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Emergency Responders and Smart Growth- Street Designs that Work for Everyone

October 2, 2012
Jen Horton, Policy and Planning Fellow, US EPA, for the Smart Growth Network

Many local governments and developers across the country are adopting more traditional street designs that are narrower; provide a number of transportation options; and have shorter, more well-connected blocks. This increasingly popular type of street design presents important challenges for emergency responders. This week’s post considers research on how smart growth approaches can improve fire response times and provide a safer environment for pedestrians and motorists.

Figure 1: A well-designed street in Winter Park, Florida that works for pedestrians, neighborhoods, and emergency responders. Photo from the Congress for New Urbanism's report, Saving Lives, Time, Money: Building Better Streets. (Photo courtesy of Norman W. Garrick) Dr. Thomas Lambert, a professor at Northern Kentucky University, submitted a post to the National Conversation blog (you can too by clicking here) summarizing his research measuring fire department and emergency medical service (EMS) response times in less densely settled neighborhoods versus more densely settled neighborhoods. Thomas Lambert got started in this line of research when his boss at the time provided him with the results from a case study in Chicago linking sprawl to delays in fire and EMS emergency response times in that region. Lambert also then wanted to know if this was the case throughout the US, and so far his research on this topic has found a link to longer response times in less densely settled areas, and he believes, "I think the research probably underscores or highlights the need for better integration and coordination between urban/neighborhood planning and emergency services planning. The ‘built environment’ of a local community or region is something that needs more emphasis in emergency management and service planning." His article, "Ex-Urban Sprawl and Fire Response in the United States," is forthcoming in the Journal of Economic Issues (Vol. 46, No. 4 in Dec. 2012). Below is Lambert's summary of his research: "According to some research recently completed by myself and Drs. Arun Srinivasan and Matin Katirai, fire department response is about three minutes longer on average in fringe neighborhoods, with a maximum of 36 minutes waiting versus a maximum of 17 minutes waiting in older and more densely settled neighborhoods. Death rates due to fire incidents are also higher in newer fringe neighborhoods. Newer development on the fringe of urban and metro areas is more likely to be adjacent to [undeveloped] areas, which suffer fire incidents at a rate greater than most areas. These areas are often… some distance away from the nearest fire station or rely on volunteer fire departments which do not have the resources of a municipal fire department. Longer fire department and EMS response times result from the fact that low density development means longer travel times from a fire or EMS station to get to a crisis situation. There is often a lag between new development and the construction of new facilities for police, fire, and EMS deployment, giving rise to response delays. Sprawled regions have also been shown to have higher per capita traffic fatalities (Ewing, et al., 2003, Lambert and Meyer, 2006). More sprawled areas have higher speed limits, hence resulting in more fatalities when car collisions occur. And these areas typically have fewer sidewalks and pedestrian/bicycle friendly paths, which increases the chances of fatalities occurring to pedestrians as well." The "Traffic Calming and Emergency Response Fact Sheet", written by the Local Government Commission, discusses ways to plan and design streets that better meet the needs of emergency responders. The fact sheet identifies common traffic calming tools and the situations each tool is best suited for. From the report: "Emergency responders must understand that wide and open streets that facilitate emergency response can also be counterproductive—wide streets themselves are a source of danger to pedestrians and bicyclists. Traffic calming should never develop into a ‘residents against the firefighters’ situation." The video below provides an example of how Charlotte, NC hshows how Charlotte has developed complete streets that provide room for motorists while increasing safety and mobility for pedestrians, cyclists, and residents. [video:youtube:RXcDFeKsMAk] The Charlotte Department of Transportation's Urban Street Design Guidelines describe the city's implementation tool for planning and designing streets. The Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) partnered in 2008 with EPA and fire marshals across the nation to highlight the benefits of a well-connected street network with narrower streets and higher densities. CNU's Emergency Response and Street Design Initiative can help communities that have been unable to move forward with smart growth plans because of the concerns of emergency responders who believe that narrower streets undermine their ability to ensure timely and responsive service. John Norquist, president and CEO of CNU, writes in the summary report for the initiative: "Our desire for modestly-sized streets stems as much from public safety concerns as walkability. Properly designed and placed in connected networks, they reduce collision injuries and increased emergency access to a given address. And at the core of the emergency response profession is the goal of reducing injuries through effective response times and conditions. Ideally, fire trucks should get to locations in their station area within five minutes….Since highly interconnected street networks offer many routes to most places, emergency personnel have a better opportunity to find the most direct and unimpeded route possible." Figure 2: –From the CNU report,Saving Lives, Time, Money: Building Better Streets. Although the goals of narrower and more compact street designs sometimes seem counter to emergency responders’ goals, a number of researchers have found that these types of street designs can decrease the number of pedestrian and motorist accidents while improving emergency response time. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic in the comment section below!

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