Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

The real threat is Cul de Sacs

with 14 comments

Timely – this short video sums up why we have to be concerned about the plan to expand the freeway. Both the BC Liberals and the NDP are determined to replace the Port Mann Bridge and widen the freeway. Some foolish NDP supporters have even suggested that this is OK since the NDP membership – or public pressure – will be able somehow to stop the juggernaut if the NDP are elected – even though that has not happened so far when over 70% of people south of the Fraser have said they want transit expansion. It is not just the freeway – it is the mindset that sees universal car ownership and cheap gas as some sort of birthright. Only the Green Party has taken a contrary position and proposed a new way of organising ourselves. That is what this election is about. Is it one of two versions of business as usual or real change? 

Winner of The Congress for New Urbanism CNU 17 video contest.
This short film explores the connection between New Urbanism and environmental issues.
Created by independent filmmaker John Paget ( with First+Main Media (Drew Ward, Chris Elisara and John Paget).

Written by Stephen Rees

May 11, 2009 at 10:24 am

14 Responses

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  1. Too bad they had to focus on the cul-du-sac. All it takes are paths at the end to connect them and all of a sudden, walking and cycling trips are faster than driving. Meanwhile, the sacred grid is typically horrible for cycling and just makes walking as convenient as the car meaning that more often than not, the car wins out. The grid requires a lot of traffic calming to make it liveable and some, such as speed bumps, actually increase GHG emissions as cars are constantly speeding up and slowing down.

    Cul-du-sacs are great for kids. I lived on one and we were constantly playing on the street, no problem at all. We also lived on another dead end street that did not have a cul-du-sac at the end and that was great as well. Meanwhile, you hardly ever see children playing on the local streets in the grid around Vancouver.

    A big improvement is the fused grid, which is essentially a grid for bikes and peds and cul-du-sacs for cars.

    Even better are car-free communities with car parking on the edge of communities.

    Time for a new new urbanism as the old new urbanism still leaves much to be desired.


    May 11, 2009 at 1:09 pm

  2. What ever happened to the proposal put forward by that UBC grad student (I can’t recall his name), the alternative proposal to the bridge expansion, increasing bus frequency in congested areas, etc.

    Sean Stiller

    May 11, 2009 at 1:27 pm

  3. You probably mean Paul Hillsdon who was not a grad but a student and who is now going to be starting work soon. The “alternative proposal” – like all alternative proposals – was simply ignored. All decisions about transit and transportation in general in this region are now made by Kevin Falcon – directly or indirectly. There is certainly no way for anyone else to have any inout – whether they are mayors, councillors, MLAs or interested people. It doesn’t matter what the virtues of the idea might be – if Kevin didn’t think of it (like the daft ida to gate the SkyTrain) then it won’t happen.

    Stephen Rees

    May 11, 2009 at 1:58 pm

  4. “All it takes” is easier said than done. Putting pathways between houses means buying a right of way from people more concerned about their own security and privacy than accessibility for their neighbours.

    Stephen Rees

    May 11, 2009 at 2:00 pm

  5. Richard,
    I think “Cul-de-Sac” in this video is just symbolic for suburban sprawl. And many of the genuine benefits you mention about Cul-de-Sacs can also be achieved in the parkland of the walkable urban communities described in the video.
    There are many fewer cars about in such communities (they’re simply not necessary, and generally a nusance for the driver), and the negative features of grid streets you mention caused by the presence of cars is mitigated by the lower volume of cars.


    May 11, 2009 at 10:13 pm

  6. Richard, maybe it’s a case of “the grass is greener”, but coming from suburban central in this region, I’m quite fond of the grid. It facilitates improved pedestrian movement, wayfinding, and road capacity. If cul-de-sacs were so great for pedestrians and cyclists (and trust me, they aren’t, because those people only walkways are never built into developments), then Surrey should theoretically have the highest rates of walking and cycling. Not to mention that those people only walkways tend to be quite unsafe, not only at night.

    Paul Hillsdon

    May 11, 2009 at 10:51 pm

  7. The point is the grid without major traffic calming and street closures is simply not very good. The traffic calming in the West End is an example of the extreme measures that need to be applied to a grid to make it work for cyclists, pedestrians and residents. Unfortunately, way to many planners worship the basic grid and do not realize the work it takes to make it, well, work.

    And Stephan, I was talking about new developments. Many developments with cul-du-sacs do have connecting paths. You are right it would cost a lot to retrofit paths in an existing development but it would be a lot cheaper than tearing all the houses down and build a new development based on the grid.

