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Do Bike Advocates and EMS Workers Have to Be Enemies?

Fast fire trucks might seem antithetical to slow, safe streets for vulnerable road users. But does it have to be that way?

File photos: Gersh Kuntzman

Is it possible to build streets that are slow enough to keep vulnerable road users safe and lightning-fast when an emergency service vehicle needs to reach a person in need? That's been a hot topic of debate among U.S. sustainable transportation advocates lately — and it's also the subject of a fascinating new research paper from the Dutch Cycling Embassy. 

In this episode of The Brake, we sit down with study co-authors Shelley Bontje and Chris Bruntlett to unpack how the Netherlands and other countries have navigated the challenge of building EMS-friendly streets that aren't hostile to people outside cars. Spoiler alert: it's not only about the famous Dutch culture of collaboration. 

Partially edited transcript below:

Kea Wilson: We're here to talk about sort of a perennial problem in the sustainable transportation space, which is how on earth do we have the conversation about traffic calming and emergency response times? Why are things like fire trucks, ambulance, police response time such an incendiary issue when it comes to conversations about traffic calming? And how does it impact our efforts to make streets safer around the world?

Shelley Bontje: I think with a lot of things in life, we see the benefits of slowing down in terms of when slowing down in public space, there's more attention or what's actually going on in cities. [People want] a bit more slow travel for appreciation for public spaces, greenery, meeting other humans being able to have a conversation rather than being disturbed by a lot of traffic. But then the interesting thing comes in that if we talk about emergency vehicles, there's no point of slowing them down. They need to be there as fast as possible. So it's an interesting balance where a lot of our work and our focus goes on to making cities more livable but there's this conflict with emergency vehicles.

Kea Wilson: It's a very relevant topic in the U.S. right now because we just had a huge story out of Los Angeles, where, thankfully, the voters spoke up against a Fire Department campaign to affirm that traffic-calming was actually very important to get emergency response times improved. And you outlined some ways that that's true and also added some nuance in your article. One solution is just make our fire trucks smaller. Tell me what you learned in your research about that.

Shelley Bontje: It is a silver bullet depending on the urban fabric or the location you're talking about. And what I mean with this is that the size of fire trucks often correlates with how much water they carry. And of course, at the start, what we've learned is that they need to carry enough water to at least be able to fight the fire without having an external source of water to link to. But in some cities, it was completely fine to start introducing the smaller fire trucks because there are so many water access points along their routes, that's in the end, you don't bring all the water where you where you work with.

Chris Bruntlett: The one thing I think is worth emphasizing is that we put it last for a reason because in the U.S. cities that have had success in convincing their fire departments to come along with the traffic calming measures, and the bike lane measures, they haven't used the fire truck argument, they've kind of found it's a non starter, because they are so invested now in the larger trucks. They've built entire systems around the trucks, that it's perhaps more impactful and effective to just make this larger argument about we're all on the team of saving lives. And we're all on the team of road safety. And the vast majority of the call outs that these fire departments are going to, at least in the US, are to traffic collisions. And so if we can all agree that we're on the same team, and we should be working together to find mutually beneficial solutions, then there's a lot more we can do and the fire trucks is almost the cherry on the cake.

Kea Wilson: I want to just kind of get out of the way this idea that traffic calming in and of itself is going to speed on emergency response times because we are reducing the amount of cars on the road by getting people onto bikes and safe bike lanes, we're reducing congestion and the big inhibitor to getting an ambulance where you need it to go is going to be rows and rows of cars that are parked in traffic jams. I'm curious what you learned in your research about how true that is.

Chris Bruntlett: In the world of advocacy, it's black and white, but traffic calming is a very much a gray area. And we spell out examples here where traffic calming can negatively impact the response time of an emergency vehicle. But I think one thing that Dutch cities do remarkably well that the US can learn from is the network isolation of their streets and creating this hierarchy of streets so that we do have these arterial roads that the emergency vehicles can use them for the vast majority of their journey. And then maybe the last 200 meters will be on a traffic calmed local street. So it's really minimizing the impact and the delay to the emergency vehicle.

Shelley Bontje: In our research, we found that the firefighters are very early in the process involved in when speed limits are changed. And they are completely fine with the changes being proposed. But they also kind of have also in the Netherlands veto power, so if it does influence their response it negatively, they can share it from the start.

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