I live in a district that is prone to wildfires.
I cannot rewind time and tell people, “We shouldn’t build in hazardous environments prone to wildfires.” It’s done.
Moving forward, we shouldn’t build in places that catch on fire, but what should we do now?
The typical answers you might hear for addressing wildfires are:
- Fireproof your house.
- Buy insurance. If you can’t buy fire insurance → state insurance reform.
- Make electric utilities companies pay for damage.
I think these are all valid. But as a person with an urban planning background, I’m primarily concerned about the physical setup of our suburban neighborhoods and the lack of egress: How do we escape?
Suburbs have a curvilinear road structure, rather than a grid. ← (Click).
You can also read about “Street Hierarchy”. Grids are very efficient and can move traffic in many directions. Curvilinear roads are highly inefficient, because cars have to follow non-cardinal routes to get from Point A to Point B, and there’s usually only one way to get from A to B. Imagine if Pac-Man was a rigged game with curvy routes, where you couldn’t escape.
There’s also the flip side of this problem: How do we get firetrucks into areas on fire? This becomes a real problem when firetrucks have to get to their time-sensitive destinations, but have to sit in traffic with all the other cars.
If you were to look at the distribution of fire stations in San Diego, you’d find that denser areas have more fire stations, and low density suburban areas have fewer fire stations. It has to do with their equations for calculating response times, but many firefighters have to told me that they are not meeting the response time expectations in suburban neighborhoods. This is a bad math problem: lots of area to cover, fewer fire stations, curvy roads. Building more fire stations and throwing more money at it is only part of the solution.
My solution is to take our current roads and re-draw some lines. From the left side of the street to the right side (known as right-of way), cities can do what they want. We have the option to make travel lanes for cars, bike lanes, railroad tracks, gravel footpaths, etc. We can make our car lanes 15 feet wide or 10 feet wide. People who work in transportation can re-think how streets are drawn.
I’m advocating that we take our right-of-way in arterial and collector roads, make some roads skinner (15 ft → 10 ft), and use the extra space to create something similar to a bus-only lane. We don’t have to build any new roads.
In these new lanes, fire-trucks and emergency first responders get priority access. No cars are allowed to travel on them. This allows fire trucks to get to destinations rapidly. During non-emergencies, these are bus-only lanes. This allows our mass transit in suburbs to gain a speed advantage and not have to sit in traffic.
In short, we’re not taking away any lanes, we’re just making them skinnier. We’re taking the extra space saved and devoting its use to fire-trucks, police vehicles, ambulances, and buses. Everybody wins.
Paid for by Isaac Wang for City Council 2020 FPPC ID# 1416799