post. The problem with Western sounds like a problem with Western, not an advantage of a cul de sac. That the kids will play in the street sounds like a disadvantage rather than an advantage of the cul de sac (and perhaps a failure of urban design that the paved roadway is the most attractive place to play).

    Sure, the negative effects of cul de sacs can be mitigated, but that’s not the same as a good reason to have them.

    And that photo? Of the chopped up city grid? I wish bad things on whoever decided to bring them to our city, especially in the relatively urbanized areas of NE and SE where they do little but make otherwise accessible areas isolated.

    1. Julie Kosbab

      I grew up playing in the street. There is appeal to it for multiple reasons — you can’t spin out a Big Wheel on a yard without pissing people off. The basketball court at the (nearby, walkable) neighborhood park is generally used for (shock!) basketball. Bike riding at young ages is best on pavement; we sometimes set up bike rodeo cone drills in the street. Official LAB rodeo practice tends to require a closed street or parking lot, and, really, we all hate parking lots vacant frequently enough to make them appealing for precision drills.

      The picture of the chopped grid is one of the much-saluted new bicycle boulevards of Minneapolis. Most of the features that are implemented to create bicycle boulevards are directed oriented at keeping certain streets from being through streets for heavyweight vehicular traffic. It’s simply a different pavement/land use choice than a cul de sac that meets a similar goal.

      I think hatred of cul de sacs is more a code for “dude, suburbs” than a real issue. Good street design should recognize that every point in space is not necessarily a throughpoint. It’s okay for areas to be destinations, and letting neighborhoods be destinations is okay.

    2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      as a former Western Avenue resident myself, let me defend the part of the street that IS contiguous as being quite lovely, calm, and just about the best north-south route through Saint Paul by bicycle.

      that said, I quite agree with you Julie. to extend your arguement even farther, I’m often quite amazed at the potential that suburban arterials (3+ lanes in each direction) have for becoming “complete” streets… the ROW is sooooo wide, that you could do incredibly and wide sidewalks + very good bicycle infrastructure if not for two things
      1) the surrounding land uses are horrid, vast car-dependent parking-lot deserts with nothing nothing nothing coming up even remotely near the street other than giant signage… and
      2) the lack of any motivation for changing the macro-scale transportation options in suburbs. everyone spends so much of their time driving endless hours, there is zero motivation to begin slowing down / walking near / making these vast arterials any safer.
      other than that, the huge ROWs offer so much possibility for creating giant cycletracks / wide sidewalks / calm traffic, etc. really, the ‘burbs could be a walking-biking utopia if they had decent land use of any kind (but they don’t ,and never will, so whatevs…).

      [end of rant]

  3. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

    Whether it’s done by cul de sacs or chopped up grids or anything else, by limiting streets as through-points aren’t you necessarily forcing the majority of said vehicular traffic on to other streets, which by definition become arterials? I’d rather have streets retain the ability to pass through by foot, bike, and even auto but make them safe to play in (see: Seems similar to Walker’s comment on woonerfs still being through-routes in Dutch streets.

    This doesn’t need to be true only for residential streets, either. Yes, a couple pedestrianized commercial blocks here and there are fine, but safe, slow, quiet commercial centers that still allow vehicles to pass through (to deliver goods, drop someone off, even park and shop/eat) are important to have.

    Cul de sacs as they’re designed in the suburbs rarely ever have pedestrian/bike facilities, they almost always cut off any transportation (face it, in the suburbs, many residents don’t really like people walking through their area easily as much as they don’t want cars coming by). But even good dead-ends in cities still maim total connectivity. This shouldn’t be the goal – it should be to allow it, just safely and slowly.

    1. Janne Flisrand

      I was going to say the same thing as Alex — with a slight twist. I think of cul de sacs as having two down sides. One is the aspect you address here. The other is about accommodating car traffic and having a resilient network of streets.

      In cities, even when there are breaks in the grid like the image you have here, drivers usually have an alternative route even in addition to the main arterial. It may be slow, but there are a variety of ways to get from A to B. The cut-throughs just turn our to be especially handy for the people walking and biking.

      In suburban communties, generally, cul de sac design means there are NO alternatives to the arterials. That makes the options for cars especially sensitive to disruptions on the arterials.

      I also think there’s something to be said for a set of streets that are intuitive to navigate.

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