Big Ideas: Kill the Cul-De-Sac and Build Bicycle Highways

Image compiled via Copenhagenize and Google Earth,

The New York Times’ Ninth Annual Year in Ideas report highlighted two great initiatives related to urban design and sustainability: Virginia Governor Tim Kaine’s strategy to kill the cul-de-sac and Copenhagen’s “bicycle highway” initiative.

The Cul-de-sac Ban

The cul-de-sac has become a staple of many suburban communities and cookie-cutter development plans. Originally in vogue for its perceived benefits for safety, many now view the default American suburban street template as a major cause of localized traffic congestion, a wasteful use of land and public maintenance resources, and an anathema to neighborhood walkability. Indeed, having grown up at the end of a cul-de-sac in suburban Baltimore, I can attest to many of these problems. The perceived safety that comes from minimizing the traffic that passes in front of houses is exchanged for a hierarchy of high-speed circuitous arterial routes that divide communities and make it difficul for pedestrians and cars to travel between communities.

Virginia is trying to change all that. According to the Times:

“Virginia, under the leadership of Gov. Tim Kaine, became the first state to severely limit cul-de-sacs from future developments. New rules require that all new subdivisions attain a certain level of “connectivity,” with ample through streets connecting them to other neighborhoods and nearby commercial areas.

If subdivisions fail to comply, Virginia won’t provide maintenance and snowplow services, a big disincentive in a state where the government provides 83 percent of road services.”

Kaid Benfield over at NRDC Switchboard pointed out Virginia’s initiative in March and takes issue with the supposed safety provided for by cul-de-sacs. He points to research that shows that older area with traditional street grids are safer than cul-de-sac neighborhoods. Expect many other states to follow suit soon.

Bicycle Highways

There are thousands of examples around the world of extensive bike path systems that make great recreational amenities but poor commuter routes. According to the Times, Copenhagen is implementing:

“a system of as many as 15 extra-wide, segregated bike routes connecting the suburbs to the center of the city. These are not bucolic touring paths; Copenhagen’s bike highways are meant to move traffic. Nearly 40 percent of Copenhagen rides a bike to work. On Norrebrogade, a two-mile street in the center of the city, 36,000 cyclists clog the bike lane every day.” explains some of the features of these bicycle superhighways will be:

– Smooth, even surfaces free of leaves, ice and snow.
– As direct as possible with no detours.
– Homogenous visual expression, for example, with signage and the trademark blue bike lanes through larger intersections.
– ‘Service stations’ with air and tools along the routes.
– Possibility to maintain a high speed and with sufficient width to overtake other cyclists.
– Safe and quick crossing priority for cyclists when they approach cross streets.
– Green Wave for cyclists through sections with frequent stop lights. [The Green Wave is in place on three main routes into Copenhagen already. Cycle 20 km/h and you hit green lights all the way.]

Here in the United States, the Adventure Cycling Association, a nonprofit membership-driven organization that promotes recreational and travel cycling, has researched and developed the Adventure Cycling Route Network, a 38,158-mile network that “links together rural roads to create low-traffic bike routes through some of the nation’s most scenic and historically significant terrain.” For the past five years, Adventure Cycling has been working with several other partnering organizations, including the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials, to get government support for a U.S. Bicycle Route System with the aim of “connecting America through a network of interstate bicycle routes.” (Download a map of the proposed corridor plan here.)

Just this month, the bicycle route plan has been strengthened by an update to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), released by the Federal Highway Administration, which now includes language for the implementation of signs, signals, and markings that improve conditions for biking and walking. Could a biking equivalent of the iconic (and quintessentially car-oriented) Route 66 be coming soon?

Artificial Car Noise?

One “big idea” touted by the New York Times that remains auto-centric and counter-productive to advancing sustainable transportation is equipping hybrid and electric cars with artificial noises. Apparently, the absence of conventional car noises (think: loud engines and sputtering exhaust pipes) has been deadly to pedestrians and cyclists who literally can’t hear the oncoming traffic.

Data derived from thousands of accidents revealed that there was no difference between hybrids and conventional vehicles on straightaways. But at intersections, interchanges, parking lots and other places where cars traveled at slow speeds, hybrids proved far more hazardous, with pedestrians and bicyclists getting hit at up to twice the normal rate.

The solution? To get manufacturers like Nissan and Fisker to equip their eco-conscious (but hazardously silent) vehicles withhigh-tech noises that broadcast both their car’s presence and their futuristic status.” No ideas, yet, about what they would actually sound like…

But wouldn’t the truly big idea – the transformative one – be to reduce car culture altogether? Not only because chronic traffic noise is unhealthy, known to increase blood pressure, heart rates and stress, but also because artificial bells and whistles won’t do anything to reduce congestion or pollution.

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