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New Virginia Rules Target Cul-de-Sacs
"When the interstates got built and we all started driving cars, our development pattern scattered. Rather than building grid streets, we built a main spine and everything came off it," Dickens said. "Offices, houses, stores were separated. You put all your traffic on one road, and you choke everything off."
There is a public benefit to increasing connectivity and eliminating what are essentially private roads plowed and maintained by state and local taxpayers, Dickens and other officials said.
"If a firetruck or ambulance is stuck in traffic on the Fairfax County Parkway, they just can't turn in to a subdivision and go through local streets, because they don't connect," said Nick Donohue, assistant secretary of transportation.
So now, Virginia will maintain only new subdivision streets that meet its connectivity, road and sidewalk requirements. That's a big stick, because unlike in Maryland and most other states, the Transportation Department maintains and plows almost all of Virginia's roads, including streets with as few as three homes.
The new requirements also call for roads that are dramatically narrower, 24 feet to 29 feet wide for local streets. Now subdivision streets can be 40 feet wide -- wider than three highway lanes -- and cars often share the asphalt with baby carriages and joggers. Montgomery County also recently approved new rules for narrower streets. Narrower roads reduce speeds, decrease storm water runoff and save on maintenance costs, officials say.
Kaine campaigned on better linking land-use policies with transportation. He said the changes will make better use of the state's roads and cut pollution and traffic. It also saves the state money devoted to paving and plowing all those cul-de-sacs and roads to nowhere. The skyrocketing cost of maintaining the state's roads is taking money away from new projects and improvements.
"It's unfortunate that it had to come to a crisis," said Andrés Duany, a longtime proponent of "new urbanism," which advocates for transit-oriented, pedestrian-friendly development. "The traffic engineers are finding that there are solutions other than widening roads," he said.
Duany, an architect and urban planner, has long fought for narrower streets, more sidewalks and mixed-use neighborhoods where residents can live, work and play. His ideas have caught on among urban planners nationwide and have influenced plans ranging from the groundbreaking community of Celebration, Fla., to the effort to remake Tysons Corner into a livable, walkable community. But for every development that embraces these ideas, there are hundreds that are constructed the way builders think Americans want to live: In set-off subdivisions of wide streets that end in traffic-free cul-de-sacs and "stub" roads.
In the Washington suburbs few subjects are as contentious as through traffic. The current system, which has created developments designed to limit cut-through traffic, has made homeowners more afraid of outsiders coming through their development, because the few roads that do connect are often, in Duany's words, "traffic sewers" filled with speeding commuters.
"The cul-de-sac compensates for roads that are so over-designed that people speed on them," Duany said. "So instead of dealing with the heart of the problem, they created a Band-Aid, a cul-de-sac."
The torrent of building in the Washington region over the past decade has only solidified the cul-de-sac's position in the region. Changing the basic template now, when foreclosures are more common than groundbreakings, is a little late, some say.
"An awful lot of horses are out of the barn," said Ronald F. Kirby, transportation director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. "You go out of the Beltway and it's cul-de-sac land. That's what everybody expected and what developers did. Everybody just accepted no sidewalks and no way to get anywhere without getting onto the main roads."
Recently, the Census Bureau reported that the longest average commute in the country was in suburban Washington: subdivisions off Linton Hall Road in Prince William, where the Goffs live. Many of those communities were built using the cul-de-sac template, and traffic for all purposes is fed onto Linton Hall Road. Soon, the road was jammed day and night. Because of the state's dire financial straits, the county had to pick up the cost of widening Linton Hall to four lanes. And it is still jammed during peak times, with many trips just to get a gallon of milk or drop off children at school.
In Montgomery, new road codes will incorporate different widths depending on the context.
"We're trying to create flexibility so we have roads that are more pedestrian- and bicycle-oriented instead of a one size fits all," said Montgomery County Council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty).
Knapp said the county's next master plan will also stress connectivity, similar to the Virginia plan, especially as the county fills in its existing open development areas and connecting the new to the old becomes more imperative.
"As you try to create a sense of place, a development of 100 houses ending in a cul-de-sac next to another development ending in a cul-de-sac isn't going to work," he said.