1. Home
  2. policy
  3. economy
  4. news
  5. Los Angeles firefighters fought investments in safer streets. For decades, fire regulations have made roads deadlier.

Los Angeles firefighters fought investments in safer streets. For decades, fire regulations have made roads deadlier.

Eliza Relman   

Los Angeles firefighters fought investments in safer streets. For decades, fire regulations have made roads deadlier.
  • Los Angeles voted to invest in street safety after a two-decade high in traffic deaths.
  • But the LA firefighters union opposed the policy, arguing it will slow emergency response times.

Los Angeles is the car capital of America. That also means it has some of the most dangerous roads in the country. In 2023, traffic fatalities in the city hit a two-decade high. Of the 337 people who were killed, half were pedestrians. And traffic accidents are a leading cause of death for kids in the city.

Many of the city's residents want to take action to make their streets safer. They're demanding improvements to pedestrian infrastructure, bike lanes, and mass transit.

But firefighters — the very people tasked with keeping them safe — are standing in their way.

In March, LA voted overwhelmingly for a street safety policy that will finally enforce a nearly decade-old mobility plan to make the city's streets safer for non-drivers. The Healthy Streets Los Angeles Ballot Measure will mean hundreds of miles of new bike lanes, 300 miles of improved bus lanes, and updated public transit stations.

But the union that represents LA's firefighters opposed the policy, also known as Measure HLA, and aggressively campaigned against it. They argued that wider sidewalks, protected bike lanes, fewer driving lanes, and other street safety measures will make it harder for their trucks to navigate through traffic, elongating emergency response times. "Vehicles will not be able to pull to the right, and we're stuck behind them," a firefighter said in a video opposing the campaign. The union didn't immediately respond to a request for comment from Business Insider.

Michael Schneider, founder and CEO of Streets For All, a nonprofit that ran the campaign in favor of Measure HLA, said his group reached out to the firefighters union to talk about the policy before they came out against it but didn't hear back. He noted that LA's fire department, which isn't allowed to engage in politics, signed off on the underlying mobility plan back in 2015. A study of the plan actually found that without the policy, emergency response times would get longer as vehicle traffic increased.

"They're very myopic in how they view public safety," Schneider said of fire officials. "A two-decade-high pedestrian deaths is a public safety crisis, too."

But this battle between fire officials and street safety advocates isn't unique to LA. Fire departments across the country have for decades opposed safer street design. But this battle is increasingly playing out across the country as traffic deaths skyrocket.

The supremacy of fire codes

When private vehicles began to dominate American roads in the 1920s, transportation engineers believed that wider streets were safer, as they give drivers a larger margin for error. But as American cities became more car-centric, traffic accidents skyrocketed and engineers began to understand that the opposite is true: wider roads encourage drivers to go faster, leading to far more accidents, injuries, and deaths.

Studies have found that vehicles traveling more than 20 miles per hour are far more likely to kill people they hit. In fact, a pedestrian is about 70 percent more likely to die if they're hit by a vehicle going 30 mph versus 25 mph, research has found. Streets with driving lanes that are nine or 10 feet wide are significantly safer than those with 12-foot wide lanes, a major Johns Hopkins study found last year. "That is the opposite of the general belief and what has been the foundation for street design and lane-width guidelines," the researchers noted.

These discoveries, however, aren't reflected in the fire codes that govern our streets.

The vast majority of US states follow what's called the International Fire Code, updated every few years by a Texas-based nonprofit called the International Code Council. For decades, the code has called for streets to have at least 20 feet of unobstructed width. With a parking lane and sidewalks, residential streets in the US tend to be around 50 feet wide — far wider than in many other countries. In Osaka, Japan, and Paris, France, for example, the typical residential street is less than 20 feet wide.

Roads that encourage speed are part of the reason the US has far more traffic deaths than its peer countries. At the same time, US traffic fatalities far outnumber deaths from fires — while 40,000 people died on American roads last year, fewer than 3,000 people die annually in the US in residential fires, on average.

The international fire code's name is a bit of a misnomer: it's used virtually nowhere outside the US. And it differs in key ways from fire safety regulations used by other advanced countries. American fire trucks and other firefighting equipment also tend to be much bigger and less able to navigate narrow streets than their equivalents in other countries.

The fire code's dangerous results reflect a failure to understand safety holistically, experts say. "If you become overly specialized and focus only on one problem without considering at all the effect that you might be having on other problems, you can very easily do a lot of harm while trying to do good," said Patrick Siegman, a transportation planner and economist.

A growing battle

Conflict between fire officials and street designers has become increasingly common. In most cases, cities and states bend to the will of their fire departments. Indeed, many in the government are unaware of how dangerous their policies are.

"Unless you've really gotten to know the issue, planners, even transportation engineers, often don't realize the implications of the fire code for street designs and ultimately for traffic safety," Siegman said.

But in some places, road safety advocates are winning out. In Baltimore, an attempt in 2018 to amend the city's fire code to make room for bike lanes erupted in an ugly public fight that included a firefighter assaulting a city planner. But the city's code was ultimately amended.

In 2013, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors changed its interpretation of the fire code so that sidewalks, pedestrian islands, and other curbs less than six inches high weren't considered an obstruction to emergency vehicles. It's allowed the city to build wider sidewalks and more protected bike lanes, among other features to boost street safety.

San Francisco's fire department has also adapted to safer streets in another way by buying smaller fire trucks. The California city's so-called "Vision Zero truck" — a reference to the road safety policy — is a bit shorter and skinnier than its older trucks and has a smaller turning radius, which makes it far more capable of traveling down narrow, windy streets.

Not to mention that fire trucks with full fire-fighting capabilities aren't necessary in most instances. Only about 5% of the 1 million calls to fire departments nationally are fire-related, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Instead, firefighters largely respond to medical emergencies, which don't require trucks carrying 500 gallons of water.

"There are other ways to put out fires and respond to emergencies," said Andy Boenau, a transportation engineer and urbanist activist. "Do you need to send the biggest fire truck when someone's choking on a walnut?"

Dan Burden, a veteran transportation planner who served as Florida's first state bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, works with and trains fire officials on road safety issues. He said fire departments can be convinced to support safer street design if they're heavily engaged by planners. "Too often, the fire administrator is brought in too late in the process," he said.

Burden, whose father was a fire chief, believes they can find common ground.

"My dad always said, 'Dan, don't over-build for our needs, build streets for people first, and we'll figure out a way to make things happen,'" Burden said.