Image Credit: Ethan Finlan

Why Are Cities Being Planned Around Fire Trucks?

U.S. emergency vehicles are sized for wide roads, shaping the design of our cities. It doesn’t need to be this way.

Roads in the United States are wide. This leads to fast car speeds, high paving costs, and an unpleasant, unsafe pedestrian experience. There have been recent efforts, with the rise of “new urbanist” philosophy, to reduce speeds by narrowing the space available to cars. But a common objection comes from emergency first responders, mainly fire departments. Emergency vehicles (EVs) like fire trucks and ambulances in the U.S. are huge, and would have trouble navigating narrower streets or passing other vehicles. However, the answer isn’t to keep streets wide, but to right-size EVs themselves – and that’s more feasible than one would assume.

There are many examples of the emergency service lobby blocking projects that improve the streetscape for pedestrians and cyclists. In Denver, reports Streetsblog, a bike lane project was narrowed and a road plan widened beyond the desired initial rendering. The fire department had objected to narrower road standards and physically protected bike lanes because its trucks wouldn’t fit within the envelope. San Francisco’s fire standards prevented measures like wider sidewalks, and the fire department lobbied against other rule changes. 

Similar rules are in place for other EVs like ambulances, delivery vehicles and sanitation vehicles, and examples of how this dictates the built fabric abound nationwide. For me it hits close to home: the Virginia-based real estate development company I work for has long wanted to build narrow roads through our planned developments, since that slows drivers. Although local planners favor this too, the state code outlaws it, mandating minimum widths of 20’ for fire emergency access roads.

The irony, then, won’t be lost on those who have grown skeptical of the way government bureaucracies approach public health and safety. U.S. cities, the thinking goes, must be filled with traffic sewers because it provides the safety benefit of fast EV throughput and turnarounds. But those wide roads become in themselves a safety hazard – likely increasing the need for EVs. 

Research finds that lanes wider than 10.5’ have more collisions. According to the World Resources Institute, “cities with travel lane widths from 2.8 to 3.25 meters (9.2 to 10.6 feet), such as Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Tokyo, have the lowest crash fatality rates per 100,000 residents,” whereas cities in India and Brazil with lanes “ranging from 3.25 meters to 3.6 meters (10.6 to 11.8 feet) [have] a fatality rate of 6.1-11.8 residents per 100,000.” Further, reports the National Association of City Transportation Officials, the larger the involved vehicle, the more likely a death by crash is. Including for EVs. 

For that matter, roads are often forced to be much wider than the actual fire standards. The Uniform Fire Code calls for a width of 20’, but 50’ is the average for American residential roads, according to UCLA’s Street Widths data. This is even true in dense cities: New York’s average width is 29’, compared to 20’ in Paris. 

By contrast, various Asian and European cities are denser and have narrower streets than the 20’ standard. And many of them have fewer fire and burn fatalities per 100,000 people than America. Singapore recorded 0.19 deaths in 2019, France 0.54, and Japan 0.52, compared to the U.S.’ 0.82. In Japan, the average road width is 16.4’, Milan’s city average is similar. 

With fire trucks, the rationale for large vehicles is often having capacity to carry enough water. But Streetsblog notes that fire departments respond to fires less than you’d think: “only about 4 percent of emergency calls nationwide have to do with fires, according to the National Fire Protection Association.” A former fire chief was quoted as saying that large trucks cost too much money, and their purchase is actually motivated more by insurance structures than actual needs.

In cities with narrower streets, fire trucks and other EVs are smallerwhich is to say, they plan such vehicles for their cities, not the other way around. 

Small fire trucks are common in Singapore, Japan, and France. In France, for instance, a small truck carries firefighting liquid while still accommodating other emergency supplies. Different vehicles are used for addressing fires versus other emergencies such as car crashes (in America, the same vehicles are often used for both). 

A small fire truck in a garage in Tokyo.
A fire truck in Tokyo. / Image Credit: Scott Beyer

Some American municipalities are shifting to smaller vehicles. New York’s sanitation services and a Boston freight facility have been buying trucks with lower cab heights. San Francisco bought shorter fire trucks, saving money as a result. 

Experts note that the need to carry so much equipment on one truck is antiquated. Furthermore, there are safety advantages to smaller vehicles, since they can weave through traffic faster, make tighter turns, and have better mirror viewpoints. 

Ultimately, foreign examples show that large EVs aren’t as necessary as often thought. Smaller trucks can carry many of the same essentials while being safer. But even if larger EVs have benefits, the question of whether to use them still boils down to tradeoffs (which governments are admittedly not great at weighing). Does the need to turn around an EV on a given street—which may happen once every few years—outweigh the benefit of having narrower, safer, cheaper and more aesthetically-pleasing streets all the rest of the time?

Ideally this would be for the market to decide, as communities leave those decisions up to developers and residents. But the existence of top-down municipal and state codes prevents any such consumer feedback.  

This article featured additional reporting from Market Urbanist content staffer Ethan Finlan.

Scott Beyer is a Catalyst Columnist Fellow on a 1.5-year research project through the Global South for Catalyst’s Market Urbanism Around the World series. He is the owner of Market Urbanism Report, a media company that advances free-market city policy. He is also an urban affairs journalist who writes regular columns for Forbes, Governing Magazine,, and Catalyst. Follow him on Twitter: @marketurbanist.
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