As San Francisco develops safer street designs to better accommodate people walking and biking, an unlikely opposition group has emerged: the San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD). SFFD has vocally opposed multiple pedestrian safety projects over the past year, including curb extensions in front of Taylor Elementary School, a pedestrian-friendly design of Bartlett Street, and transit bulb-outs on Irving Street. SFFD has also sought to undo pedestrian safety reforms in the fire code and widen streets in the planned redevelopment of Hunters Point and Candlestick Point. In other instances, the department has even opposed plans to replace parked cars with curb extensions of the same width.

Fire Marshall Mitchie Wong testifying against 20 foot street widths for Hunters Point and Candlestick Point redevelopments (Source: SFGovTV) Fire Marshall Mitchie Wong testifying against 20 foot street widths for Hunters Point and Candlestick Point redevelopments
The issue at hand in each of these projects is the relationship between street width and safety. Wider streets produce higher vehicle speeds and greater exposure of pedestrians to vehicles when crossing the street, increasing crash risk and severity of injuries. A 2009 study by the Congress for New Urbanism found that an increase in street width from 24 to 36 feet led to a 485 percent increase in injury crashes, on average (PDF). As a result, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) has made it a priority to build more human-scaled streets, both in retrofitting existing streets and intersections to shorten crosswalk lengths and improve visibility (a key measure identified in the city’s WalkFirst initiative) and in building new streets in areas like Hunters Point, where one of the most heated debates has occurred.

The redevelopment of Hunters Point/Candlestick Point is the largest development project in San Francisco in a half-century. It will add 12,000 housing units to San Francisco’s highly constrained housing supply, while also adding commercial, research, arts, and open space. Given the magnitude of the development, it is crucial that it is built in a manner that supports active transportation and transit use.

While the San Francisco Redevelopment agency (in conjunction with SFMTA and the San Francisco Planning Department) developed plans for safe, human scaled streets that are 20 feet wide, the SFFD has made a last-minute attempt to block these designs. The SFFD instead sought to change minimum street widths from 20 feet to 26 feet, a move that contradicts a two-decade long planning process for the area. The SFFD claimed that they prefer 26 feet because that’s the standard set in the International Fire Code, even though the city has adopted 20 foot minimums (as low as 12 feet in some cases) last fall.

In a head-scratching act of government dysfunction, the SFFD actually printed documents telling developers that the minimum street width under the Fire Code is 26 feet despite a lack of authority to do so. Fire Marshal Mitchie Wong said of the SFFD’s actions: “We are imposing the authority to use whatever we need to justify the increased width.”

The SFFD’s defense of the status quo extends beyond pedestrian safety projects. Leah Shahum, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, told Streetsblog: “In my 10+ years working [in San Francisco] for safer streets, we see it time and time again… the fire department stepping in and either slowing down or, worse, blocking [projects]. At times I’d even say there’s a chilling effect, where certain departments don’t even bring forward a safety proposal because they believe the fire department’s going to shut it down.”

Fire department opposition to safer street designs is not limited to San Francisco. In Los Angeles, LAFD and LAPD officials recently expressed opposition to bike lanes on Figueroa Street despite the fact that there is no evidence that bike lanes would lengthen response times. Bike lanes in New York City faced similar opposition, but were actually found to improve response times.

The SFFD’s obstructive actions speak to the department’s myopia when it comes to public safety: in adopting a windshield perspective toward street safety that prioritizes fast vehicle speeds, it fails to recognize opportunities to prevent injuries and adapt its practices. There appears to be a mismatch between the department’s vehicle fleet and the emergencies which it serves: 75 percent of SFFD responses are medical emergencies (many of which are related the traffic crashes), and the annual number of fire victims is dwarfed by the number of pedestrian victims – roughly three people struck per day and two dozen killed per year. Nevertheless, the SFFD maintains a fleet of very large, inflexible vehicles and seeks to impose suburban street design standards to preserve the status quo, which injures roughly 1,000 people per year. The department argues against street safety improvements without evidence that these improvements delay response times. In reality, double-parked cars and bad driver behavior remain the biggest threats to delayed response times.

Supervisor Scott Weiner has proposed measures to curb the opposition of the SFFD and realign city policies toward a common goal. Weiner seeks to amend city law to clarify street width standards and require city departments to request permission from the Board of Supervisors before deviating from these adopted standards. The proposed legislation also instructs the Budget and Legislative Analyst to examine opportunities for using smaller fire trucks like the ones the SFFD already uses in Bernal Heights and Telegraph Hill. Weiner explains: “If the Fire Department is concerned that its trucks cannot effectively navigate San Francisco’s enormous number of narrow streets, the solution is for the department to consider smaller trucks, not to insist on street designs that are unsafe for our residents.”

Stay tuned for updates as this debate progresses.

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Andy Gillin received his Bachelor’s Degree from the University of California at Berkeley and his law degree from the University of Chicago. He is the managing partner of GJEL Accident Attorneys and has written and lectured in the field of plaintiffs’ personal injury law for numerous organizations. Since 1972 he has been helping seriously injured victims throughout northern California fight & win their personal injury cases. Andy is one of the top awarded & recognized wrongful death lawyers in northern California.