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How Fire Safe is Your City?

After people get past the initial arguments against narrowing streets for purely selfish reasons, the next line of arguments are often couched in notions of community safety. How will we get large fire trucks through in emergencies if we have 9' lanes, the current minimum for residential streets (Providence's lanes can be as wide as 13')? These arguments are often sincerely put forth by citizens and even by fire departments or EMT crews.

Well, David Hembrow at A View from the Cycle Path has an answer. I contacted Hembrow by email to ask him what on Earth it is that Dutch people do to keep their cities safe for ambulances and fire trucks to get through. 

While Hembrow emphasized that he's not an expert in fire safety or ambulance routes by any stretch, he also had this to say:

What I can tell you is that Assen has just one fire station which is now positioned on the western edge of the city (I think there's one fire engine stationed at the opposite side of the city) and one two* hospital which is where all the ambulances come from. 
We had study tour participants from a similarly sized US city last year who were amazed by this. They apparently need a dozen small fire stations to ensure that fire engine call out times are sufficiently low.
Assen is somewhat of a small town compared to Providence. At around 65,000 inhabitants, it's about the same as Newport and Woonsocket combined into one place. And according to Hembrow's other writings, Assen is not not regarded as exceptionally bike friendly is considered normal by Dutch residents. Assen has a lower rate of cycling than Groningen because of demographics ("only" 41% of trips because of an older population without a university in the city). 

More on par with Providence would be Groningen, which has about the same population and is 60% larger by area. That appears to have only one fire station as well, from my investigation on Google Maps.

How many fire stations does Providence have? There are fourteen "engine companies" and eight "ladder companies".  That does not include the EMT crews (six) run by the department, or the emergency service it has for major crises, located in downtown.

There are a number of advantages to Dutch design that make this difference so stark. Not only does a good transportation plan take lots of cars off the road, reducing traffic, but it also leaves flexibility for the fire or ambulance services to use cycling or transit lanes for emergencies when needed. And the Netherlands also has positive feedback in the form of a reduction in the number of emergencies it has to deal with in the first place because car crashes are a very significant portion of emergency response.

But even without these advantages, narrowing a road can increase vehicle "throughput", the term that traffic engineers use to describe vehicle mobility, because the slower-paced road can operate with four-way stop signs instead of signalization. Going one mile at 15 mph with brief pauses at stop signs is much faster than going 30 mph or even 40 mph and having to stop for longer periods of time at a red light. Think about it: when's the last time you were driving a car, you passed a cyclist going much faster than them, and encountered the same cyclist at the light? And sometimes you may even find yourself seeing that same cyclist over and over. It's the old adage that slow and steady wins the race.

If you don't believe it, check out this demonstration using rice and a funnel to explain the concept:
Well, I been done seen 'bout everything. . . 

*David contacted me after publication to correct his statement that there was only one fire station. He spoke to a friend who works with the fire department, and there are two at either side of the town.

David also emphasized that in actuality, Assen has somewhat better infrastructure than Groningen, so the factors involved are both demographics and infrastructure. But Providence, which is smaller in size and has the same population as Groningen, and has several universities, has about a 1% bike commuting rate to less dense and older Assen's of 41%. So, it's clear that infrastructure is a major piece of the puzzle.

And again, Dutch people just consider this normal. Maybe we should too.

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