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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Rachel explains: "The hidden perils of poorly-connected streets, or why I'm afraid of German Shepherds"

Kaid Benfield

Posted November 25, 2008

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Today I am able to treat you to another guest post by my colleague Rachel Sohmer, who hits it out of the park: 

I grew up in a typical subdivision of detached single-family homes built in the 60s, where cul-de-sacs and long blocks ruled the day. On the plus side, our small houses and lot sizes made the neighborhood somewhat walkable, and someone even had the foresight to build a little pedestrian cut-through between my street and the back of my elementary school. But that might've been the only real concession to connectivity - pedestrian or otherwise - in the entire neighborhood. Case in point:

I lived in one loop of the subdivision, and my friend - let's call her Jenny - lived in another, just on the other side of the school kickball field:

(by: Rachel; underlying image by Tele Atlas)

As the crow flies, Jenny's house was practically next door, yet it was an absolute hassle to get to. But let's consider that Jenny had about 27 Barbie dolls, a copy of The Dark Crystal on VHS, and everything Hello Kitty ever made. I was highly motivated. However, between me and the spoils of Jenny's indulged childhood lay the proverbial fork in the (badly-planned) road. Which way to go?

  (by: Rachel; underlying image by Tele Atlas)  (by: Rachel; underlying image by Tele Atlas)

The safe but loooong route (0.5 miles)...or the treacherous shortcut (0.2 miles)?

The shortcut was a substantial timesaver for a little kid with little legs, but it would mean scaling Jenny's back fence commando-style and then running the gauntlet of 'family dogs' (read: rabid German Shepherd psycho killer hellhounds) to get to the back door.

(by: Adam Henning, creative commons license)  (by: Nina Hiironniemi, creative commons license)

I don't know what they were feeding those dogs, but clearly it wasn't enough.* Maybe if I hadn't been totally terrified, I would have realized I was receiving an early lesson in the value of a well-connected street network. Don't get me wrong, as conventional suburbs go, mine could've been a lot worse. At least I had the option of walking to my friend's house in the first place, sparing my mom the even longer drive (0.75 miles).

But a well-connected street grid, with shorter blocks and frequent intersections, wouldn't have hurt. As Charlottesville, VA-based transportation planner Hannah Twaddell puts it,

"Regardless of their size, communities can realize three major benefits from better connectivity: shorter trips; a wider variety of travel choices; and more cost-effective public services and infrastructure.

"Creating more direct connections shortens travel time, which effectively brings people closer to their destinations. With more available connections, community residents can get to schools, shopping centers, and other spots that may have simply been off their radar before -- not because these places were too far away, but because they were too far out of the way."

She goes on to explain that good street connectivity also helps firefighters, paramedics, and police save precious minutes reaching the scene of an emergency, and as with other public services like garbage collection, operating costs are minimized by the reduced travel time and vehicle mileage.

  (credit: US Federal Highway Administration)  (credit: US Federal Highway Administration)

And, of course, let's also consider the environmental and public health benefits of a well-connected street system. In addition to reducing gas consumption and vehicle emissions overall, good street connectivity helps decrease traffic congestion on arterial roads, making neighborhoods safer for pedestrians while reducing local hotspots of air pollution which can lead to respiratory illnesses. Also, connectivity is a key component of the smart growth mix - along with mixed land-uses and higher density - that encourages people to leave their cars at home and be more physically active. For much more on the sprawl/obesity connection, see Kaid's blog archives here, here and here.

If you're in the market for street connectivity design guidelines, check out the street network credit of the new LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, which just opened for public comment last week. Perhaps if the developers who designed my neighborhood had access to planning resources like these, I might've been spared some mild childhood trauma. As it was, I usually took the shortcut to Jenny's house despite the dogs.

That's how much I hate following a bad street grid. 

*The author is happy to report she eventually outgrew her fear of German Shepherds once she outweighed them. She is not as happy to report that she also outgrew The Dark Crystal.


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Elizabeth SchillingNov 25 2008 10:39 AM

Beautiful example! I wonder how many of us are reminded of their own adventures in suburbia - the flip side, of course, was that feeling of adventure and independence we got from roaming in the no-mans-land of common areas and unmaintained 'pedestrian ways' and utility easements. Knowing exactly what kind of trouble we could get into there, I'm raising my kids in the grid for as long as I can afford to!!

Melissa BNov 25 2008 12:05 PM

This sounds just like my trip to my friend Elyse's house. We both lived on 25th St but my street was just one block long and then she was in a gated community which was not connected to my street. I sometimes walked and climbed over the wall to her gated community and often DROVE. I know, it is riduculous.

Jessica MillmanNov 25 2008 02:58 PM

Fabulous and funny! Have you considered moonlighting as a smart growth comedian? I spent my first 10 years in a conventional subdivision. Luckily, I was the one with the big dog!

Dave ReidNov 25 2008 03:43 PM

This very much reminded me of growing up in Glenview, IL which was actually fairly well laid out but the area I lived in was somewhat isolate. So often I remember running through neighbors yards and climbing fences to get home quicker. Funny

Kaid @ NRDCNov 25 2008 06:10 PM

Thanks for the feedback, which Rachel and I both appreciate. As Elizabeth and Jessica know, we spend hours - days! - wrestling with these issues in LEED-ND deliberations. Despite (or maybe because!) we have some of the country's leading experts on the issue in the conversation, none of us has explained it as well as Rachel.

Susan Piedmont-PalladinoDec 4 2008 05:40 PM

I was fortunate to grow up in an old small town in northern New Jersey, with fully connected, tree-lined, walkable streets and that began a life-long habit of walking. I read this post having just enjoyed 2 succesive lectures by the incomparable Danish architect/urbanist Jan Gehl. He says that city's mission is to invite walking and cycling, and to "be sweet" to people. Discontinuous street patterns are so rude!

Kaid @ NRDCDec 4 2008 05:50 PM

Thanks, Susan. What a nice way to think about it. By coincidence, I had a reference to Jan Gehl here on the blog just two weeks ago! Great minds and all that.

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