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Horeb's Corners Support Information
Service Lanes (Alleys) and Their Role in Traditional Neighborhoods

Service Lanes | Economics Essay | Bullet Point Sheet | Support Resources


Service lanes (another term for alleys) once played a fundamental role in the design and development of great American cities, such as Madison, Wisconsin. However, in the 1970’s the City of Madison, with the inception of its first major zoning code, outlawed service lanes. Madison went as far as to develop a program to remove the alleys that already existed.

This zoning code made the existing traditional neighborhoods non-conforming and greatly inhibited the ability to develop neighborhoods like them. We now realize that the traditional neighborhoods that remain are our best, most efficient, existing neighborhoods. These neighborhoods attract and appeal to many people of various incomes, ages, and walks of life. In a city like Madison, with strong interest in diversity, these types of neighborhoods are strongly desired. A major roadblock in the development of new neighborhoods with the desirable attributes of traditional neighborhoods is that the current zoning code does not allow service lanes.

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Service lanes are important for several reasons. First, service lanes aid in the efficiency of a neighborhood. According to the article “Residential Streets”, written in 1990, “…by reducing driveway entrances, the space on the street can be used more efficiently for additional parking needs.” This obviously is more efficient, it creates a situation with less cars backing out onto streets, and more on-street parking space available, therefore posing less of an obstruction to the flow of traffic.

Service lanes can also create a more efficient system for public services such as garbage collection. Normally garbage trucks can only collect trash from one side of the street at a time, then turn around and pick up from the other side. When alleys are present garbage trucks can collect from both sides of the service drive at the same time. Or if trucks are side-loaded residents can be required to place all garbage on one side of the alley. Furthermore, the pickup route can be much shorter with alleys since the length of service lanes (because they run through the interior of a block) are much less than the length of the block’s perimeter streets. This translates into less distance (and time) the trucks must travel to collect the garbage and thus much greater efficiency. In fact, we estimate a potential 80% decrease in travel distance where alleys are present (see attached garbage estimate sheet).

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Second, service lanes allow for a more aesthetically pleasing streetscape. According to the article “Residential Streets”, written in 1990 by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the National Association of Home Builders, and the Urban Land Institute, ”…rear-loaded parking improves the streetscape be eliminating numerous driveways and the sight of cars parked in driveways.” According to an article in Newsweek’s May 15, 1999 issue entitled, “15 Ways to Fix the Suburbs”, “Neighborhoods look more pleasant when garages are put behind the houses, accessible by side yards or alleys.” The current conventional method of development is obvious when entering any modern subdivision. It consists of cul-de-sacs with several driveways connecting to the street and houses dominated by the presence of large, front-loaded garages. 𠇊lley accessed garages relieve the street side of the house from being dominated by garage doors and cramped curb cuts” (The Next American Metropolis, Peter Calthorpe, 1993). It is obvious that for aesthetic reasons, allowing for rear-loaded garages makes it possible to create a more beautiful neighborhood by not taking away from the beauty of the architecture or the streets.

Third, contrary to popular belief, alleys create a system that greatly increases safety, both for drivers and pedestrians. 𠇊lleys can assist site designers by allowing narrower lots, and they enhance safety by eliminating front driveways and the associated backing movements across sidewalks and into the street” (Traditional Neighborhood Development: Street Design Guidelines, ITE Transportation Planning, June 1997). Clearly, with less cars backing onto streets and across sidewalks, there will be less chance of collision with either pedestrians, bikes or other vehicles that may be driving on the road or sidewalk. They are also designed for slower speeds, usually 10 miles per hour, which also reduces the likelihood and severity of accidents.

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Also, “Alleys can also have accessory dwelling units ( granny flats) that are free-standing or are above garages along the alley. Such housing helps to aid safety concerns along alleys by providing “eyes” (in the form of residents) along the alley” (Traditional Neighborhood Development: Street Design Guidelines, ITE Transportation Planning, June 1997). The importance of this topic is also stressed in the book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs. Jacobs points out that the presence of passers-by and people looking out windows deters crime. In addition, it is also safer to allow ambulance, fire, and police vehicles to have access to the rear of the lot, rather than just the front. This effectively doubles the accessibility for emergency vehicles.

Fourth, service lanes add to the development of a feeling of community. 𠇊lleys provide an opportunity to put the garage in the rear, allowing the more “social” aspects of the home to front the street” (The Next American Metropolis, Peter Calthorpe, 1993). Also, according to Traditional Neighborhood Development: Street Design Guidelines, published in June 1997 by ITE Transportation Planning, “Alleys also give street-front residents one side of their lot that is more public, toward the street, and another that is more neighborhood-oriented (along the alley).” Placing the garage to the rear of the house allows for larger front porches, much like those found in turn-of-the-century houses. This area becomes a place for people to sit and socialize with friends and neighbors in the view of other people and creates opportunity for more social interaction. In most modern developments, the garage dominates the front of the house and leaves little or no room for such porches.

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It has been argued that alleys are dangerous, not efficient for public services, and not aesthetically pleasing. It is apparent, however, after reading the above information that this is simply not true. Beverly Hills, California is a great example of a place that has implemented alleys effectively and efficiently. �verly Hills, California, which no one has ever accused of being unsightly, has alleys, and they work just fine, allowing the street front of the house to remain beautiful even on trash day” (A Better Pace to Live, 1994). Many of the most beautiful and desirable cities in America including Madison have alleys that are used on a daily basis.


The current position of the City of Madison is that all new alleys must be private streets, since they are not allowed under current City ordinances and standards. The problem is that if the alleys are private, the city will not provide public services, such as garbage pick-up, snow removal, and emergency services(?) on them. The result is that people who live on alleys would have to pay twice for such services. They would have to pay the cost of the private services on top of the taxes they pay to the City of Madison to provide the same services. Essentially, the people who would pay for private services would be subsidizing the cost of the services for those who live on public streets with no alleys. We believe that if the city wants to encourage smarter, more compact development, it should readdress this issue so that such desired development is not forced to subsidize conventional sprawling development.

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Therefore we would recommend that all service lanes should be made public, and therefore eligible to receive public services like all other public streets. This would require adoption of new ordinances allowing service lanes to be dedicated to the City and new design standards allowing them to be feasibly and economically constructed and maintained. We hope the City of Madison will closely examine this issue.

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