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Fire Officials Challenge Street Safety Improvements in Virginia

9:09 AM PST on December 3, 2010

In Virginia's Fairfax County, advocates for livable neighborhoods have been making progress toward "context sensitive streets." County officials have been considering narrower, urban-style streets in low-traffic residential areas rather than wide suburban-style roads, cleared of obstacles to allow for high speeds. The narrower design standards would discourage speeding and increase safety for pedestrians as well as motorists.

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Recently, however, an objection was put forward by a public agency charged with keeping residents safe. County fire and rescue officials have interjected out of concern that their trucks won't be able to access households on narrow streets during an emergency call. Bruce Wright at Network blog Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling (FABB) brings us more details on the issue:

According to the Fairfax Times... "county public works staff now recommend the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors adopt a wider minimum street width than the VDOT standards for streets where parking is allowed on both sides of the roadway." We think Providence District Supervisor Smyth is correct when she states that the proposal "flies in the face of urban design standards."

Noting the county has been asking VDOT for years to take the context of streets into consideration, Smyth said she does not want the county to then go with a wider standard. "I'm concerned about a mixed message to VDOT," she said.

Fire departments have yet to acknowledge that fire safety is but a small part of a much larger picture that others refer to as life safety. The biggest threat to life safety is not fires but car accidents, by a tremendous margin.

There are many design solutions to allow fire trucks into neighborhoods with narrow streets; it takes some extra effort but it can be done. We urge the county to adopt the proposed VDOT street widths to allow for the design of liveable neighborhoods.

At How We Drive, Traffic author Tom Vanderbilt has reported about the relative probability of dying in a fire compared to a traffic collision. Using figures from Reason magazine, he points out that the risk of dying in a fire in the U.S. is roughly the same as drowning: about 1 in 88,000 annually. The risk of dying in a car crash, according to the article, is 1 in 6,500 annually.

Elsewhere on the Network today: The Cuyahoga County Planning Commission Weblog reports that Ohio's governor-elect John Kasich has appointed--get this--a former asphalt industry lobbiest to head up the state department of transportation. Bike Portland reviews the new hidden GPS anti-theft bike tracker. And Free Public Transit catches a factoid worth committing to memory: Global subsidies for the fossil fuel industry amount to $500 billion per year.

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