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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Retrofitting suburban cul-de-sacs: start with trails

Kaid Benfield

Posted October 22, 2009

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I've had a number of posts about the importance of street connectivity in promoting walking and cycling and shortening driving trips.  The best of them was Rachel's terrific guest post, explaining the pitfalls when she was a kid trying to reach her friend's house.

poor street connectivity (by: Virginia DOT)Typically, older city neighborhoods were built on a grid system and have decent connectivity:  you have more than one way to get from point A to point B, and you can also get to points C, D, and E easily if you need to.  But many newer suburbs are built with cul-de-sacs ("lollypop patterns") connecting only to a single collector road and then to a busy arterial.  Even if the subdivision has sidewalks and places you might actually want to walk to, your ability to find safe and convenient walking options is sharply limited.

So, what to do?  It is very difficult to build new streets to connect up existing dead ends, particularly given the typical pattern of multiple lot ownership in most subdivisions.  Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, in their book Retrofitting Suburbia, are able to cite one example, but it is only a plan; and the housing involved is for military families (Laurel Bay, on Parris Island in South Carolina).  As the authors concede, "built examples of connecting the culs-de-sac or other means of interconnecting existing residential subdivisions remain rare."

  some of the Tigard trails (by: City of Tigard via Streetsblog)

But could we at least connect them with walking paths?  LEED-ND encourages just that under its Street Network credit, which provides credit for street connectivity only if 90 percent of any new cul-de-sacs are connected with walking or cycling paths.  (LEED-ND also has other credits that discourage cul-de-sacs in general.)  And now Tigard, Oregon (about 10 miles from Portland) is moving forward with a plan to designate and build 42 miles of connecting trails within existing neighborhoods.

An emphasis has been on designating and improving informal "desire paths" that already existed and were used by neighborhood residents, even though no formal public access had been established.  The city and its contractor, Kittelson & Associates, established a wiki-based web site where residents could indicate on a map where such informal walkways were (see map).  Nancy Friedman's website Fritinancy describes "desire paths" in a way that rings very familiar:

a "desire path" in New Jersey (by: iirraa/Ira, creative commons license)"Desire path: A term in landscape architecture used to describe a path that isn't designed but rather is worn casually away by people finding the shortest distance between two points.

"A close look at any city park or green will typically reveal footprints that break away from paved walks, trails that countless pedestrians have worn into the grass. Such a trail is a desire path: the route people have chosen to take across an open place, making a human pattern upon the landscape." (Citing Lan Samantha Chang , in Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney.)

Writing on Streetsblog, Mathew Katz reports that the Tigard Neighborhood Trails Project is intended "to make existing trails safer, and to build new ones to form a better overall network."  It's a cool idea.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page. 


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DanielOct 22 2009 10:31 AM

A new development being proposed in our community had to meet certain connectivity requirements, so they approached an adjacent neighborhood association with the idea of connecting in. The neighborhood currently only has one entry onto a busy road. The association declined, and so the developer came back with the idea of a nicely landscaped walking path. The neighbors have been equally opposed to this alternative.

It appears that safety concerns are still the main issue. Apparently, burglars are going to be riding away on this path with their loot. I wonder what sort of data is out their to either confirm or dismiss this concern. If it is real, are there ways the neighborhood can be compensated at all for their loss? In this case, there is a developer who would probably be willing to throw in a nice amenity for the privilege of connecting.

Of course, the association could have been using this as a wedge to stop the development from happening at all, which would be an entirely different issue.

Douglas StewartOct 22 2009 04:14 PM

Daniel, this sounds like a stalking horse. Where is THEIR evidence? Rails To Trails Conservancy has collected good information showing the benefits of trails for real estate values and other economic measures, In Fairfax County there are many trails connecting cul de sacs and neither on them nor on our longer trails is there increased crime. Good luck, I hope you prevail.

Ellen Dunham-JonesOct 22 2009 05:57 PM

Hi Kaid
Great post and thanks for the plug! Trails are indeed a good starting point (especially if they are designed for bikes.) One of the arguments for road connections is the increased efficiency of emergency responders. Not only can they get to a burning home or heart attack victim faster, a recent study by CNU in Charlotte found that each fire station could increase its service area by 20% the higher the connectivity. The State of Virginia is also requiring connectivity in new subdivisions on the basis that publicly maintained roads need to contribute to the efficiency of the street network. Progress is being made! Nonetheless, opponents like the Reason Foundation have found an example where a cut-through path between a school, through a neighborhood, to a mall, did result in increased trash and vandalism. I suspect much attention has to be paid to exactly how trails are inserted and how they are designed to build communal interaction and trust. Some fairly old studies of residents on cul-de-sacs conclude that they are happier than people on through streets precisely because they are less likely to confront strangers immediately outside their private space. Can we turn the "lollypops" into communal hubs for more than just the adjacent homeowners?

Kaid @ NRDCOct 22 2009 06:22 PM

Excellent comments. Thanks for stopping by, Ellen!

BrianOct 22 2009 08:47 PM

Interesting article. What a great idea.

DanielOct 23 2009 05:18 PM

Virginia's new connectivity requirements are a good first step, but they are not as strong as I originally had thought. In effect, they only really apply to infill developments. The standards are much looser for "rural areas," which in my region is being defined as everywhere not within an MPO, which includes lots of towns and developed areas. The trouble is that's where most of the development has been happening anyway!

I think the Counties have some latitude in deciding what is urban, rural, or suburban but I don't know if many of the high-growth exurb jurisdictions are going to voluntarily submit to stricter requirements. I guess it depends.

Laurence AurbachOct 23 2009 06:06 PM

Here is a lot of information about street connectivity and crime, with plenty of quotes, links and citations. It's part of an extended series on street connectivity:

Connectivity Part 5: Neighborhood Crime

Kaid @ NRDCOct 23 2009 08:31 PM

Excellent contribution, LJ. Thanks.

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