Are Fire Departments Finally Getting the Message About Urban Design?

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CC BY 2.0. Seen in Copenhagen: cute little fire engines/ Lloyd Alter

We have often complained that making streets faster for fire trucks makes them deadlier for pedestrians.

Two years ago, on MNN, I asked "Why are our cities being designed around the needs of the fire trucks instead of vice versa?" I followed up with San Francisco introduces "Vision Zero" fire trucks. Now Angie Schmitt of Streetsblog writes that Fire departments stopped worrying and embraced safer street design. It's about time, given that, as Charles Marohn notes, it's the "tail wagging the dog when it comes to fire departments mandating urban design standards."


© Strong TownsSchmitt notes that fire departments want wide streets for their large trucks.

When cities want to narrow car lanes or add bike lanes to make streets safer for walking and biking, fire departments often water down or even stop the plans before they can get started. Even though traffic fatalities outnumber fire deaths in the U.S. by more than 10 to 1, fire officials tend to get the final word.

Strong towns

© Strong Towns

But things are looking up; in Portland, the fire department worked with the city.

“There has been no reduction in response times by working with urban planners and transportation leaders to build out Portland,” Myers said on a recent webinar hosted by the National Association of City Transportation Officials.

Schmitt notes that even without smaller trucks, cities can redesign streets so that they are better for pedestrians. "For instance, intersections can have shorter crossing distances and tighter corners while remaining negotiable for fire trucks, as long as the stop bars are set far enough back to allow trucks to complete turns."

modified intersection

© DOT’s Volpe Center via Streetsblog

I look at this sketch and cannot imagine a car actually stopping behind that stop bar, so far back that they cannot see what is happening in the intersection. They will just drive up and clog the intersection, which they do anyway. It just ain't gonna happen.

Years ago, working on a big development in Israel, I asked the architect who was also a decorated senior officer in the military what he would do to solve the country's problems. He answered, "I am in artillery, so I would make the country round." He didn't have the power to reshape the country, but fire departments have the power to reshape our cities. Traffic engineers have the power to dictate lane widths and curb radii that move cars fast.

But any city that really cares about things like Vision Zero and stopping the murder of children has to change its priorities.