Jan. 20 2010 12:00 AM

Cul de sacs are being banned — so why not here?

For Ingham County Road Commissioner James Dravenstatt- Moceri, life on a cul de sac is idyllic.

Dravenstatt-Moceri’s slice of suburban bliss is on Hosta Court in a subdivision off Aurelius Road in Holt. Some of the streets in the subdivision are named after pleasant-sounding plants — hyacinth, sumac — and surrounding most of the development is farmland. Hosta Court is quiet, he says, the neighbors feel safe letting their kids play in the cul de sac, and there is no through traffic. He moved to Hosta Court in 2002 because he and his family liked the house, and it was a good place for families.

“I do like living there,” he said. “One thing I like about the cul de sac is that we don’t have a lot of traffic that comes through our section. It is normally people that live there, or their guests.”

And Dravenstatt-Moceri is not alone. Subdivisions and their almost requisite cul de sacs have spread like wildfire across the country in the past 60 years.

It’s just coincidence that Dravenstatt-Moceri is a local official in charge of the upkeep of Ingham County roads. The road commission is in charge of plowing and maintaining 1,240 miles of unincorporated asphalt in the county, a good deal of which is in subdivisions located off main roads.

But the cul de sac, beloved by suburbanites seeking quietude and a place for their kids to play, may be causing problems for local governments charged with road maintenance. In other parts of the country, the cul de sac has begun to fall out of favor for exactly those reasons.

Virginia enacted a law last year that will go a long way in preventing cul de sacs in new housing developments. The state government, which provides 83 percent of road services, would withhold road maintenance from newly built cul de sacs in an effort to save money and increase the connectivity of streets.

Cul de sacs have come under attack from environmentalists and new urbanists who argue that the bulb-end streets encourage extraneous driving because the houses located on them are disconnected from destinations like shopping and schools. Towns and cities in Oregon, North Carolina, Minnesota and Texas have taken steps to limit cul de sacs, either as a cost-saving measure or because they favor new urbanist principles of combining uses such as walking, biking, shopping and work. The Ingham County Road Commission even enacted its own ban in 2004, which became illegal in 2006 because of a state law.

It does not bother Dravenstatt- Moceri that he might have to hop in his car and drive through down a few loopy streets just to get to the store for some milk. (His cul de sac, if it were a thru street, could dump directly onto Aurelius Road.) Plus, he says, he often bikes outside the subdivision and walks inside of it.

“I’m happy with it just the way it is,” he said.

From a bird’s eye view, a suburban subdivision is reminiscent of an ant farm. Ants build tunnels that twist around and, in some places, end in a circular chamber. Humans, or, more precisely, developers, construct subdivisions that contain meandering streets that start at a main road and branch out throughout the development. Some of these streets end in the circular chambers of a cul de sac.

Cul de sacs, French for “bottom of the bag,” are prevalent in local townships, especially, and even in area cities. The terminus of Lenawee Street near Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard can illustrate a criticism of cul de sacs. Lenawee turns into a cul de sac just a few feet from MLK. A resident has to drive either north to Kalamazoo, or south to Hillsdale and then backtrack a full block.

Bill Conklin, managing director of the Ingham County Road Commission, said that the thinking behind cul de sacs came from developers wishing to cater to homebuyers looking for a quieter way of life.

“People on those rectilinearly laid out residential streets started complaining and future developers started steering toward subdivisions to cut down on through traffic,” Conklin said. Rectilinear streets are grid-like patterns seen more in older sections of municipalities. “So they started laying out neighborhoods that had only one major entrance.”

Conklin said that one of the main problems that developments containing cul de sacs create is a larger load of cars on main arteries. And that can mean more wear and tear and traffic congestion, which leads to having to resurface and widen roads. Conklin came to Ingham County from sprawling Oakland County, where he saw this problem develop.

“In Wayne and Oakland counties a lot of roads were developed with one main entrance, and all the traffic to get anywhere was put on the main mile roads,” he said. “They became congested and needed to be widened, which costs money.”

But Conklin said that planners have been rethinking the perceived benefits of living in a closed subdivision — less traffic, the perception of safer streets on which to raise a family — in favor of connecting neighborhoods to destinations such as shopping and schools.

“If you go with the latest thinking, with the parallel dense streets, the cul de sacs go away,” Conklin said. “I think that’s the larger conversation.”

Though Virginia may be the largest governmental entity to essentially ban cul de sacs, the road commission’s short-lived 2004 was done in the same year where a National Association of Realtors’ survey found that 26 percent of respondents would pay a premium to live on a cul de sac.

Part of the reason for the ban, said Robert Peterson, director of engineering of the Ingham County Road Commission, is economics. The state Department of Transportation funds the road commission based on the number of miles of pavement it has, but not how much pavement it has. The measurement of cul de sac is to its end, not its width, so the care of the extra pavement inside is essentially unfunded. Since 2004, he said, the costs of salt, asphalt and fuel for the commission’s vehicles has doubled.

road commissions are funded almost entirely by the state Transportation
Department, which doles out funds from revenue from gas and diesel tax
and registrations. Conklin said the Ingham County Road Commission has
seen a 17 percent decline in state support since 2004 — this year, the
commission will get $11 million to maintain roads, down from $11.5
million in 2009. Banning cul de sacs, Conklin said, would help a little
with their bottom line, but fuel taxes should be raised to increase

“Pavement is a liability,” Peterson said. “The
money that we collect or get from the state to maintain (cul de sacs)
isn’t the same per square foot as a straight stretch of road.”

And that is especially true in the winter. Cul de sacs pose a problem for plows because of the turning radius and because there is nowhere to dump snow. Dravenstatt-Moceri admits
that this is a problem with the cul de sac — whenever a plow comes
through, the snow inevitably ends up blocking the end of his driveway.

2006, state Sen. Patty Birkholz, R-Saugatuck Township, sponsored Public
Act 336, which prohibited county road commissions from enacting an
all-out ban on cul de sacs. The law, however, does not prevent road
commissions from stopping the construction of cul de sacs on a
caseby-case basis.

would not specify which local government inspired her law and would
only say that it was in the “capital region.” She said she got the idea
for the legislation after hearing complaints from a developer about a
cul de sac ban.

(developers) have areas where they’ve got a parcel of property and the
only way to deal with it is with a cul de sac,” Birkholz said.
“Therefore, they would have an un-buildable lot.”

developers, cul de sacs can be a nifty piece of engineering for fitting
more houses in a confined space. As Birkholz explained, sometimes there
are physical boundaries — a river, a rail bed, a highway — that neces
sitate a cul de sac.

“That’s why the law is there, to protect property owners,” Birkholz said.

a road commissioner, Dravenstatt- Moceri understands that there are
problems with cul de sacs — plowing and maintenance, especially when
last year the road commission laid off eight workers. Since he joined
the commission last year, he hasn’t seen any development proposals come
through that include cul de sacs — likely because of the bad real
estate market. As far as a ban, Dravenstatt-Moceri isn’t for an all-out
ban on cul de sacs because he thinks they serve a purpose, but he would
leave the ultimate decision up to the county’s traffic engineers. He
grew up on Jenison Street in Lansing’s Westside neighborhood ande came
to the suburbs for peace, quiet and nature.

“I like the quiet part of it,” he said. “Where we’re at, we don’t have traffic, that’s what I like about it.”