Last weekend, I had the opportunity to travel to Washington, DC to visit family and friends. Washington is one of my favorite cities in the US, and I have fond memories of living there during college. I love the historic districts, the colorful row houses, the metro system, the free museums, and the grandiose public spaces.
During this trip, my boyfriend and I stayed with family who live in Glover Park, a beautiful (and, I should add, very wealthy) neighborhood in the Northwestern quarter of the city. Its residential streets are historic and picturesque, especially at this time of year with orange and red leaves framing the view. The streets are also exceptionally narrow, with a single lane down the middle barely 10 feet wide. (This might be one of those few places where one-way streets are actually a necessity.)
While sitting on a bus headed towards downtown from Glover Park, I was struck by how unencumbered our ride was, in spite of the fact that we were traveling on these very narrow streets. When arguing for wider streets, many proponents point to bus or emergency vehicle access, insisting that a wide berth is necessary for large vehicles to pass through. Yet here I was on one of the narrowest residential streets I’ve ever seen in my life, riding a bus. Sure, the bus occasionally had to pause on a particularly tightly-parked block to allow a car coming the other way to pass by first, but our trip wasn’t made any longer by this temporary halt, than it would have been if we were waiting for a child to cross the street or idling at a stoplight.
Later during that same bus ride, I saw an ambulance up ahead of us barreling down the road with its lights flashing and siren roaring, toward some emergency. And guess what? That ambulance had no problem getting down the street to its destination. Other vehicles pulled over to the side as they should have and the ambulance had enough space on the street to move quickly, even in spite of the fact that the streets were exceptionally thin.
We’ve shared this meme (created by Matthias Leyrer) before, but it bears repeating: It’s illogical to demand that streets be a certain width for emergency vehicles to pass through, knowing that that width creates the very emergencies (car crashes) that demand so many ambulances and fire engines in the first place. As with the claims that wider roads are safer roads for cars and thus we must write those widths into our codes, I think the claims that emergency vehicles and buses need wide roads in order to function have been overblown, and have had an adverse effect on community safety.
As we’ve argued before, you could simply build smaller buses and fire trucks, or you could actually get in a bus and see how much longer it takes to traverse these narrow streets. With a skilled bus driver, I don’t think your ride would take much longer than a few extra seconds, if that. And, as we’ve pointed out, those few extra seconds are not going to drastically change your life or your economic productivity.
As I saw during my time in DC, narrow streets require more finesse. They require that drivers be more alert to their surroundings and travel at slightly slower paces. But the trade-off is a safer neighborhood where children walk to soccer practice, grandparents push strollers, and people stop to shop or to simply look at the lovely neighborhood around them.