Progress On Emergency Response And Street Design

CNU, New Urban Network

Modestly sized, well-connected streets can decrease pedestrian injuries and deaths and foster more efficient access by emergency vehicles. CNU’s Emergency Response & Street Design Initiative has released a report on street design and the international fire code by Carl Wren, a fire professional and engineering manager with the Austin, Texas, fire department.

The report is Carl’s view of the street and access issues inside the fire department. After two years of interaction with new urbanist designers, Carl understands why we prefer well-connected networks of relatively narrow streets over the super blocks and over-scaled thoroughfares common in suburbia. New urbanists, in turn, understand Carl’s determination to respond promptly to emergencies. Firefighters view arriving late to a fire, particularly a fatal fire, as a professional failure.

We are working with firefighters to agree on street design standards that are attractive, functional, pedestrian-friendly, and safer for all. The initiative is a collaboration between the Congress for the New Urbanism, fire marshals across the United States, and the US EPA’s Smart Growth program.

It has agreed on efforts to reconcile narrower streets and good emergency access. Carl Wren’s report describes this considerable progress.

A well-connected street grid network is essential to good urbanism but also shortens emergency response times, improving safety and quality of life. In addition, narrow streets encourage walking and slower traffic speeds, making the overall environment safer for walkers, bikers, and drivers.

A narrow street may inhibit emergency response vehicles in isolation, but a well-designed street network can provide great alternative routes and accessibility and be safer.

A Longmont, Colorado study by Swift-Painter-Goldstein, indicated a 485 percent increase in accident rates per mile when streets are widened from 24 to 36 feet. Couple that with a study in Charlotte, North Carolina, indicating the per capita costs for fire service increased from $159 in the portion of the city with the best-connected street grid network to $740 in the least connected zone.

This indicates that a good urban street grid is both efficient and safer.

The International Fire Code (IFC) does not consider the street network. CNU is working to create a coalition of allies and propose amendments to the fire code to make it more flexible about street design. Unfortunately, our initial code revision was turned down, but we generated significant attention and a positive response from many participants, indicating that new urbanism principles may support future efforts.

Like our work at CNU, the emergency response & street design initiative has a “behind-the-scenes” feel. But progress on this issue can impact nationwide and make creating good urbanism easier for our members and practitioners everywhere. Our commitment is to create healthy, safe, and livable communities.

Our next steps are continued research, collaboration, outreach, and pursuit of future code revisions to promote good urbanism and improved safety. We are proud of our efforts and look forward to continued progress on this critical issue.

Please join us in this effort! Learn more at cnu.org/emergencyresponse.