Fire Departments Are Standing in the Way of Good Street Design

It doesn't have to be this way. 

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Paskee/Shutterstock.com

​Street design plays a key role in defining a city. How we structure our streets – and particularly how wide we make them – speaks volumes about how we want people to interact with each other and their surrounding environment. These choices have dramatic consequences for a neighborhood’s walkability, vitality, safety, and transportation options.

In San Francisco, we’ve experienced first-hand the challenges created by having wide streets and the benefits of moving toward narrower, more walkable streets. We’re also experiencing a bureaucratic backlash against our city’s efforts to avoid wide streets and to implement good urban design. This conflict is not unique to San Francisco, and to ensure a future of livable, safe streets, it’s imperative that policymakers everywhere push back against opposition to good street design.

The San Francisco Fire Department has recently fought streetscape improvements and other efforts to make roads safer and more walkable. Even more problematic, the fire department has insisted that in new developments in San Francisco – and we have quite a few of them planned – all roads, including residential side streets, be 30 percent wider than the code minimum of 20 feet of street clearance (typically two 10-foot lanes).

This type of expansion, in addition to narrowing sidewalks, would result in neighborhood side streets either having 13-foot freeway-size lanes, or having cement barriers in the middle of the street. Either option is the exact opposite of good urban design and neighborhood walkability and livability. Worse, either option would go back to an ugly past we are actively trying to fix.

Wider roads are less safe for all road users and particularly for pedestrians. The wider a road is, the faster the traffic. The faster the traffic, the more accidents will occur and the more severe those accidents will be. Wider roads create longer crossing distances for pedestrians, the impacts of which are felt particularly by seniors and people with small children or mobility challenges.

Top: Cesar Chavez Street in San Francisco, an overly wide street encouraging fast-moving traffic and creating adverse pedestrian conditions. Bottom: Grant Street in Chinatown, with its intimate, pedestrian-scale, conducive to slower vehicular speeds and easier pedestrian crossings.

The negative impacts of wide roads go beyond safety. Wider roads destabilize and divide neighborhoods – think Robert Moses’s efforts in the 1950s and 1960s to widen and speed up streets through New York City neighborhoods and the resulting backlash. Standing on a sidewalk by a wide street with fast-moving traffic has a very different feel than doing the same on a neighborhood street.  Wide streets also reduce commercial activity, since people are less likely to walk on those streets.

Beginning in the 1940s and accelerating in the 1950s and 1960s, San Francisco, like other parts of the country, began redesigning its streets to reflect suburban, car-focused standards. Freeways were built cutting across the city, destroying neighborhoods. Neighborhood streets were widened by chopping back sidewalks and even demolishing homes. Streetcar tracks were torn up. The car was king, with little or no consideration for pedestrians, cyclists, or the needs of surrounding residents.

By the end of the 1960s, San Franciscans revolted and put an end to this conversion of pedestrian and residential space into wider streets and freeways. Freeway projects – including one that would have gutted our crown jewel, Golden Gate Park – were killed. We’ve spent the past 50 years, and many millions of taxpayer dollars, repairing the damage caused by this temporary obsession with widening streets. We’ve torn down freeways, leading to the emergence of some of the most admirable urban settings in the country: Hayes Valley and our rejuvenated waterfront along the Embarcadero. We’ve narrowed and streetscaped roads, installed bike lanes, built corner bulb-outs and other sidewalk extensions, and installed infrastructure to integrate our city streets into surrounding neighborhoods, slowing traffic and making our streets walkable parts of living communities.

These positive changes aren’t cheap. Extensive pedestrian and bike improvements to Cesar Chavez Street – a neighborhood street that was previously converted into a semi-freeway cutting through the Mission District – cost $14 million. Bulbing out a single intersection can cost as much as $350,000.  The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency receives around 1,000 requests a year from neighbors asking for traffic calming measures on their streets in order to slow down traffic.

Left: The widening of Cesar Chavez Street began in 1940. Note the original width of the street at the top of the photo.  Right: As seen in 1946, Cesar Chavez Street west of Guerrero (at the top of the image) was not widened.

Unfortunately, despite this broad public awareness and desire for good street design, elements of San Francisco city government, including our fire department, are advocating for bad and unsafe street design. We need to avoid the expensive past mistakes of building overly wide, unsafe, anti-neighborhood streets – mistakes that we then spend decades and millions trying to fix with half-solutions. We need to get it right from the outset.

Fire departments around the country have an understandable desire to maximize ease of access for large fire trucks, and promoting fire safety is in everyone’s interest. But prioritizing fire truck access in a way that makes streets less safe for pedestrians and other users – and which undermines neighborhood fabric with high-volume, fast-moving traffic – isn’t the right solution.

The insistence on designing streets to accommodate large fire trucks, as opposed to taking into account all of the diverse day-to-day uses of streets, is not unique to San Francisco. Portland and Seattle have had success pushing back against opposition by local fire departments, but jurisdictions that lack strong urban design advocates have had less success responding to the demands of emergency response. Fire codes rarely take into account urban needs and tend to ignore or even express hostility to efforts to improve pedestrian safety and good urban design. 

In San Francisco, we are attempting to ensure strong fire safety while also promoting compact, walkable, well-designed streets. We are looking at the size and turning radius of fire trucks to see if our fire department is purchasing the best equipment for our city, as opposed to insisting that our city be re-designed for large fire trucks. I recently authored an amendment to our fire code to clarify that pedestrian bulb-outs are permissible, and I’m moving forward with additional legislation to ensure that our fire code is not an obstacle to improving the safety and livability of our streets.

Street design matters. Street safety matters. Fire safety matters. We have to get each of these priorities right. With smart choices, we can.

 

About the Author

  • Scott Wiener is a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, where he chairs the Land Use & Economic Development Committee.