    As shown in walkable European cities, there are many ways of organizing the streets that work well for people and not motor vehicles that are not the grid. I find the grid in Vancouver just creates acres of monotony compared to the varied streetscapes in many European cities. In Vancouver, really the only interesting places are where the grid is disrupted.


    May 12, 2009 at 9:45 am

  8. Richard, funny that you mention European cities..I worked in an area of France where many of the(small) towns were built on a grid…in the Middle Ages (their generic name is Bastides and they are found in big numbers in the South West of France). I was born and raised in Bordeaux that, as a result of its age (300 B.C.) has most of its downtown streets going every which way..except for the 2 shopping streets that are the only trace of the Roman grid and a few wide 18th century avenues that cut straight across the old town.

    This jumble of narrow streets and squares is picturesque alright! outside of their own small neighourhood the locals can’t find a street without a map, even if they have lived there all their life. Having anything delivered to one’s home means giving a long list of instructions based on landmarks like a store then another then a church then a statue..AND one has to wait in front of one’s home.

    As for walkable European cities…this is only true in some downtown areas of many cities–big and small– where some of the major shopping streets have been closed to cars, during the day at least, since the 1970s. Unfortunately the streets that still allow cars (the majority of the streets) aren’t that pleasant as the sidewalks are narrow and the streets, no matter how narrow, full of cars or even buses. I am not just talking about France..I am familiar with quite a few European countries, from Finland to Italy. I lived in Germany for a couple of years (mainly in Friedrichshaffen, Stetten AKM and not only in THAT Freiburg but in the very area that is now Vauban) Vauban incidentally is the name of a 17th century French military engineer and urbanist who built numerous fortresses, including one in Freiburg im Breisgau. see

    Red frog

    May 12, 2009 at 10:15 pm

  9. Cycling is very low in the southern and more eastern parts of Vancouver. It is hard to argue that the grid really encourages cycling. My main point was that vilifying cul-du-sacs and worshipping the grid distracts from many other more important factors such as density, connectivity and mixed use that are much more important.


    May 13, 2009 at 12:10 pm

  10. […] in Olympic village leak [State of Vancouver] Global warming hits wild salmon hard [Times Colonist] The real threat is Cul de Sacs [Stephen Rees] CANADA More brains, less blacktop, needed in Victoria [The Province] Bixi, […]

    re:place Magazine

    May 13, 2009 at 4:49 pm

  11. Cycling is low because it’s a mostly inconvenient, unpleasant and dangerous way to travel in Vancouver.

    I rode a bicycle to school and UBC for 12 years. I can deal with the weather and the general lack of facilities for cyclists. What I can’t deal with anymore is the drivers in this city. If I had a dollar for every time someone almost hit me I’d have a nice college fund for my kids.

    The designated bike routes are an improvement over uncontrolled side streets, but people still ignore stop signs, sail through intersections and fling open their car doors seemingly without looking. The main streets are much worse. Knight is a virtual freeway for heavy trucks while Fraser and Victoria are clogged with slow moving traffic.

    The last straw for me is the fact that getting home at the end of the day is entirely up hill.


    May 14, 2009 at 3:48 pm

  12. I guess I don’t see anywhere in the video where they are glorifying a south-Vancouver style grid system or provide any positive images that typify the low-density grid part of Vancouver.

    These neighborhoods represent the sprawl that we had before it because acceptable to drive 50km to work. So. Vancouver is not the antithesis of the cul-de-sacs illustrated in the video.


    May 14, 2009 at 10:26 pm

  13. I certainly agree that biking in Vancouver is dangerous. And even with the most alert driving the size of the biking unit makes it difficult to see, particularly at night. I spent a couple of months in Zutphen, a very old walkable city in south Holland. Some of the newer subdivisions surrounding it were based on the north American cul de sac variety, but all of them contained small malls of the botique style to which we walked. Ladies with kiddies on the back of bikes with huge baskets in front were very common. More spots for biking than car parking. We had a delightful time biking on separate paths with there own co-ordinated lights. One really felt safe except when being passed by groups of bikers practising for the Tour de France. We put on 1000 km in just one short month. But the countryside is so flat that the arched bridges crossing the many canals are used for taking pictures of the land. Our big problem in Canada is that we allow the developers to dictate our living conditions.


    May 18, 2009 at 12:15 pm

  14. You could have a modified grid with short cul-de-sacs, like in this suburb of Melbourne, Australia:,145.156689&spn=0.056574,0.109863&z=14

    As a cyclists who doesn’t drive, I prefer to have at least something like a grid, but it doesn’t have to be perfect. Cul-de-sacs aren’t necessarily incompatible with connectivity among side streets.


    May 19, 2009 at 12:27 pm

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