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The Trees We Live In

If you are really lucky you live in a town with great public transportation or have easy walking access to work, shops, and entertainment. If you are like me, you live in the 'burbs on a lovely and isolated cul-de-sac, accessible only by car. Out of 100 American commuters, five take public transit on a daily basis, three walk to work or school, and only one rides a bicycle. That means millions of commuters drive in and out of cul-de-sacs every single day.

After WWII as cars gained popularity, cul-de-sacs became a favorite perk. Now they are causing us to drive 26 extra miles per year just to buy milk!

Cul-de-sacs were on my mind when I saw this expanse near Dulles airport from my airplane window; a landscape dotted with homes in disconnected geometric shapes.

Or how about this crazy image from the county I live in (picture from Google). Lots of dead end streets hanging off a few main roads. A veritable "forest" of roads, full of houses on branches of trees. Imagine going to the house on the street behind you. You'd drive from leaf to branch to trunk to branch to leaf.

And here's metro NYC from 35k feet. Look at the grids. Clear as day. If you fly over Manhattan at night, the grids are even more pronounced with long trails of tail lights extending as far as the eye can see. And milk is always just around the corner.

Families took to cul-de-sacs because they promised safety for children and peace from through traffic. Makes perfect sense until you consider that most accidents involving children occur when cars back out of driveways (34% of non-traffic fatalities). So now we are stuck with less safety and the more driving. In fact, the safest cities in the US are the ones designed prior to the 1930s, based on grids. People in the old cities walk more and drive less. And you are 13 times more likely to die in a car accident rather than a violent crime while walking in a city, so put that out of your mind. After nearly 50 years in favor, cul-de-sacs are no longer cool with urban planners, even as homes on dead ends are valued 20% higher.

I am resigned to the fact I will never get a fraction of my 10k steps from a walk to the grocery store or to grab coffee. Instead, I will continue to drive up and down at 25 miles an hour, burning fuel and making the hole in the ozone even larger.

I cannot wait to retire and walk everywhere or at least live on a straight road like the one next to the shadow of my plane, which by the way, only consumed 5 gallons of fuel per passenger as opposed to driving which would require 11 gallons per passenger. No kidding, that's what the pilot said. That just made me sad because it reminded me that I live in a tree in a forest of cul-de-sacs and I am leaving a bigger footprint than I should.

(Stats are from Slate, NPR, and StreetBlog.)

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