The Public Safety Industrial Complex

Government spending on public safety is frequently off-limits when it comes to debates on cost cutting measures. Narrowing streets to reduce public costs and improve private-sector return is frequently opposed by those involved in public safety. It is a tragic irony that these two immovable objects are poised to collide.

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Before getting too far into this post, I need to make some things clear: Anyone that would run into a burning building to save another person is a hero. Anyone who would rush to the scene of a domestic dispute is a hero. Anyone who pledges their life in service of others deserves our deepest respect and admiration. Police officers, fire fighters and the myriad of others involved in local public safety are some of the greatest amongst us. They deserve our gratitude and respect, and they will get nothing but that from us here at Strong Towns.

I joined the Minnesota Army National Guard on my 17th birthday; May 29, 1990. My nine years in the Guard was one of tremendous change, with the military transitioning from a Cold War mentality into the first Gulf War, then through some difficult cutbacks and force reductions of the "peace dividend" and finally to a renewed emphasis on reserve troops that has been realized post 9/11. While the political rhetoric was often heated, I did not believe that those who wanted to change the structure of the U.S. military were anti-defense, anti-soldier or lacked compassion for me, a simple troop. We live in a representative democracy and these are complex matters that should be debated and openly discussed. In fact, from my view on the inside, more debate and discussion was a good thing.

Often, when it comes to issues involving public safety, our public debate is artificially stifled. A proposal in Minnesota to reduce the state workforce by 15% was met with a full page ad here in my local newspaper showing a police officer with no gun. The caption read something like, "What 15% of a police officer would you like to cut," implying that the proposal would have all officers go unarmed. Would you want an officer to show up without a gun if your home was being robbed? Not me!

Even Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's controversial proposal to limit the rights of public workers to unionize exempted public safety personnel. Politicians from all parts of the political spectrum stay clear of cuts to public safety.

That is, until they don't. Last year my home town of Brainerd, MN, abruptly laid off a number of fire fighters in a cost-cutting action. This past weekend the Minneapolis Star Tribune looked at the plight of homeowners being double-hit with declining property values and higher property taxes and indicated that the City of Minneapolis has already cut 32 fire fighters and 24 police officers in response. How about Mankato, MN, which has started to recruit volunteer police officers. At the local level, deep changes in budgets have forced cuts to public safety that were previously unimaginable.

In fact, and highlighting the sensitivity of this discussion, the League of Minnesota Cities - a strong advocate for more aid to local units of government -  has created a map that shows places where cuts to public safety have occurred. In fact, the map goes so far as to show those places where cities have dared to simply discuss cuts, as if the mere act of public debate is somehow a sign of pending disaster.

Map prepared by the League of Minnesota Cities.

Our interest in this debate is not to encourage cuts in public safety nor to suggest that public safety be "held harmless" in budget battles. Rather, in an era of tightening budgets and projected austerity, we recognize that cities across the country are under enormous pressure to reduce costs. Our focus at Strong Towns is on land use and, specifically, the lack of productivity of our current development pattern.

One place where our analysis intersects with public safety is on the issue of street widths. We wrote in early 2010 about how to design streets that provide a higher rate of return (Better Looking Streets (Cheaper Too)). We followed that up with some examples of local, mandated street widths and how they could easily be reduced dramatically (Local governments can cut 43% (and be better off)). One of our Best of Blog posts from last year looked at the millions of dollars spent widening streets through historic neighborhoods (Where the money went). In all of these posts we advocate for narrower, neighborhood-scaled streets.

I recently received this email from a reader:

I was perusing your blog and I saw an article about street widths.  It had some street photos used to depict wide streets .  Over the weekend one of the [local] TV stations had a story about how some streets are not wide enough for fire trucks because of all the snow and on street parking. 

Below is a photo from a recent St. Louis Park [MN] newspaper article on the same subject.   The video described how the fire truck was ½ way down a block and had to back out because it could not get through parked cars.

This is exactly the kind of issue that engineers and fire departments use when narrow streets are brought up.  It is an argument that I’m not articulate enough to win.  When photos like this are shown it’s case closed.

Here is the picture that accompanied the email:

My first reaction to this photo is that they should tell the fire fighters to move their trucks. Seriously, I hope that everyone who looks at this photo understands that it is staged to be provocative. The two trucks "blocking" the way are both vehicles from the fire department. And the camera angle makes it look like there is less room than there is, even assuming parking was actually allowed on this street. In terms of furthering understanding amid the public debate over an important issue, this photo does not.

I also want to point out that an average fire truck is between seven and eight feet wide. I did find a site that said nine feet, but even so. A narrow street containing parking on each side is still going to be 32 feet wide. That is two, eight-foot parking lanes and two, eight-foot driving lanes. That is very narrow by today's standards, but still plenty wide for a fire truck with their flashers on and siren blaring.

If we are going to find our way to building Strong Towns, we have to be able to have this discussion openly and honestly, absent the threats or hysterics that consume too much of our public discourse. Can we find a way to make our places more productive -- lower our streets costs and get a higher level of private-sector investment in return -- or must we accept a worst-case-disaster design for our neighborhoods? Is our approach to public safety fixed or can it evolve to fit a more modern, dare we say "delicate", model? 

Our discussion here is not theoretical. Many communities are currently faced with the choice of either maintaining unnecessarily expensive streets or maintaining the current level of support for public safety. As belts tighten further, more local governments will be forced to grapple with this issue. A Strong Towns solution is needed.

It would be tragic irony if we had wide, unsafe and expensive streets built to accommodate fire departments that we can no longer afford to staff.

Coming up this week:

  • Tuesday - Which came first: Wide street or wide truck?
  • Wednesday - Comparing the US approach to other countries
  • Thursday - Efforts to reach a compromise
  • Friday - A Strong Towns approach


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