What drives urban design and development? Sometimes it's the crazy things that you don’t even think about. I was amazed when reading Emily Talen’s book "CITY RULES: How Regulations Affect Urban Form" to find what a difference the curb radius at corners made; a small radius slows down cars and gives pedestrians a place to stand and be seen; a large one lets the cars whiz around corners and leaves the pedestrian abandoned.

Another crazy driver of urban design is the fire truck. In San Francisco, the fire department has been fighting pedestrian safety improvements because they narrow the road and they say will hinder fire truck access, notwithstanding the fact that most of the time, fire departments aren’t fighting fires but attending to crashes that those pedestrian improvements might prevent. But as one city supervisor noted in Streetsblog, “Our fire trucks should be designed around the needs of our city, not vice versa.”

In Toronto, where I live, the fire department is filled with heroes and you don’t dare tamper with them or their working conditions. So less than a third of their calls are for fire related incidents; the rest are for medical and other purposes. It's a total mismatch of equipment and function, and it's hugely expensive. As a paramedic notes in the National Post, “It doesn’t make sense to send four firefighters and a million-dollar pumper to a call that can be serviced by a single, highly trained paramedic.”

Fire incidents TorontoFire incidents Toronto (Photo: City of Toronto Fire Services)

small trucksBeaufort does just fine with smaller trucks and saves money too. (Photo: Beaufort County Fire Department)

There has to be a better way, and there is; in some cities, like Beaufort, South Carolina, they bought smaller, cheaper trucks. A traditional pumper costs $600,000, so Beaufort bought what's called All Purpose Response Vehicles for $145,000 each. According to the chief:

Switching to the two All Purpose Vehicles is especially important locally because 70 percent of our calls are related to medical issues, and these new vehicles are much more mobile and efficient on the road to get the job done. We have a more effective department with better apparatus, and we saved $765,000.

Every time anyone proposes bike lanes, traffic calming or road diets, the standard response is “what about the response time?”— it will take longer to get police, ambulances and fire trucks to the scene. But the response times in European cities are pretty good, and a lot of it has to do with the choice of equipment. As the video shows, European fire trucks are smaller, more maneuverable and often built on the frames of standard panel trucks:

In North America, fire departments drive new urban design with their criteria for curb radii, lengths and widths of streets, giant bulbs at dead ends to turn around because they are incapable of driving in reverse.

So what we get is urban design by road engineers and firemen instead of planners and architects. No wonder our cities look like they do.

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.