Smart Growth Streets and Emergency Response
A fundamental aspect of smart growth development is the design of the street network. To make roads safe and inviting for pedestrians, cyclists, and other users, smart growth street design uses narrower widths, tighter turning radii, better connections between streets, and street trees, sidewalks, and on-street parking. Narrower streets can also help communities protect water quality by reducing stormwater runoff.
However, in many places across the country, as developers and city officials try to design these types of street systems, they are finding that local fire and emergency response officials may not approve them because of minimum street clearance requirements in their local or state codes. In many communities, minimum clearance requirements have been developed and adopted to ensure unobstructed access and easy maneuverability for emergency response vehicles. In some instances, communities have been unable to move forward with smart growth plans because of these codes and the concerns of emergency responders who believe that narrower streets undermine their ability to ensure timely and responsive service.
EPA is working on finding ways to reconcile these competing goals, in part by working closely with firefighters to highlight the benefits that these street networks provide in improved community health and safety. Research has shown that narrower streets in a highly connected neighborhood network provide health benefits by increasing pedestrian activity. Narrow streets are also safer as they naturally cue drivers to slow down, thereby reducing the severity of injuries and increasing the chances of survival for victims of crashes when they do occur. Increased connectivity of streets also provides emergency responders with redundancy in access, offering multiple options for getting to an emergency call, thereby improving their ability to respond to fires and other emergencies. A highly connected street network often means that emergency responders have a shorter physical distance to travel, compared to systems dominated by cul-de-sacs. In an era where the majority of emergency response calls are for medical events, not fire, these access improvements can significantly enhance the community's overall health and safety.
Many of these findings are the result of a partnership between EPA, the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU), and local firefighters from across the country that began in January 2008. These findings and other and other results from the first year of the partnership are summarized in a report issued by CNU in May 2009, Saving Lives, Time, Money: Building Better Streets (PDF) (9 pp, 955K).
CNU's Emergency Response and Street Design has more information about the project, and links to emerging research findings on these issues.
Many other resources exist on this topic, in part supported by EPA's previous collaboration with the Local Government Commission (LGC).
- The "Traffic Calming and Emergency Response (PDF)" (4 pp, 1.2 MB,About PDF) fact sheet discusses ways to retrofit streets and be responsive to emergency response needs.
- The "Street Design and Emergency Response (PDF)" (4 pp, 1.4 MB,About PDF) fact sheet summarizes good street design strategies and tools and is intended for emergency response officials involved in reviewing smart growth developments.
- LGC's Emergency Response and Traditional Neighborhood Street Design (PDF) (12 pp, 895 K,About PDF) page contains case studies that show how three cities have handled smart growth street designs and emergency response concerns.
- This article highlights other communities that have successfully reconciled the challenges of creating narrower streets while ensuring emergency access: "Skinny Streets and Fire Trucks," by Reid Ewing, Ted Stevens, and Steven J. Brown, Urban Land, August 2007 (PDF) (3 pp, 84 K,About PDF)