Thursday, June 8, 2006

The Cul-de-Sac: Experts vs. Markets

Let me start by stating that I do not, nor have I ever lived in a home located on a cul-de-sac. But I've noticed recently a smattering of news articles regarding cul-de-sacs -- that quintessential landmark of suburban living; the bulbous dead end street that seems to be the highlight of so many residential developments. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal and a piece on National Public Radio seem to indicate that community planners, and other experts are trying to write the obituary for the cul-de-sac. Many seem to feel that this piece of American suburbia has outlived its usefulness, if it actually ever had any.

Some argue that, from the standpoint of making things easier for emergency and other vehicles, cul-de-sacs create problems. Fire trucks, school buses and even moving vans have trouble negotiating the tight spaces created by the layout of the homes. And according to some, the lack of sidewalks creates an undo incentive to hop in the car for almost any errand. One report even pointed out that "driving was the only way to get from a typical cul-de-sac to a restaurant, a store or your office." I suspect this may be as much a function of distance as it is one of the street layouts. (Here I feel obligated to note that while I have not lived on a cul-de-sac, some of my acquaintances did, and I never noticed an inordinate lack of sidewalks, certainly no more or less than the various other developments that had streets laid out in something resembling a grid pattern. But I digress. As I’m sometimes reminded, "anecdotes are not data.") Were sidewalks a major concern, I suspect they could be placed in the developments. However, it may be that there is no desire for them, or that sidewalks don't add sufficient value to the homeowner in relation to the cost of installing them.

However, both of the stories here mentioned point out that despite what the experts think, home-buyers (read "the market") think otherwise. Could it be that the "market" understands, or at the very least values, something that "experts" do not? What creates value? What form(s) of utility can be obtained by someone purchasing a home on a cul-de-sac? Is this an example of why "planning" does not do as good a job in providing those factors that the "market" reveals to be of value?

Conversely, given the issues of safety and convenience that are cited in the articles, are the costs of living adequately reflected in things like additional taxes, insurance, and resources spent? And if they are, and if buyers recognize these things, is there a problem with them seeking these homes?

Your comments are welcome.

Posted by TSchilling at June 8, 2006 2:49 PM

Cul-de-sacs are frequently preferred by those with children to reduce hazards and noise due to through traffic. Pie shaped lots are also in demand, minimizing public front yards and maximizing private rear yards, though my preference is for the outer bend of a right angle. Parking is a drawback for those on one, and the lots leading up to one can be more desirable than those directly on one.

Posted by: Lord at June 8, 2006 8:44 PM

I agree on all counts. I think both of the pieces I cited tended to overlook the place the utility offered by quiet, difficult to access property that provides a bit of privacy and yet a sense of community, even though it may not have all the commercial ammenities of a small town.

Posted by: Tim at June 8, 2006 9:37 PM

Why not build more of the cul-de-sac style corners in roads? The kind where you have a right angle in the road and create a sort of bulbous corner. This seems like it would be a good compromise between the home-owners' desires for cul-de-sac and the planners' desires for traffic flow etc.

Posted by: Rick at June 19, 2006 9:22 PM

First a disclaimer - I am a transportation planner. The argument that the market chooses more cul de sacs does not incorporate that homes on cul de sacs result in higher transportation costs to the community. Rather than providing a system with multiple paths of getting from point A to point B, long cul de sacs often force all traffic onto collector roadways. This means those major roads will fill up and have to be widened earlier. At $10-20 million a mile, that's no small amount. While the homeowner may be willing to pay several thousand more for the home in a closed subdivision, that home is generating additional thousands of dollars of impacts on the road network versus a home in an interconnected network. In a true free market system, the additional money people pay for that cul de sac home would go directly to mitigate its traffic impacts and not to the developer of the subdivision. And while people do undeniably get quieter streets with cul de sacs, is it worth fighting the six lanes of gridlock to get there, or risk your life making a left turn across six lanes of traffic every morning? Small courts of cul de sacs (4-5 homes) within a larger interconnected system might serve both interests. There is almost always a way to reach a consensus, but first we have to truly understand the problem.

Posted by: Cherie at February 22, 2007 11:11 AM

Cherie's comments raise an interesting point. This could be an example of an "uninternalized externality." That is the true costs are being born by parties outside the transaction (i.e. not the developer and home buyer). This then becomes an example of "market failure." How could the costs of cul-de-sac ownership then be more accurately moved to the market, and away from the public sector? I don't recall that either of the original articles really addressed that. (And maybe that's why some experts were calling for the end of the cul-de-sac.) Thanks for the comment, Cherie.

Posted by: Tim at February 22, 2007 11:30 AM

No comments: