A big house with a yard is a shining emblem of the American Dream. And cul-de-sacs, the culmination of winding roads that slice suburbia into space-maximizing lots, are just one mechanism suburban planners use to entice homeowners into buying property. They create space, make us feel safe, and allow for conveniences like large driveways.
But all that spiraled street geometry has its price. Cul-de-sacs — and the behaviors they encourage — are slowly killing us, bit by bit.
In an excerpt from his new book, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, Charles Montgomery walks us through a few of the design pitfalls being implemented by local governments across the country.
The crux of his argument isn't new: Cul-de-sacs discourage mobility and increase our dependence on cars to get around. Not surprisingly, the health of Americans who have chosen to live outside of city centers is slowly eroding. These maze-like neighborhoods "engineer their travel behavior," which studies have shown can have tangible effects in several areas of their lives — waistlines, for example:
Consider Atlanta. The average working adult in Atlanta's suburbs now drives 44 miles a day. (That's 72 minutes a day behind the wheel, just getting to work and back.) Ninety-four percent of Atlantans commute by car. They spend more on gas than anyone else in the country. In a study of more than 8,000 households, investigators from the Georgia Institute of Technology led by Lawrence Frank discovered that people's environments were shaping their travel behavior and their bodies. They could actually predict how fat people were by where they lived in the city.
Frank found that a white male living in Midtown, a lively district near Atlanta's downtown, was likely to weigh 10 pounds less than his identical twin living out in a place like, say, Mableton, in the cul-de-sac archipelago that surrounds Atlanta, simply because the Midtowner would be twice as likely to get enough exercise every day. [Slate]
In an apparent effort to cram as many big houses into cushy neighborhoods as possible, suburban group-think has largely deviated from the practical grid layout featured in older, bigger cities like New York City.
Organizing neighborhoods in a lattice shape isn't just less confusing; it also encourages different kinds of mobility. Grids encourage walking. Perpendicular intersections make life easier for bike commuters. Streets that don't twist and turn make public transportation like buses and rail more viable commuting options, thus diminishing our over-reliance on cars. Emily Badger sums it up rather nicely in this essay from 2011:
Most of the oldest cities in America — not to mention the oldest capitals in Europe, or in the Roman Empire, for that matter — were laid out in neat, densely interconnected grids that enabled people to get around before cars came along...
These communities had what Scott Bernstein, president of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, calls "location efficiency," a rough analogue to the idea of energy efficiency that captures the extent to which your job, your grocery store, and your favorite pub are all convenient to you. Around the turn of the century, U.S. cities of all sizes built thousands of miles of railway for streetcars that made the urban grid even more efficient.
"It happened everywhere, it happened brilliantly," Bernstein says, "and we threw it away." [The Atlantic Cities]
Ask yourself: Would you walk to the grocery store if one were a few blocks away? Or take public transportation to the office if the bus stop were a three-minute jaunt from your doorstep?
Indeed, deviating from the tightly woven grid pattern creates all kinds of impractical weirdness. The planners behind the labyrinthine suburbs sprouting up in Las Vegas are quickly running out of names for their streets, as Willy Staley pointed out at The Awl. Incidentally, the street names therein have already reached their comically absurd end, like Big Bird Court or Tupac Lane.
It isn't exactly a secret, either, that urban flight has all sorts of psychological and sociological drawbacks, engendering seclusion, a lack of diversity and shared ideas, and a "disassociation from the reality of contact with other people," as The New York Times put it in 1999.
Poor suburban design means we're driving more and walking less. Communities are increasingly insular and our kids spend the bulk of their time staring into screens. "The way we organize most cities actually encourages individuals to make choices that make everyone's life harder," Frank told Montgomery. "The system fails because it promises rewards for irrational behavior."