New York City firefighters union calls out Vision Zero, bike lanes, and road diets: “You’re basically eliminating the ability for emergency service vehicles to get around”

Will firefighters unions in other cities follow suit?

(QUEENS, NYC) An FDNY truck trapped on the Skillman Avenue road diet in Queens. Photograph courtesy of Dorothy Morehead.

After four years of lane reductions, arterial bike lanes, road diets, and other so-called “traffic calming” measures on the streets of New York, the country’s largest firefighters union is saying enough. The New York Post reported yesterday that the Fire Department of New York’s response times have risen dramatically over the last year, and that the city’s firefighters union – the largest in the country – says that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative is a major cause.

Bobby Eustace, the United Firefighters Association’s recording secretary, told The Post, “Vision Zero is fully intended to save lives from traffic accidents, but by [the city] adding in concrete barriers and flower pots and everything else like that, you’re basically eliminating the ability for emergency service vehicles to get around. Intersections are now gridlocked, and our guys just can’t get around.”

The union’s public statement is a significant development in the national discussion over the future of urban planning and transportation. There are Vision Zero programs in scores of U.S. cities, and virtually everywhere they are having severe impacts on emergency response times. Firefighters, paramedics, and police officers in Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Seattle, Oakland, New York, Boston, and elsewhere have confirmed to The All Aspect Report that lane reductions, particularly so-called “road diets,” have increased their response times dramatically. In L.A., for example, operational response times at Fire Station 62, located on the infamous Venice Boulevard road diet, increased by 26 seconds between 2016 (the last full year before the diet) and 2019. In 2016 the station’s average response time was 6 minutes 38 seconds. So far in 2019 it is 7 minutes 4 seconds. As any first responder will attest, those 26 seconds cost lives. And Station 62’s experience is far from unique in the city.

The UFA’s statement comes in response to the release of the annual Mayor’s Management Report, a sort of longform state of the city document. The administration boasted, “The City’s investment in Vision Zero, now funded with over $1.6 billion through Fiscal 2022, has ensured resources will be available to continue an accelerated pace of redesign and reconstruction of New York City streets as well as for enforcement and education initiatives to deter unsafe driving and promote safe walking and biking.”

This “accelerated pace” of change is having devastating impacts on emergency response times. According to the report:

  • Combined average response time to life-threatening medical emergencies increased 15 seconds compared to 2018.
  • Average response time to life-threatening medical emergencies by ambulances increased 24 seconds compared to 2018.
  • Dispatch and travel time only to life-threatening medical emergencies for ambulances and fire companies combined increased 19 seconds compared to 2018.
  • Dispatch and travel time by ambulances to life-threatening medical emergencies increased 28 seconds compared to 2018.

“We had a company in the Bronx [traveling at night last month] hit one of these barriers going 30 miles an hour, and it almost flipped the rig because they had no idea it was there,” Eustace said. “That was the first they saw it. They were simply trying to go around a person [while] responding to a structural fire, and they smashed into one of these [concrete barriers].-

New York’s experience is typical of Vision Zero cities

The FDNY union is the first to go on the record, but fire departments around the country have been experiencing identical problems for several years. As we reported in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, Oakland, California Fire Captain Henry Holt said that he learned of a road diet half a block from his station one morning when he arrived for a shift. “I wasn’t even sure if I was allowed to drive in those new green lanes,” he said. The city never consulted the Oakland Fire Department, much less his station, before installing a project that dramatically impacts his crews’ dispatch procedures. The road diet has been so bad that at times he’s instructed his drivers to go into what first responders call “suicide mode,” driving down oncoming lanes to get around gridlock. Departments in other cities have reported the same experiences.

(LOS ANGELES, CA) October 12, 2018 – In a scene that’s become frighteningly common in L.A.’s Mar Vista neighborhood, an ambulance and fire engine struggle to navigate the Venice Boulevard road diet. It took them nearly four minutes to travel four blocks to a scene where a motorcyclist lay pinned under a semi truck.

The greatest irony of Vision Zero is that in many locations road diets and other reconfigurations have not improved safety for cyclists and pedestrians, as activists and politicians like Mayor de Blasio in New York and Mayor Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles claim. Pedestrian fatalities spiked in L.A. from an average of 84 per year for the 13 years between 2003 and 2015, to 135 in 2017 and 128 last year. The spike coincides with the launch of Vision Zero in 2016.

Charting failure: This official release from Los Angeles Vision Zero reveals the spike in pedestrian deaths since the program’s launch in 2015.

In Baltimore, a fire crew sent a video to the city council last summer in which a hook and ladder crew demonstrated how a road diet impeded their ability to stage the apparatus on a residential street. Rather than address the issue the city council voted to change the city’s fire code.

Outside New York itself, perhaps nowhere has the impact of Vision Zero been more dramatic than in the small seaside city of Santa Monica. Road diets, bus lanes, and other changes have rendered parts of the city virtually inaccessible to emergency apparatus at times. A senior official in the Santa Monica Fire Department recently told the All Aspect Report that there are times crews literally cannot reach the Santa Monica Pier. And an officer with the Santa Monica Police Department said that the city increasingly is fielding officers on bicycles rather than cruisers. When asked how he felt about swapping his Crown Vic for a Schwinn, he just shook his head and laughed.

Obviously, cities are in a constant state of change, flux, and progress. Vision Zero is not the but-for cause of every emergency delay. Increased density, private construction, the profusion of scooters and ride hailing services like Uber and Lyft, and the overall increase in populations are all contributing factors. Nevertheless, the UFA’s statement, coupled with scores of interviews around the country as well as dozens of pictures and videos, leave no doubt that Vision Zero, “complete streets,” “road diets,” and other anti-vehicle policies are delaying response times and costing countless lives.

It remains to be seen whether firefighter and police unions in other cities will follow the UFA’s lead. Countless thousands of lives depend on it.

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