New Report Calls for Redesigning Large Vehicles in Urban Environments

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

NACTO and the Volpe Center say smaller trucks could save lives.

It's really hard, arguing with the big guys who put out fires, save lives, and pull cats out of trees. When they say that they want something, they usually get what they want. Read here the tale of how a fire chief wanted essentially to destroy Celebration, Florida, in order to save it, to make wide clear roads he could race his trucks down.


© Strong TownsIt is a subject we have discussed here and on MNN, the question of whether we size our city for the equipment we want, or size our equipment for the city we want. Usually in North America, the guys with the equipment win. But now, there is some pushback from the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) and the U.S. Department of Transportation Volpe Center, with a new report on Optimizing Large Vehicles for Urban Environments. They note that big trucks, both the fire apparati and the private trucks, are all too big and too dangerous.

Despite making up only 4% of the U.S. vehicle fleet, trucks account for 7% of all pedestrian, 11% of all bicyclist, and 12% of all car and light-truck fatalities. Over the past year, even as overall traffic fatalities slightly declined, fatalities involving large trucks increased 9%.

Designing to accommodate all these big vehicles makes the roads far more dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists; giant curve radii at corners let drivers speed and it's really hard to enforce a 30 MPH speed limit when the road is designed for 60 MPH. If we are going to re-engineer our roads to make them slower and safer, we are also going to have to re-engineer the trucks that travel on them. As Mayor Neshi of Calgary noted and we quoted on MNN:

"For a long time, we have been ensuring that the roads are wide enough for the rare occasion when an emergency vehicle has to get through," the mayor said. "But we also know that those wide roads encourage speeding, leading to more fatalities."

A smaller apparatus can do pretty much the same job as the big stuff; according to the study, the kind of equipment you see in Europe could work in North America as well.

Danish ladder truck

Danish aerial ladder apparatus/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Smaller, more maneuverable emergency response trucks often have similar, or better, capabilities than the most common trucks on U.S. streets today. Aerial ladder fire trucks used in major European and Asian cities can reach just as high, despite being only two-thirds as long and having only half of the turn radius as common American models. Some models of pumper fire trucks are up to 30% smaller, and have a turn radius up to 50% less than more typically procured models.

Econic in London

© Mercedes Econic/ Concrete mixing trucks can be designed to be more pedestrian friendly.

Here on TreeHugger we have often complained about deadly ready-mix concrete trucks racing through city streets and squishing pedestrians and cyclists. In the UK, where Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs) are responsible for the majority of deaths on the roads, they have passed laws to make cab-over designs with high visibility mandatory.

Meanwhile in New York City, they do not even enforce the existing laws that keep these big trucks with terrible visibility off the roads, where they continue to kill because cyclists somehow keep veering under them.

“The U.S. has the highest traffic fatality rate in the developed world, and large vehicles make up a disproportionate and growing number of those fatalities,” said Linda Bailey, Executive Director of NACTO. “Choosing vehicles with safer designs is a simple and proven step that any city can take to help stem the rising epidemic of traffic deaths on our streets.”

American regulators and authorities don't pay a lot of attention to making vehicles of any kind safer for pedestrians and cyclists; instead, they just claim that 80 percent of crashes are the victims' fault. Problem solved.

But if they did ever pay attention (and some cities, like San Francisco, are beginning to), they would see a lot of benefits – lower costs for equipment, and perhaps even faster responses as they squeeze through narrower spaces. As they say in the report:

“In our research, we found that it’s possible to have the best of both worlds: smaller, more maneuverable trucks, with the same capabilities as larger, less nimble models,” said Jonah Chiarenza of the U.S. Department of Transportation Volpe Center. “As cities look at new models in the life cycle of replacing their fleets, this win-win dynamic can help make for safer streets.”

Read more at MNN: Why do we have such big fire trucks for so few fires?
Why designing streets for fire trucks gets it backwards