Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Blogger Candidate Forum: Interventions

http://www.citylab.com; November 1, 2017


Hello Everyone:

Today Blogger Candidate Forum is revisiting the subject of vehicular terrorism.  Normally, The Forum likes to use this space to address how politics impacts architecture, historic preservation, urban planning and design. We first looked at this subject in the wake of the heinous attacks in Europe, beginning last year.  We also touched on it in the wake of Charlottesville.  Once again, we need to talk about it because it seems to be happening more frequently.  Given the rate of occurrence, vehicular terrorism seems to becoming an inevitable part of urban life.  In a way, today's post on how vehicular terrorism does not have been an inevitable part of urban life.  In her CityLab article "Vehicle Attacks Are Not Inevitable," Laura Bliss looks at what interventions can be made so that vehicular attacks, such as the one that took place yesterday evening in New York City, are not an inevitable part of urban life.  She begins with a serene portrait of bicycles.  She writes,

"When you ride a bike in a city, there's a great sense of safety in numbers."  This why CicLavia events in Los Angeles, were large swarms of bikes fill the streets so that no cars can fit, are so exhilarating.  Lost amid the sea of spokes and pedals you feel invincible.  Yesterday, we all got a jolting reminder of just how ephemeral that feeling is.

Around 3 p.m. yesterday afternoon, a driver, in a rented truck, plowed into a crowed bike path in lower Manhattan, killing eight riders and pedestrians; injuring eleven (nytimes.com; Oct. 31, 2017; date accessed Nov. 1, 2017).  He continued the deadly trajectory for 20 blocks, down the bike path lining the Hudson River.  The motorist struck a student-filled school bus, near Stuyvesant High School, before being taken into custody.  In his wake, a "...path strewn with mangled bodies and bikes parts.  Some of the children who witnessed the event were reportedly too traumatized to speak."

This latest vehicular terrorism episode is considered the "bloodiest to occur in New York City since September 11, and has been declared [rightly] an act of terror."  Is this the "new normal" in terrorism?  Vehicles being appropriated as instruments of death and mayhem.  It certainly seems that way.  Let us take a look at the recent past.  This past summer a white supremacist drove his car into a group of anti-racism protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing Heather Heyer.  In Barcelona, a van rammed into Barcelona's fabled Las Ramblas, killing thirteen.  In 2016, a cargo truck killed dozens of people celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, France (Ibid; July 14, 2017; date accessed Nov. 1, 2017).  London and Berlin have also been the scene of bloody vehicular attacks.  The perpetrator in yesterday's dastardly act was an Uzbekistan national, legally living in the United States, who left a handwritten note pledging allegiance to the Islamic State (washingtonpost.com; Nov. 1, 2017).  He was also carrying a paint gun and a pellet gun-"...an ironic visual underscore to the lethality of the truck itself."

As vehicles (i.e. trucks, cars, and vans) have increasingly become the weapon of choice for "lone wolf" acts of terror, the debate over how to protect vulnerable humans has become about what interventions should cities make?  Ms. Bliss report, "Barcelona is now under pressure to install protective blocks and stanchions throughout Las Ramblas..."  This is probably not a priority in Barcelona at the moment, with all the pro-Catalan independence activity going on.  Be that as it may, many cities have already taken protective measures.  For example, NYC's fabulous Times Square redesign was praised for using bollards and reorienting traffic flow, in particular after a car crashed into pedestrians earlier this year.  "That only one person was killed in that incident was attributed to those changes (citylab.com; May 18, 2017; date accessed Nov. 1, 2017)

In Tuesday's episode, the driver struck a roadway that provided a nominal buffer: a dedicated bike path.  The bike path-the Hudson River Greenway-usually "the nation's busiest bike" (nyc.streetblog.com; May 26, 2017; date accessed Nov. 1, 2017) is separated from automobile traffic by low-walled concrete planters and rows of trees.

