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A cul-de-sac is a street that has vehicle access on one end only. The bottom of the cul-de-sac, which literally translates from the French as “bottom of the bag” is often rounded in shape, so that cars must turn around to exit. Some culs-de-sac may have a small throughway or easement for access to the next street by bikers and pedestrians. Occasionally this type of street is called a dead-end, though many feel that the rounding at the end of the street is more typical of the modern cul-de-sac.
Though the word is French, the term is not used by the French to discuss this kind of street. Instead they use the term impasse a la voltaire, or simply impasse. The reference to Voltaire stems from his suggestion that cul-de-sac was an undignified way of describing such a street. It was actually the British who used the word when French was the standard “court” language.
In many parts of the world, culs-de-sac are seen in abundance. Since the 1950s in the US, they have replaced, especially in many suburban areas, the simple grid planning used at the beginning of the 20th century. This can have benefits.
Many people feel that a single entry reduces crime and traffic, and in fact some people are willing to pay as much as 20% more for a home located on a cul-de-sac. Parents may especially appreciate a cul-de-sac because less supervision may be needed when children go outside to play. Traffic is less of a concern and it’s less likely that people who don’t belong on the street (strangers and not neighbors) will be there. There can still be unsafe drivers on a dead end street, but children encounter less traffic, especially when playing at the “bag end.”
Some criticism of culs-de-sac exist, especially for those who are advocates for mass transit. Buses, either to school or city buses, have difficulty turning around and may not stop near a cul-de-sac. This can discourage some, especially if the dead end occurs on a long street, from walking to a main street to catch the bus. School children may be less inclined to use school buses, and others might not use any type of public transportation. For environmental reasons, some parts of the US now ban or strongly discourage new construction of culs-de-sac.
On the other hand, a cul-de-sac can be an efficient way to use odd space left over from construction of things like freeways. A slightly unusual space arrangement could become a dead-end rounded street. Of course, not everyone is thrilled with a home that backs a freeway or a major shopping center, and some will find such culs-de-sac less attractive.
You may have noted in this article the plural form of this word, culs-de-sac, which is technically correct. However, many people say cul-de-sacs instead.