Smart Growth Streets and Emergency Response
Communities can make their streets safer and more appealing for all users — pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders, and drivers — by narrowing overly wide streets; reducing turning radii; adding sidewalks, bike lanes, on-street parking, and street trees; and improving connections between streets. Narrower streets can also help communities protect water quality by reducing the amount of paved areas, which reduces stormwater runoff.
However, local fire and emergency response officials might not approve these street systems because of minimum street clearance requirements in state or local codes. These requirements were developed and adopted to ensure emergency response vehicles could maneuver easily and have unobstructed access. Some communities have been unable to move forward with smart growth plans because of these requirements, as well as concerns from emergency responders who believe narrower streets undermine their ability to provide timely, responsive service.
EPA worked with firefighters to highlight how connected street networks can improve community health and safety:
- Research shows that a highly connected neighborhood network of narrower streets provides health benefits by increasing pedestrian activity.
- Narrow streets naturally cue drivers to slow down, reducing the severity of injuries and increasing crash victims' odds of survival.
- Increased street connectivity improves emergency responders' access, offering multiple route options for answering emergency calls.
- Compared to systems dominated by cul-de-sacs, highly connected street networks shorten the physical distance emergency responders have to travel.
- As most emergency response calls are for medical events rather than fires, these access improvements can significantly enhance the community's overall health and safety.
Learn more about the importance of street design and how it affects walking, bicycling, and transit use as well as driving on the Smart Growth and Transportation page.
These resources are the result of a partnership between EPA, the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), and local firefighters from across the country that began in 2008:
- Saving Lives, Time, Money: Building Better Streets (PDF) (9 pp, 995 K, About PDF) Exit (2009): Summarizes results from the first year of the partnership.
- Emergency Response and Street Design Exit has more information about the project and links to emerging research findings on these issues.
Other resources on this topic came from EPA's previous collaboration with the Local Government Commission:
- Traffic Calming and Emergency Response (PDF) (4 pp, 1.2 MB, About PDF) Exit discusses retrofitting streets in ways that support emergency response needs.
- Street Design and Emergency Response (PDF) (4 pp, 1.1 MB, About PDF) Exit summarizes good street design strategies and tools for emergency response officials reviewing smart growth developments.
- Emergency Response, Traffic Calming and Traditional Neighborhood Streets Exit (2001): Addresses concerns that fire departments and other emergency responders have about efforts to calm traffic and build narrower streets, discusses the impact of different treatments on emergency response times, and explains what works and what does not.