Rob Reiter has a quick answer for people who ask him about how expensive it is to install his products: “It’s not a quarter as expensive as if they don’t do anything and something happens.” He’s talking about bollards.
You’ve seen a thousand bollards in your life, but you’ve probably never noticed one. They’re a rarely remarked-upon footnote in most urban planning and architectural projects–steel pipes that rise about three feet off the pavement to stop cars from driving on bike paths, plazas, and pedestrian zones. But the humble bollard is rapidly gaining attention after Sayfullo Saipov drove a car onto a Manhattan bike path last week, killing eight people. The day after the attack, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand proposed a $50 million act that would see bollards installed across the city.
Saipov is just latest person to weaponize a car after similar attacks in Europe, and domestic demographic and technological forces are fueling the bollard business: Aging drivers, as well as distracted smartphone users, are forcing stores and restaurants to consider protecting their facades.
Cities around the world are facing a reckoning: If anyone can drive anywhere, how do you protect the people? It’s a question tinged both by the advent of post-9/11 defensive architecture in urban America and the emergence of pro-pedestrian policies in cities, along with increasing concerns about aging and distracted drivers. Bollards, in theory, can satisfy all three.
Reiter is chief security consultant at Calpipe, a California-based maker of products for the electrical industry. After September 11, the company’s fledgling bollard products saw increased interest; today they make up an eighth of the company’s business. “I was working on high-security projects like embassies overseas,” he explains. “I came to work for Calpipe after 9/11 because clearly there was going to be a huge increase in where we had to go with security and safety, beyond just embassies abroad.” The company now offers nearly a dozen models, from the sort that can be unlocked and hidden underground to heavy-duty models that are crash-tested.
Mike Schram, who founded his own bollard business TrafficGuard in 1999, has seen consistent growth, too. “With the exception of one year, we’ve grown every single year since 2001,” says Schram. Though it’s a still a niche business, vehicular attacks are increasing interest in that niche: “Every time one of these [incidents] happens, we start getting more orders,” he adds.
When the architecture firm Snohetta was working on its new master plan for Times Square, which closed off major sections of the area to cars, it contracted with Calpipe to design the bollards–more than 200 three-foot-tall, stainless steel models in all–that surround the pedestrian zone. One of those bollards stopped the sedan that drove into a crowd of pedestrians this summer, ultimately killing one person. “Someone will try this again,” one former city official told the New York Times at the time. Reiter says similar bollards, installed at key points on the West Side bike path where Saipov carried out his attack, could have lessened the damage. Calpipe is working on defensive projects in Las Vegas, too, where the September shooting that left 58 people dead and 546 injured has spurred new discussion about security in the city.
Meanwhile many cities, including New York, have adopted Vision Zero plans that aim to cut down on traffic deaths citywide. That means rethinking key infrastructure elements, including crosswalks, pedestrian plazas, bike lanes, and more. Advocates are calling for a fundamental change in how cities are planned, away from cars and toward walkers. Unlike European cities, most American cities grew up in the age of the car, Reiter points out. “Automobiles kind of ran the city for a while–and we’re only now learning that that wasn’t necessarily the best idea,” he adds. Traffic infrastructure like bollards are a relatively inexpensive way to make sidewalks and plazas safer from drivers; Reiter estimates that the bike path where last week’s attack took place could have been protected for about $10,000. “That’s the magic of all of this stuff–at the end of the day, there’s a solution for just about all of these problems,” he adds.
They aren’t a fail-safe solution, of course. Any improperly installed barrier can endanger walkers and cyclists who may not see them. Cities like New York, so dense with pedestrians, can’t install them on every sidewalk. Some pedestrian advocates argue that particularly high-risk areas, like Times Square, should be closed to cars entirely.
Schram says he knows of just a handful of ordinances in America that standardize bollard installation. It will take time for cities and municipalities to catch up with the right legislation. What’s more, he says, there’s no incentive for stores and buildings to install bollards themselves for insurance purposes. ASTM International, the organization that creates technical standards, released a new standard for bollards meant to protect buildings in 2015, which TrafficGuard was fast to adopt in its testing processes. But many stores still install bollards that do next to nothing to protect pedestrians if they’re hit by cars (in fact, poorly designed ones can actually cause damage). “Right now, the risk is not large enough for the insurance companies to give them a premium reduction if they install proper bollards,” he says. “So there’s no incentive yet.”
The key to making smart design choices for pedestrians and walkers, Reiter says, is for cities, architects, and stakeholders to do this kind of planning ahead of time, as it did in Times Square. “When cities plan ahead of time they do a better job,” he says. Whether or not they become truly ubiquitous, bollards herald a subtle shift in the way public space is designed and regulated in America. These small but important changes in the way our streets feel reflect the things their users care about–in this case, the twin specters of terrorism and traffic.