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Dead End

Growing evidence suggests the cul-de-sac costs more in city services.
(Milwaukee Magazine, vol. 35, no. 11)

One snowy morning a couple of years back, upon hearing the scrape of the plow as it entered my cul-de-sac, I called my 6 year-old daughter over to the window to watch the fascinating “snowplow ballet.” I was just about to point out to my daughter a particularly deft move when the plow blade demolished our mail box in front of our eyes.


You can’t win ‘em all. Given the complexity of clearing a 90-foot circle while avoiding various trees and driveways, it’s a wonder mailboxes aren’t snuffed en masse as fewer crews try to cover bigger areas in budget-strapped suburbs. (Franklin Superintendent of Public Works Jerry Schaefer estimates about 100 mailboxes succumb per season.)


Cul-de-sacs greatly complicate snow-clearing operations. A plow can generally clear six to eight traditional streets in the time it takes to deal with a single cul-de-sac; so, counting sixteen houses -- eight per side -- on a straight, block-long street section of an average low-density suburban subdivision, a plow will clear roads directly serving ninety-six to 128 homes in the time it can clear a single cul-de-sac.


So, care to guess how many cul-de-sacs the plow crews in Franklin have to deal with. Fifty? Maybe seventy-five?


The answer is tucked in the 2010 City Of Franklin budget: In the aftermath of any given snow event, sixteen Franklin plowing crews are responsible for clearing, salting and de-icing 211 cul-de-sacs. Daunting as that total may be, it pales next to the estimated 446 cul-de-sacs in Brookfield. Mequon has about 300; Oak Creek boasts over 200.


Given a string of particularly snowy winters, increased time, equipment and material costs for cul-de-sac clearing can represent a significant drag on already strained municipal finances. In 2009, Franklin budgeted $40,000 in plow crew overtime; expenditures before that year’s first snowfall were already $53,973, with $70,100 estimated as the year-end total. The 2010 budget requests $58,262. The Highway Department notes that they face a 42 percent increase in the cost of road salt for 2010 as well.


Despite the extra care they require, cul-de-sacs are further problematic because they offer no shared throughput or utility whatsoever to anyone not living in that particular circle. “A cul-de-sac is basically a big, long driveway that ends at your house,” points out John Wasik, author of The Cul-De-Sac Syndrome: Turning Around the Unsustainable American Dream. “It’s not very efficient from a connectivity standpoint.” 


Cul-de-sacs (the accurate plural is “culs-de-sac,” but we’ll go with the accepted colloquial version) were popularized by a 1929 development in Fair Lawn, New Jersey called Radburn (“The Town for the Motor Age”). These proto-cul-de-sacs were short, narrow, straight paved dead-end streets that lacked the pronounced “bulb” we see at the terminus of modern cul-de-sacs. Small yards and a common grassy meadow behind the houses were play areas for Radburn kids, and the design preserved pedestrian connectivity with a greenway leading from the front door of each home to a park system.


While cul-de-sacs were at first generally reserved for areas along ridge lines and near steep topography where no road could reasonably continue through, post-World War II developers found that the configuration allowed for more home sites on less paved asphalt, making for cheaper initial costs while attractive to home buyers who felt extra security in having a single entrance to their small enclave. Cul-de-sacs quickly became the dominant feature in subdivisions across the country, and certainly in the ‘burbs surrounding Milwaukee. The classic modern cul-de-sac ends in a broad, fully paved circle whose average 90-foot width is enforced in accordance to the space once needed by a large fire truck to turn without going into reverse.


“From a resident standpoint, they’re very desirable,” says Tom Grisa, director of public works for the city of Brookfield, the cul-de-sac leader at 446. “You have less traffic, it’s a quieter feel. But from a a public works perspective, they’re significantly less efficient and significantly more costly to maintain than a normal grid of streets.”


Indeed, these pervasive dead-ends have meant the virtual abandonment of the urban “road grid” concept. Clogged arterial routes swallow money as they are inexorably patched and widened; typical modern suburbs are designed so even a trip of a few hundred yards as the crow flies requires pulling a vehicle out onto an arterial - - and you dare not walk or bike on most of these high-speed, no-sidewalk roadways. 


“There are some places in Brookfield where you have to drive a couple miles to go 100 feet,” Grisa laughs. 


With infrastructure needs and costs rising nationwide, it’s little wonder that the New York Times Magazine included in its Ninth Annual Year in Ideas “The Cul-de-sac Ban,” citing Virginia’s trailblazing new rules restricting construction of the dead-ends unless the subdivision in question can augment them with an appropriate level of connectivity. Noncomplying developments will lose maintenance and snowplow services, a significant disincentive in a state where the government funds 83% of road work. 


Given the ‘burbs budget woes, will southeastern Wisconsin communities resort to such rules to curb municipal expenses? 

Insider Milwaukee Magazine
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