So often those of us that want change in our towns and neighborhoods are trapped debating the issues of our day within the construct established by purveyors of the status quo. We use their terms. Their rules. Their measurements of success. We do this despite our understanding that their circular, self-reinforcing logic is tragically flawed. We need to stop.

On Monday, February 28, we ran a post titled "Overcoming opposition to narrow streets" that was the culmination of a multi-part series on the clash between public safety and building places that are financially strong and resilient. The piece was distributed pretty widely through social media (thank you, everyone) and I got a lot of positive feedback and great examples emailed to me. 

But our commentors here were not quite satisfied. In fact they wanted more. More specifics, more details, more examples... Let me quote from them directly:

From Josh:

I live in a residential neighborhood where local opposition to narrower streets is preventing a sidewalk being added to a street that currently has none. I am in favor of the new sidewalk and find the arguments of the opposition to be unconvincing. Most of them involve worries about the fire department having access. So I saw this post and was eager to read it to get ideas.

However, my main response to the posting is "huh?"....What are you talking about? I guess this must be appropriate for some particular neighborhood. It is certainly not necessarily useful in a generic sort of way. And the argument that - oh, we'll just replace the fire trucks with narrower ones is hopelessly naive.

From Jeffrey:

I have to say I see Josh's point. The 10 items listed above are all good, but there's very little meat in them. They provide the framework for an excellent discussion, but it's so generalized as to be of little practical use at this point.

The list really needs to be fleshed out with examples and some real evidence. For instance, if a particular road is widened (or narrowed), how do those costs compare to that of a new fire truck or the cost of firefighters? How exactly do the Danes or Germans fight fires on pedestrian-only streets? What about in Venice? Only the main canal is passable for motorized boats for example. Exactly how wide should a street be to accommodate a fire truck without being a highway too? Would it be more cost-effective to pay for the installation of a sprinkler system in homes than to build and maintain these wide streets? Would a more nimble "immediate response" vehicle and more closely-spaced fire hydrants be better? And on and on.

I understand and respect all of this criticism, but I can't help with these shortcomings. I don't know the exact right width for a fire truck. Or the street in front of your house. I don't know what the cost savings is versus the increase in insurance rates versus the cost of a truck versus the actuarial value of a third degree burn.

But neither does anyone else, including those that argue for wider streets?

So how wide is wide enough? Why does a lane need to be 14 feet wide for fire protection? What makes that adequate? Would it not be better at 18 feet wide? Wouldn't we provide faster response times if we just designed each street with a dedicated emergency access lane down the center? In fact, why not two dedicated lanes, which would really prioritize safety?

Come on Chuck....you're just being silly now.

Really?

Ask yourself by what measurement are these questions of mine absurd? The answer is obvious: they are silly versus the status quo. Versus a status quo that we have come to accept. And why do we accept it? We accept it because it is the status quo.

If we have to mathematically prove every design parameter in order to change anything, we're done. Let's just give up and go home because it won't happen. There will never be enough proof to convince people who don't want to change that they should. Do you think there is any evidence that we could measure or derive with a formula or experiment that would convince our fourth commenter, Tom, to change his mind? Here was his comment:

When emergency vehicles are slowed and tragedy results no one listens to dubious notions of making 'more prosperous and productive places'. Adequate and timely fire protection is a given for prosperity and productivity, if you haven't noticed.

You really ought get out and see the rest of America before you lecture us. If streets are wide, they were intended to be wide for a good reason. Stick around and observe; or ask and someone might educate you. 

And, don't insult me by saying I'm 'well-intentioned'.

Our entire series was about making two points. First, we have to change our towns and places to make them more productive, and that will mean changing our approach to fire fighting to meet new realities. Second, our system of fighting fires is not the only one and, in fact, there are many other approaches we have used throughout our history here in America just as there are many different approaches being used around the world today. There is a lot of room for change.

For someone like Tom, those points mean nothing. Streets are wide "for a good reason". That our towns and neighborhoods are going bankrupt and that the issue is vastly more complex than 'wide street = safe' is of no concern to him. There are no statistics, studies, or simulations that are likely to change his mind. And if we had them, he would point to a delay in getting somewhere and the tragedy it caused. There is no way to win an argument on those terms.

We don't need statistics and studies. What we need are local leaders with an understanding of what is really going on in their community and a vision for how to change things to make it all work. We can't continue to build places that we can't afford to maintain, where we don't even have a chance that we can afford to maintain them. We have to evolve our towns and neighborhoods to be more productive. Far more productive. If we don't, layoffs of fire fighters and cutbacks on equipment will be the easiest of the choices we will ultimately be forced to make.

Do we need every answer before we proceed? No, we don't. If I'm a city council member, I tell my engineer to build streets to a neighborhood context. I tell my planner to change the codes and get the bureaucracy out of the way so we can start recapturing value in our neighborhoods. And I tell the fire chief to come up with a plan to adapt to the new reality that will be evolving from these other decisions. These people are all professionals. They'll get it done. And if they don't, I replace them with people that can. That's leadership.

Nobody arguing for wider city streets has any data to support their argument that the current approach is the absolute best. The only thing they have to argue is that they are backing the status quo, the way it is currently being done. If you allow yourself to be forced to provide detailed data to support every increment of change, you are being tricked into fighting a straw man argument. Don't go there.

If you are forced to debate actual numbers, start with your local budget.

 

We started a campaign to connect with 100 of our blog readers willing to give a tax-deductible contribution of $25 each, with the money raised going to produce a video version of the Curbside Chat presentation. We got off to a fast start, but have stalled out with 91 remaining. I see the stats on how many of you are reading each day. Wow! If just a small percent of you contributed, we'd be there very quickly. This is important, not just for our goal of getting a wider distribution for the Chat but also to demonstrate our overall ability to raise funds from a broad audience. Please do what you can, and thank you for supporting Strong Towns.