Laura Bliss points that "motor vehicles, from police cars to garbage truck, frequently violate the division, for years, the bike community has called for additional protections."  For example, in December 2006 a cyclist named Eric Ng was struck and killed by a drunk driver who sailed into the greenway.  The advocacy group Transportation Alternatives surveyed the greenway users (transalt.org; Jan 3, 2008; date accessed Nov. 1, 2017) and "found that more than a third reported cars driving on to the greenway."  TransAlt called upon civic officials to close unsafe crossing points where cars ad bicycles mix, to narrow cross streets, and install bollard, which would block cars more effectively.  To date, none of these measures have been implemented.

Here is a real fact, "Physical changes to traffic landscapes save lives both in explicit acts of terror, and in the mundane carnage cars and truck inflict on urban residents every day."  Consider this real fact, in the Unted States, "pedestrian and cyclist fatalities (bicycling.com; Aug. 24, 2017; date accessed Nov 1, 2017)  are at the highest they've ever been since the 1990s, with vehicle miles traveled on the rise and distracted drivers [meaning you, on the phone] everywhere."  Since driver behavior is oblivious to any positive change, many cities, some under the banner of Vision Zero, are making an effort to reverse this disturbing trend through street engineering.  This includes New York (citylab.com; May 11, 2017; date accessed Nov. 1, 2017), where there cyclists are not nearly as shielded from cars as they are on the Hudson River Greenway.  Beyond the work in Times Square, NYC is developing predictive software to better comprehend what types of physical interventions can reduce injuries and fatalities.

Never mind "less is more," in this case, more is the answer.  David Burney, the former commissioner of NYC's Department of Design and Construction, speculated about Tuesday's attack via email,

If bollards had been placed at the entrance to the bikeway, space to allow bikes to go through but too narrow for vehicles, I think that would have worked.

New York magazine writer Justin Davidson echoed this sentiment,

We can't crazy-proof all of New York, but the city could do a far more thorough job of safeguarding places where cyclists and pedestrians cluster.  (nymag.com; Nov. 1, 2017)

Mr. Davidson is correct, we cannot crazy-proof New York or any other major city.  Bollards, stanchions, speed bumps, narrow lanes and so forth all have their life saving limits.  Walling off streets with concrete barriers in a crowded city, no matter how aesthetically pleasing you try to make them, is also not feasible.  If you stop and think about it, any vehicle can be weaponized.  Imagine what would have happened had Tuesday's attacker been driving a much larger vehicle?  Bicycle advocate Aaron Naparstek tweeted:

Every driver is rolling down the street with a loaded gun (@Naparstek; twitter.com; date accessed Nov. 1, 2017)

Obviously, there is a disconnect between the threat of vehicular terrorism and response.  At the beginning of the month, when a person in Las Vegas killed fifty-nine people and injured hundreds more,  the public focused, once again, on the impotent gun control debate-ie how to keep guns out of the hands of "crazy guys."  Laura Bliss suggests that we should take a similar approach to vehicular terrorism: "Cars and trucks should be kept out of places where they can this much harm."

Congestion pricing is an intiative supported by local law enforcement.  It was responsible for reducing crashes in London by 40 percent by cutting down on traffic.  New York has closed off small parts of its street grid to traffic, "but like bollards, this does not equate with comprehensive safety."

What would equate comprehensive safety.  In article by Ellie Anzilotti for Fast Company, titled "If Cars Are Weapons, Then Safe Streets Are The Best Counterterrorism," (fastcompany.com; Nov. 1, 2017), Ms. Anzilotti recommends that American urban planners look to European city centers for models of keeping pedestrians and cyclists safe.  Quoting TransAlt's Paul Steely White, she writes,

You have many European city centers where large trucks aren't ever allowed...The mere physics involved with having large vehicles in close proximity to cyclists and pedestrians points to the need to insulate there vulnerable road users from the potential deadliness of those vehicles. (Ibid)

Laura Bliss speculates, "Banning cars and trucks would not only make acts of vehicular terror far hard to execute, it would ease the quotidian bloodshed of fatal crashes."  Possible.  Blogger cannot help but think that even with the most careful urban design and safety measures in place, someone will always will find a way to cause terror.  We can plan cities but not what is in people's minds.