Connected streets

It is currently broadly accepted that a highly connected street network is a good thing, that it represents good design. Connected streets promote walkability by providing more direct paths between more origins and destinations. This is extremely reasonable. I think it makes sense. I have no quarrel with this.

Where I do have a problem is when the proponents of connected streets assert that layouts with curving streets and cul de sacs necessarily always represent bad design. And I have even more of a problem with those who have asserted that designs with curving streets and cul de sacs arose from some kind of nefarious plot to keep people from walking and force them into using automobiles.

This is nonsense. Subdivison design with curving streets and cul de sacs was adopted to minimize through traffic in residential areas and to slow down vehicles that did drive on those streets. The purpose of doing this was to enhance safety, especially for the children living in the areas. This strikes me as a very laudable goal.

During the middle of the twentieth century, some of the best examples of planning in the United States were considered to be the planned communities of Columbia, Maryland, and Reston, Virginia. And residential areas in both places made ample use of curving streets and cul de sacs.

A negative effect of such design was, of course, that it limited options for walking, making many possible trips longer and less direct. Just like connected streets may result in more through traffic in some areas. In both instances, the negative effects may be reduced by making good design choices.

I have three takeaways from this:

First, most of the choices we make, whether in planning or many other spheres, involve tradeoffs. Emphasizing one objective is often likely to reduce the achievement of another. We can work to address both, but usually something has to give if we seek more of something else.

Second, historical perspective is important. In this case, understanding the bases for design choices 5 or 6 decades ago tells us how they came to consider those good designs. It is unfair to simply dismiss the ideas of those who came before when they did not necessarily know what we know now and they did not necessarily have the same priorities that we have now.

And third, perhaps be a bit more humble. We have our ideas of what is best, and we should certainly advocate for those. But don’t go so far as to convince yourself that we have discovered the ultimate truth. Remember that in a few decades, people may be looking back on our ideas and observing how totally wrong we were.

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