End of the road

I really don’t know how I missed this one, but in 2009 Virginia enacted a law which doesn’t quite ban cul-de-sacs, but makes state funding for street maintenance and services contingent on not building any more of them.  I really don’t know how I missed it because this development was selected by the New York Times as a 2009 Idea of the Year and got a lot of other press.

Why is this noteworthy? 

I’ve been anti cul de sac for years.  Not because I don’t like 3 car garages, as has been suggested somewhere recently.  Not because I am anti-car/pro-bike.  Not because I have some aesthetic problem with suburban development.  Because CUL DE SACS COST MORE – it is more expensive to plow snow, there are very few taxpayers per foot of street surface, and they force traffic onto a few collector streets which are often less direct, longer and wider (more pavement, more cost).

Less direct costs: The lack of a connected street network also makes transit service so inefficient as to be almost impossible (requiring huge subsidy as well as making travel time unreasonable and usage low), makes walking and cycling connections more difficult, and creates traffic issues like those around Northfield’s middle school (which costs the school district more in busing and created a deadly intersection which will cost much to retrofit).  The downstream costs to air quality and public health are only beginning to be calculated.

How Virginia does it: In VA, streets are built then dedicated to the Commonwealth – apparently, much street maintenance is funded at the state level.  Now, before being accepted, the street is reviewed to determine if it “meets or exceeds the public service, pedestrian accommodation, and connectivity requirements.”  otherwise, the street will not be accepted into the network (and the local unit of government is on the hook).

Infrastructure is expensive.  In the future, Northfield needs to understand that not all street patterns come with the same price tag – we need to either transfer the full life-cycle cost of inefficiency to those who would like to build this way or look to changing development patterns for sustainable infrastructure spending.

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