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If Cars Are Weapons, Then Safe Streets Are The Best Counterterrorism

The horrific attack in New York City is a reminder that we are long overdue in listening to safe-street advocates’ recommendations to shield cyclist and pedestrian spaces from vehicles.

If Cars Are Weapons, Then Safe Streets Are The Best Counterterrorism
“There is not sufficient appreciation for how preventable these tragedies are.” [Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images]

The afternoon of October 31, a man in a pickup truck drove his vehicle down the West Side Highway bike path in lower Manhattan, killing eight cyclists and pedestrians and injuring nearly a dozen more. The tragedy was the deadliest attack in New York since September 11, and communities around the city–among them the cyclists and pedestrians who regularly make use of the popular riverfront path–were left reeling.

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In the past year and a half, a spate of vehicular attacks has struck cities across Europe, including London, Barcelona, Berlin, Nice–and even Ohio State University. With the exception of one unclaimed attack in Stockholm, all have been claimed by ISIS. The attack in New York extends this disturbing trend. As perpetrators continue to deliberately weaponize cars and vehicles, it’s becoming clearer that a pedestrian-friendly city is also an anti-terrorist city.

“We can’t anticipate or prevent every terrorist attack, or every instance of reckless driving,” says Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a New York-based cycling and pedestrian advocacy organization that is active in–among myriad other projects–the push for achieving Vision Zero in the city. “But there is not sufficient appreciation for how preventable these tragedies are.”

The Hudson River Greenway [Photo: Oliver Morris/Getty Images]
Long before car attacks became an ISIS trademark, public space safety advocates have been calling for increased protections against vehicles, which, even when not deliberately weaponized, still cause inordinate loss of life: In 2016, 144 pedestrians and 18 cyclists in New York died after being struck by cars (across America, auto accidents kill as many people as guns every year). Safety infrastructure like metal bollards–short metal posts designed to act as barriers against cars–are crucial and necessary, and their absence in places like the West Side Highway is incredibly dangerous.

While the motives were different, the dangers of cars on the Greenway are not new: On December 1, 2006, the 22-year-old cyclist Eric Ng was riding north along the West Side Highway bike path when a drunk driver careening at 50 mph down not the highway, but the bike path, struck and killed him just several blocks north of where the tragedy of October 31 occurred. Earlier in 2006, another cyclist was also struck and killed by a car on the Greenway, many blocks north, where it intersects with 38th Street.

In January 2008, after a thorough survey of the pedestrian and bike paths along the West Side Highway (also known as the Hudson River Greenway), TransAlt called for a set of low-cost safety improvements to the path, which is among the city’s busiest and intended to be one of its safest. Over a third of the Greenway users surveyed have reported seeing motor vehicles on the path, and TransAlt identified seven crossings where motor vehicles are easily able to, and regularly do, enter the Greenway. One of TransAlt’s recommendations was to adding bollards on either side of intersections to physically bar motor vehicles from turning into the path and driving down it.

One of those intersections lacking bollards is West Street and West Houston Street at Pier 40, where the perpetrator of the October 31 tragedy reportedly entered the bike path. The intersection is wide; the gap between the bike path at the entrance to the pier can accommodate three cars abreast. There are no bollards guarding the entrance to the bike and pedestrian paths. In the years since Ng’s death, Steely White says, “we’ve had a series of meeting with the state and with the city to highlight the need to protect these sites, but we still don’t have a standard.”

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[Photo: Flickr user Billie Ward]
That is partly to do with the fact that, as Aaron Naparstek wrote in Streetsblog in 2008, the Greenway is “a jurisdictional nightmare.” A complex web of organizations–like the state and city departments of transportation, and the Hudson River Park Trust–have a say in decisions made about the design of the space. But those agencies have so far failed to broadly implement TransAlt’s recommendations–despite, as Steely White says, the inherently “low-tech” nature of protections like bollards. (One notable exception is the vicinity around the Goldman Sachs building, which is located along the Greenway–the financial giant demanded increased protections from the city when it relocated in 2010, and the bollards there, which form a thorough semi-circle around the entrance to the bike path and dot the vegetation between the path and the street, Steely White says, “are proof of what is possible.”)

And as important as it is for the city to finally mobilize the agencies to install those protections along the Greenway, “this is also a moment to recognize the broader issue, which is that for decades New York City has . . . consistently failed to respond to more routine incidents where cyclists and pedestrians have been mowed down by motor vehicles,” Steely White says. “The widespread outcry after this act of terrorism is a chance for the city to do everything it can to prevent this from happening again, and it just so happens that those same countermeasures will prevent more routine acts of reckless driving,” he adds. As the interests of public space advocates and counterterrorism efforts become tragically intertwined, it’s in the city’s best interests to understand that addressing the concerns of the former automatically helps the cause of the latter. If cars are used as weapons, planning to protect citizens from cars is a counterterrorism strategy that will have the added benefit of also preventing non-terror deaths.

We have already seen the efficacy of interventions like bollards in New York, when in May of this year, a drunk driver plowed into a crowd of pedestrians in Times Square. Twenty-two people were injured, and one was killed, but had the driver not impaled the car on one of the bollards recently installed around the square, he could have inflicted vastly more damage. In the aftermath of vehicular attacks, cities like Nice and London have added bollards to public spaces as preventative measures.

There is also an opportunity to look to Europe here for examples of how vehicular traffic might be limited in high-density urban centers. “You have many European city centers where large trucks aren’t ever allowed,” Steely White says. “The mere physics involved with having large vehicles in close proximity to cyclists and pedestrians points to the need to insulate these vulnerable road users from the potential deadliness of those vehicles.”

Transportation Alternatives is in talks with NYPD’s Counterterrorism Bureau and the Department of Public Transportation to emphasize the need to build out protections across all of New York’s public spaces–pedestrian plazas like Herald Square and much of Broadway, Steely White says, are examples of areas that could benefit from increased safety measures. There’s also a need for law enforcement and city agencies to ensure that spaces meant for pedestrians and cyclists–like bike lanes–become more and more protected from cars (the irony of the constant scourge of cop cars parking in bike lanes is especially rich in this context).

It’s important for individuals and city agencies alike to “remember how vulnerable cyclists and pedestrians are,” Steely White says. “We don’t have the luxury of being encased in tons of steel and glass.” The solution, he adds, “is not to retreat from public space, but to better protect and enshrine our public spaces.”

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About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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