In Va., Vision of Suburbia at a Crossroads
Targeting Cul-de-Sacs, Rules Now Require Through Streets in New Subdivisions

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 22, 2009

Virginia is taking aim at one of the most enduring symbols of suburbia: the cul-de-sac.

The state has decided that all new subdivisions must have through streets linking them with neighboring subdivisions, schools and shopping areas. State officials say the new regulations will improve safety and accessibility and save money: No more single entrances and exits onto clogged secondary roads. Quicker responses by emergency vehicles. Lower road maintenance costs for governments.

Although cul-de-sacs will remain part of the suburban landscape for years to come, the Virginia regulations attack what the cul-de-sac has come to represent: quasi-private standalone developments around the country that are missing only a fence and a sign that says "Keep Out."

Homeowners choose cul-de-sacs because, they say, they offer safety, security and a sense of community.

"Cul-de-sacs are the safest places in America to live," said Mike Toalson, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Virginia, which opposes the new rules. "The first lots sold are often on the cul-de-sacs because they are safe." As for developments with single entrances and exits, Toalson said, such configurations ensure that all traffic is local, neighbors watch out for each other and speeds are kept down. "Crooks look for multiple exits."

Prince William County residents Brian and Donna Goff chose to raise their children in a cul-de-sac life. They live on Vixen Court, one of seven cul-de-sacs in Bridlewood Manor, a subdivision in Bristow. "You've got a family atmosphere. It stays quiet here," said Brian Goff, 42. The couple, who have two young children, have lived in the cul-de-sac for nine years.

The changes come as cash-strapped states and localities can no longer afford the inexorable widening of secondary roads that are overburdened with traffic from the subdivisions, strip malls, schools and office buildings that feed into them. The system forces drivers to enter these traffic-choked roads to go even 50 yards or so to the neighborhood coffeehouse or elementary school. North Carolina and Portland, Ore., are moving on similar fronts.

"When you have 350 to 400 miles a year of new roads you have to maintain forever, it's a budgetary problem," said Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who pushed the new regulations through the Commonwealth Transportation Board last month. Virginia has had to cut more than $2.2 billion from its six-year transportation spending plan. "But it's not just about the money. It's about connecting land-use and transportation planning and restricting wasteful and unplanned development."

To buy a gallon of milk, the Goffs have to drive onto Linton Hall Road, one of the busiest streets in the region, and go a mile to Safeway. Goff said that it would be easier if there were back roads that connected to the Safeway but that it wouldn't be worth the increase in through traffic.

"There are kids in all these subdivisions. You put more traffic in subdivisions, it's a recipe for disaster," he said.

Suffolk City Council member E. Dana Dickens, who is on the state panel that approved the changes, said cul-de-sac dwellers like the privacy and "fear traffic and all those types of things. But those are often the same people who also complain about paying for building capacity on the collector road if you don't have the connectivity."

Early 20th-century development was generally in a grid format, which spread traffic out. It also made for walkable, transit-oriented communities. Some jurisdictions, such as Arlington County, have made special efforts to link new developments to the older connected traffic grid.

"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.

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