Urban Streets and Fire Departments

Urban Streets and Fire Departments

If you’re familiar with this blog, and with White Flint redevelopment in general, then you know that we’re working toward making our area more friendly toward all modes of transportation.  Car can no longer be king – people should be the kings (and queens!).  A major barrier toward getting people out of their cars and onto the sidewalks and bike lanes (where we have bike lanes) is the safety of our roads.  That’s why we applauded the effort of Councilmembers Roger Berliner and Hans Riemer when they introduced a county bill late last year that would improve the road code in our urban areas and give us the “Complete Streets” we need.  (Click here for more information).

The proposal would do such things as limit speeds and lane widths, address turning radii on curbs and require pedestrian refuges for those crossing the street.  All of these would lend for a more comfortable pedestrian experience, something anyone who’s tried walking along the Pike would value.  (Yes, we know that Rockville Pike is a state road, and not county controlled, but the hope is that we could get the State on board with the surrounding roads).  Concerns have been raised, though, that these recommendations could be improved.  Most notably, there’s a concern that fire and emergency equipment, as well as commercial vehicles, will have trouble navigating narrower roads and negotiating restrictive turns.  Certainly, we would not be reaching our pedestrian-friendly goals if a person is hit by a truck that bumps up on the sidewalk while making a tight turn.

Thankfully, the county has not seen this as a reason to scrap the improvements but they’ve convened a multi-disciplinary workgroup to try and find smart, creative solutions.  We’re also not the only urban area navigating these issues (pun intended).  The Atlantic’s CityLab ran a piece on this very issue — urban roads vs. fire departments — just yesterday.  Written by Scott Weiner, who sits on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and is the chair of their Land Use & Economic Development Committee, the piece tackles these issues head on – from the updating of fire codes to the scrutiny of which fire trucks the county is purchasing, there are ways to make sure everyone wins.

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.

Learning from other jurisdiction has been the bailiwick of White Flint redevelopment.  Why reinvent the wheel when there are so many national and global examples from which we can learn?   We’re looking forward to the results of the county’s multi-disciplinary group on urban road code amendment proposal but, in the meantime, read the full CityLab piece by clicking here.

Lindsay Hoffman

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