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 inside the fire department view of street and access issues. 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 so common in suburbia. New urbanists, in turn, understand Carl’s determination to respond promptly to emergencies. Arriving late to a fire, particularly a fatal fire, is viewed as professional failure to fire fighters.

We are working with firefighters to agree on a set of street design standards that are both attractive, useful, 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 arrived at significant agreement on efforts to reconcile narrower streets and good emergency access. Carl Wren’s report describes this significant progress.

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

Taken in isolation, a narrow street may inhibit emergency response vehicles, but a well-designed street network can provide ample alternative routes and accessibility, in addition to being safer.

A study in Longmont, Colorado 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.

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

Like so much of our work at CNU, the emergency response & street design initiative has a “behind-the-scenes” feel. But progress on this issue can have a nationwide impact and make the work of 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 not only good urbanism, but overall improved safety. We are proud of our efforts so far, and look forward to continued progress on this important issue.

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