The state of Virginia’s decision to limit the use of cul-de-sacs in residential subdivisions(1) will no doubt create a torrent of commentary, both pro and con. In the residential context, cul-de-sacs do have certain advantages: they limit traffic near homes, thus allegedly creating quieter environments for homeowners. So perhaps there is a case for the residential cul-de-sac.
But in a commercial setting, the cul-de-sac may be the "right thing in the wrong place--such as a pig in a parlor instead of a barnyard.”(2) In such settings, the cul-de-sac has the same disadvantages as the residential cul-de-sac, with few of the advantages.
Smart growth supporters tend to prefer grid systems to cul-de-sacs, for excellent reasons. A proliferation of cul-de-sacs artificially lengthens walking distances: if streets don’t connect to each other, you might have to walk a mile to go just a few hundred feet. In addition, cul-de-sacs increase traffic congestion by dumping most vehicular traffic on a few major streets. And because biking is less safe on busy, high-traffic streets, bikers benefit from a grid system as well.