By author Tom Rubin
There are several safety concerns with narrow roads:
- Emergency vehicles can be very large, particularly fire department ladder trucks. The latter are often very useful in fighting residential fires because of their ability to both directly see, access, and direct water on roofs and upper stories.
- The narrower the street, all else equal, the longer the time it will take for emergency access of all types. Even a minute can be the difference between life and death for heart attacks and other serious medical events and injuries. There is no shortage of published literature on this topic.
- If there is any kind of collision, or even someone double-parking, the narrower the street, the more difficult the access and the longer it can take. These can easily lead to traffic backups on both sides, so emergency responders have more difficulties in getting close closely.
In addition, there are many areas, such as almost all of San Francisco, where there is already a huge shortage of parking — ask anyone who has visited anyone in most of San Francisco — not all of which is accessible by transit, particularly at night, weekends, if you are transporting something, or someone is mobility-disadvantaged. Speaking as someone who has been a senior transit agency official and consultant for over four decades, trust me, there is nothing that can be done that will significantly increase transit accessibility in residential areas — PERIOD. More realistically, it will be hugely costly to try to keep transit utilization from continuing to decline, as it had been doing for years BEFORE COVID-19, and many long-time transit professionals are extremely concerned that recovery of pre-COVID-19 ridership will take some period between many years and forever.
If narrowing streets means taking away parking (which is often coupled with exclusive, protected bike lanes and/or wider neighborhoods), the already difficult parking situation approaches and exceeds ridiculous.
When we have a huge movement in Sacto to increase the number of housing units and people in existing residential areas (many of which are already very parking-limited) without requiring any additional parking and doing things like encouraging new ADUs by converting the pre-existing garages, with the rather interesting concept that anything within a half-mile of a corner where two bus lines with 15-minute peak headways intersect is transit-intensive, well, wake up and smell the coffee.
Also, narrow streets are more difficult for buses to try to use. Standard buses are 102” wide — 8-and-one-half-feet — wide at the main body; when you add the mirrors on each side, this goes up to ~118–120,” or close to ten feet. Freeways and arterial streets are most commonly 12 feet, so driving a bus or heavy truck down the middle of very a standard lane requires a lot of training and practice.
Also, when vehicles turn, their effective width increases because the rear wheels do not track directly over the front wheels and the sides of vehicles are straight and wind up on the inside of the circle made by the tires. I once had to write a long technical report pointing out the proposal to add a lane for an exclusive bus-way through Waikiki’s narrow and winding streets, which would narrow the lanes to nine feet, would mean that it would become very difficult for one bus or truck to ever be able to pass another truck or bus because their mirrors (or worse) would hit.
As the senior executive responsible for risk management and safety for the transit agencies in Los Angeles and Oakland, I can’t begin to tell you the number and costs of minor collisions due to the difficulties of trying to get buses through tight places — and the not-infrequent fatality, injury, and major property damage incidents. If you really want to see a bad situation, these collisions mean that nothing should be moved until the collision investigation is completed and everything is documented, and then find that the bus can’t move under its own power and getting a tow truck requires a lot of imagination. You can totally close down a street for well over an hour.
To make it clear, the narrower the street, the more difficult it is to operate a bus on it and the more likely that the transit operator will not want to put a route there.
author — Tom Rubin