Thursday, June 08, 2006

Declaring War on the Cul-de-Sac

I grabbed the June 2 edition of the Wall Street Journal at Logan Airport on my way to catch a flight to Charlotte, NC. As I read through the articles there were two related to energy issues and sustainable development and the economic connections between the "free market" and regulation that caught my eye. The first was, with a similar title as the header of this post, entitled The Suburbs Under Siege located on the front page of the Weekend Journal section. The second headline read, "Rising Energy Costs Pinch Low-Income Shoppers". What's the relationship?

The beloved cul-de-sac, a standard feature of subdivisions from coast-to-coast, seems to be losing its luster to local and regional planners. While homeowners clamor for lots that occupy the low-traffic "bottom of the bag" (the term "cul-de-sac" is "bottom of the bag" in French) and developers work to squeeze as many as they can into a development to cash in on the higher prices consumers will pay, local planners are finding the traffic congestion they contribute to a problem. Living in Massachusetts, where the sprawling suburbs of other areas are not as common, I have not experienced the lure of the cul-de-sac. Little did I know that the city I was destined to land in that day is one of the areas where the cul-de-sac is under attack. The outflow of population from central cities starting in the 1960's and the desire for winding country-like lanes and quiet side streets helped fuel the cul-de-sac fire. While communities from Minnesota to Oregon to South Carolina changing zoning ordinances to limit the number of cul-de-sacs in new developments, what will people do? Luckily, there are many other community design options to create quiet and pleasant streets. Small, well-defined traffic circles, speed tables, narrow roads, and woonerfs are some options. Walkable Communities has some nice photographs of these and other options. Of course, as far as source reduction goes, people will still be driving.

Now, rising energy prices will, by necessity, curb the purchasing power of lower income shoppers. A simple analysis shows that energy costs, rent, and transportation will consume a larger percentage of a low earning families' income. It is far easier for someone earning $80k per year to absorb a 50% increase in a heating bill than someone earning $25k. This fact is echoed in recent retail sales statistics that indicate strong sales at high-end stores like Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus while Dollar General and even the mighty Wal*Mart warn that their core customers are concerned about energy costs. We shall see how things pan out. What if the people that lived in the cul-de-sacs could walk to the Wal*Marts and Dollar stores? Would the fuel savings keep the pace of sales flying at these retailers?

Then, the final bit of press that caught my attention, enough to pry $3.99 out of my pocket, was the US News and World Report with the cover reading, Global Warming; Can We Live With It?. I suppose there is some rationale for thinking about how to live with it, since global action to address it does not seem to be making progress.