Monday, September 03, 2007

Cul-de-sacs are Evil? Way too simplistic.

In a recent blog, Dana Blankenhorn contends that cul-de-sacs are evil. I kind of hope he's just kidding, because the conclusions he draws from his lack of evidence are are practically jaw-dropping. So I'm going to pretend that he means what he says in this discussion. Please keep in mind that I'm not arguing for cul-de-sacs -- I can't think of a reason why I'd care -- I'm arguing against the silly conclusion Dana's drawn. Namely:

Cul de sacs are the symbol of what's wrong with America. But they have become so ubiquitous that no one can imagine building cities any other way.
Well, now. If only life were so easy that we could blame all of society's ills on the prevalence of dead-end streets. Sadly, Dana's hyperbolic analysis defies not only reason, but fact as well. Let's look at his points (though they're interwoven and not clearly delineated. Since he rambled, I don't feel bad about rambling, too).
1. The cul de sac makes the War Against Oil nearly impossible to win, by guaranteeing that people of every age have only one way to get around -- the automobile. As cul de sac developments grow this dependence increases.
It depends a lot on the cul-de-sac. I used to live in a gated apartment complex in Coral Springs, FL. In fact, it was exactly here. If you zoom out a level or two you'll see that there's shopping right across main drag, to the East. Within walking distance to the North is a Publix grocery store. Oh, and right beside the entrance to the cul-de-sac is a bus stop. That's right... public transportation. In fact, controlled access to gated communities makes it easier to plan public transportation, and to use it to lessen our dependence on oil. Most people don't even think about it, though.

Dana's observation is not limited to cul-de-sacs, and it's not even new. Look at this neighborhood in Columbia, S.C. It was planned... oh, about 50 years ago. Very few dead-ends here, and also very few shops of any kind. Of course, that didn't stop my parents from sending me out on my bike to pick up this-or-that from the A&P several miles away. They just had to wait an hour or more to get it. But in general, it's not the number of outlets, it's the distance from the store that puts people's butts in their cars. So why are the cul-de-sacs evil and traditional residential neighborhoods not?

Since living in Coral Springs I've since moved several times, most recently to a wide-open rural community. Now that I live in the county, I have to drive to the store, and it's inconvenient, so I do it when I'm out for other purposes. If I'm missing an essential ingredient for a recipe, I cook something else. Frankly, even when I lived in Coral Springs most of my shopping was done mostly on the way home from work. The change in location and convenience hasn't really changed the shopping pattern.

It's not living on a cul-de-sac that makes us dependent on automobiles, its lack of adequate public transportation. Though... the urban planning in Coral Springs shows that this is easily fixed in suburban areas. Rural areas simply can't adequately solve this particular problem. (But surprisingly, they're not evil, either.) But multi-purposing your trips -- such as shopping on your way home from work -- will most certainly cut down on your use of oil. This is true whether you live on a cul-de-sac or a thoroughfare or a two-lane highway in the county.

Conclusion: it ain't the urban plan that's a problem. It's the failure of people to buy into it and work with it. To encourage public transportation we have to use it. To use it, it has to be there.

2. Cul de sacs make you fat. They make you lazy. They give you the illusion of security, but there's plenty of crime in the cul de sacs. Crooks have cars, and they know that there's little traffic inside the cul de sac. Drive up, smash, grab, drive away -- chances are great no one will see you.

There are two arguments here: they make you fat, and they're not safe.

The first one is adequately answered thus: lack of exercise and too much food makes you fat. Not the kind of street you live on. Neighborhoods can be designed for security and convenience, and they can put walking trails and bike trails there for you. But that alone won't make you healthy; you have to actually use that stuff.

The second one is not true either. The question isn't whether crime exists at all, it's how it compares proportionally to other types of residential plans. In many cul-de-sacs, the houses face each other (on thoroughfares they're typically end-to-end). The families know each other. And there are Neighborhood Watch programs in place. More preventative 911 calls are made by neighbors who know that something's unusual, not casual drivers who have no idea that the intruder doesn't actually live in the house. The lack of traffic is not a problem, it's a boon: few people visit except those that live there; therefore everything else is unusual. The residents know that. So do the crooks.

National statistics show that crime is lower in cul-de-sacs. Robbers, especially those in cars, prefer targets that are on main roads, preferably with multiple routes. Preferably no dead-ends, no narrow lanes, and enough choices so that they're not likely to be blocked or their route anticipated. This isn't limited to residential areas, as a study from Raleigh, NC has revealed (PDF. The link is to a US Dept. of Justice police guide concerning bank robbery).

Here's one of the many I found: It's a paper called "Designing Out Crime: Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design" presented by the Australian Institute of Criminology. It describes an actual case study in Hartford, Connecticut... a redesign of a deteriorating neighborhood called Asylum Hill:

Three major physical design changes were made in Asylum Hill: cul-de-sacs were created to stop through traffic; outside motor traffic was diverted to define neighbourhoods better; and residents were encouraged to put up fences. And to promote a sense of territoriality and control in the area, residents were encouraged to use the area more while outside pedestrians were discouraged.
The results?

Beside revealing a substantial drop in crime and fear of crime, an evaluation of the project (Fowler et al. 1979) concluded that the three components of the project - changes in physical design, police operations and community responses to crime - were essential in producing the positive results, but that the physical design changes were crucial in making the other crime prevention strategies work.
But you don't have to trust me or references I supply. Simply Google for "crime statistics robberies in cul-de-sacs".

Conclusion: Dana is just flat wrong, according to multiple studies by multiple agencies in multiple municipalities across the globe.

3. And if anyone thinks being part of a "gated community" with a gatehouse protects the residents of a cul de sac from crime, think again. There's crime there too. And much of it is never solved, again because there are no witnesses.

There are references that support this conclusion, such as this paper by Blakely & Snyder cited by Wikipedia. Frankly, Wikipedia is not widely regarded for its accuracy, nor am I impressed by this paper at all: where it gives hard numbers, they are given as a percentage of change, not as per-capita crime rates. In areas where the objective level of crime may be lower to start with, they provide neither evidence nor reasoning to support why we should expect the rate of change to differ from the outside areas. In other words, it appears their conclusion is a result of poor methodology. Neither does their conclusion match with their case studies, as with the case of Potomac Gardens in Washington, DC, where "The measures did dramatically reduce drug dealing and vandalism, however, and the majority of tenants came to support 'the fence' within a few months."

Not all gated communities are equal. Some are more densely populated than others. Some may contain single-family homes; others, apartment buildings. "Stately homes" (wherever they are located!) are more isolated than bungalows or apartments. Some are just residential neighborhoods; but some are entire communities. And the idea that crime is less prevalent in a gated community necessarily presumes that the criminal element does not live there in the first place.

Crime prevention isn't done on a macro scale. We could easily (within a week) control access to Manhattan Island. It would in every sense of the word be a gated community, but the crime rate wouldn't significantly change. Clearly, as we scale up we can expect diminishing results. Small areas, with neighborhood associations and clearly defined territories having restricted access does in fact work. Trying to scale this up to an entire community is over-ambitious, and frankly irrelevant to the discussion of cul-de-sacs.

That said, having lived in a gated apartment complex with a security guard on each gate, a regular patrol, and neighbors, I simply have to conclude--on that scale, at least--that Dana's just plain wrong.

Conclusion: cul-de-sacs are still more secure than thoroughfares; gated communities are irrelevant to that discussion.

He actually makes some other arguments; that traffic in cities increases with the adoption of cul-de-sacs there, though the public transportation and population remain unchanged. He wildly extends this to widening streets and gridlock without even considering alternatives such as improved public transportation to accompany the change in street plan (and he has the chutzpah to state that no one else can imagine building cities any other way! Pot, meet kettle.) These are unwarranted, unreasoned, and we can ignore them.

So let's get past Dana's overly-simplistic and hyperbolic conclusion (that cul-de-sacs are evil) and perhaps focus on what a message that he should have intended to say. It has nothing to do with dead-end streets.

Healthwise, it's being sedentary that's bad, not living on a dead-end street. No matter where you live you need to exercise. I know it's the Liberal modus-operandi to blame everything bad in your life on somebody else, but enough is enough. The city planners didn't give you a gut, you big baby. Drop the fork.

Crime prevention-wise, being involved through community watch programs really and truly works. Take part. It's easier if you live in a neighborhood with controlled access. If you have even the slightest smidgen of common sense you know that if you're on a thoroughfare then you can't depend on total strangers passing by at 40 mph to notice odd happenings in your home in the 3 to 5 second window of opportunity they have. So you're going to have a harder time of it than the guy on the cul-de-sac.

Winning the War Against Oil. What should we do?

Well, first, drop the rhetoric. "War Against Oil" is a slogan, not a plan. For one thing, it makes it difficult to identify the goal. If it's a war against foreign oil dependence, then it's not a war against oil at all. If it's an environmental statement, then as Yvo de Boer, the UN's top climate official, says, "The war against climate change is not a war against oil. It's a war against emissions." In this case, "War Against Oil" is flatly insufficient, as it should encompass other hydrocarbon fuels. If it's just a oil use, period, without any practical environmental, economic, or health goal, then it's just irrational.

I prefer to think in terms of a balance between ecological stewardship and political and economic independence. Drive down the burning of oil here so that we're not only not less dependent on it economically, but to improve the environment and quality of life here. It will not be cheap at first, and the oil we don't use will be burned by developing countries, making the overall global effect most probably negligible. But we can use our economic power to come up with workable technologies to replace the use of oil in those developing countries bootstrap a cleaner world.
  • Government:
    • Better suburban planning, for starters. Cul-de-sacs aren't evil. They do in fact lower crime, and they make it easier to plan bus routes. It would be nice to have more affordable, community shops and fewer mega-stores. But since mega-stores are so damned cheap to run, make sure the bus routes go there on convenient schedules.
    • Don't zone aesthetics so tightly that people can't use solar panels, for instance. Make it illegal for homeowners associations to forbid them, too.
    • You want people to use alternative fuels? Set an example: buy buses that use 'em.
    • Approach the problem realistically. If we use less oil, we won't extend the planet's reserves at all, as other countries will take advantage of falling prices to use more. So we need to promote alternatives on realistic economic grounds.
    • Promote and maintain your hydroelectric plants.
    • Promote nuclear energy. It's clean, it's reliable, it's cheap, and the residue is less energetic than than the uranium that was taken out of the environment in the first place. You want to use less oil? You want to cut back on hydrocarbon emissions? Use nuclear energy.
    • Discourage new coal and oil electric plants. Encourage replacement of those we have.
    • Stop thinking mainly in macro terms for energy alternatives. Encourage individuals to use efficient, cheap methods that work and make immediate economic sense.
      • Wind energy need not be generated in huge farms when you can put a generator on your rooftop to charge batteries.
      • Likewise for solar energy. The most effective use of solar energy isn't to make electricity, it's to harness the sun's heat to heat water or oil. This can be directly used for water heaters and radiators. That's a lot better than using photovoltaic cells at 15% efficiency to generate electricity to use for that purpose. Pipes on the roof can pay for themselves quickly.
    • Come up with a consistent national energy policy, PLEASE. We're pretty sick of wondering whether this or that energy-saving home improvement will get us what tax credits in what states. It's a simple concept: reducing our dependence on the government infrastructure should reduce our obligation to pay for it. It doesn't even need to be proportional, but we do need to eliminate the guesswork.
  • Individuals:
    • Better use of public facilities. The city plans, but they can't make you use the stuff. It's up to you to use trains and buses and your feet.
    • In rural areas you have more options with regard to self-sufficiency. For instance, stupid zoning laws that value aesthetics over function may prevent you from using solar panels in a suburban area. In a rural area you rarely have those kinds of restrictions. So use windmills, solar panels, and other creative supplements to your energy needs.
    • Conserve processed water by using gray water or groundwater for watering the lawn or washing the car. Some municipalities (like Cary, NC) offer separate lines for this.
    • Telecommute when possible. I live 60+ miles away from each of three major population centers, so this is a big one for me. My gas use is cut in half by working from home 2-3 days a week.
    • Multi-purpose trips. When you have to drive, do more than one thing at a time. If you need some incidental, put off getting it until you need to do something else. Avoid instant gratification... keep a list instead.
    • Buy better cars that use less petroleum. Bicycle when you can. Carpool.
    • Encourage alternative sources of energy. Getting over your irrational fear of nuclear power is a great step. You want to use less oil? You want to cut back on hydrocarbon emissions? USE NUCLEAR ENERGY.

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