Pedestrians walk past barriers near the scene of the 2017 attack on London's Westminster Bridge.
Pedestrians walk past barriers near the scene of the 2017 attack on London's Westminster Bridge. Toby Melville/Reuters

Vehicular Terrorism in the Age of Vision Zero

Deadly attacks by car and truck are on the rise, but cities often fail to respond in ways that protect the most vulnerable road users. Here’s how anti-terror infrastructure can ease walking, biking, and public transit use, not impede it.

London, New York, Toronto, Nice, Munster, Barcelona, Toronto, Charlottesville, Berlin, Stockholm: Over the past two years, at least 146 people have died, and hundreds more have suffered injury, at the hands of killers wielding not guns or bombs, but using cars and trucks as weapons of terror.

Cities have so far responded to this new threat in an ad-hoc manner. Many have begun to erect physical barriers between the walkers who define their urban spaces and the multi-ton vehicles whose drivers pose a growing threat.

But while some physical barriers are necessary, government officials need to create and adhere to core principles in protecting their residents, workers, and visitors. Anti-terror infrastructure should ease walking, biking, and public transit use, not impede it. The age of terror by car and truck is an additional challenge for urban planners who still haven't quite answered a pre-existing question: In dense, historic historic cities with finite space, who gets access to the streets?

Paris

Over two decades, Paris has been a global leader in livable streets. It was one of the first major cities to offer municipal bikeshare, and one of the first to snatch highway space away from trucks and cars and give it over to walkers and cyclists, gradually forming its riverside thoroughfares and other once-busy streets into open public spaces.

It’s distressing, then, that in response to several serious vehicle attacks in France—86 people killed by a truck driver in Nice in July 2016, six police officers injured in a ramming attack outside Paris in August 2017, and an attempted car attack on the Champs-Élysées that June—Paris has responded not by controlling car and truck use, but by walling off pedestrians.

The Eiffel Tower is the most unfortunate example, where, up until two years ago, Parisians and visitors could walk freely underneath—a pleasant and efficient thoroughfare for walking from one side of the Seine to the other.

Starting in 2017, SETE, a company that is mostly owned by the city of Paris, began to wall the Eiffel Tower off, literally. This summer, under the advice of counterterror police, the company debuted the first half of a 10-foot-tall, two-inch thick bulletproof glass barrier that flanks the towe’s north and south sides. The glass is supposed to be strong enough to stop a truck attack, the company’s chief told reporters in June. In case it is not enough, another 420 reinforced “anti-ram-raid” bollards line the sidewalks, still wrapped in their factory paper in August, and steel wire now surrounds the gardens.

SETE executive director Anne Yannic insists that the “purpose is to improve the appearance of the tower.” In case visitors don’t like it, though, SETE also assures the public that the glass of the security booths and walls is “extremely clear.” Project architect Jose Luis Fuentes says that “when you are on site, the three-meter-high walls, compared to the scale of the monument, are absolutely not visible. It will really look as if the square … was open.”

These assertions are absurd. Prior to the creation of this new perimeter, the base of tower and surrounding gardens were casually open to everyone. The new square doesn’t look open, but even if it did, it is strange for an architect to want to maintain the illusion of openness rather than the reality, a more important consideration. The changes are akin to walling off the blocks around Rockefeller Center and insisting on universal stop-and-frisks before allowing anyone to enter.

The practical result is to inconvenience and deter foot traffic. Tower tourists are now forbidden from taking the most direct path to their destination, and instead corralled on winding paths into long, fenced-in lines, sometimes waiting more than half an hour for their security check. These searches, too, have the effect of deterring local commuters and strollers from making this walk, which, in turns, has upset the delicate mix of the crowd. It’s a now a tourist-only group, encouraging far more aggressive street hawkers of souvenirs and selfie sticks to people who are a trapped audience for such sales as they wait in line.

It’s not clear that these measures will save lives, rather than just moving the location of any attack forward by a few yards, where there are people standing in line, in between fences. Just outside the tower’s perimeter, unvetted drivers of trucks and cars still whiz by crowds of people on the Pont d’Iena bridge.

London

In 2017, London suffered two deadly attacks on and near two iconic bridges. In March, an attacker killed four pedestrians with a car on Westminster Bridge leading to Parliament, before fatally stabbing a police officer; in June, three attackers killed three pedestrians on London Bridge with a van, then stabbed and shot to death five other victims. Like Paris, London responded with barriers and bollards. An attack on Parliament this August demonstrated their effectiveness when the would-be rammer drove his car straight into new steel and concrete barriers, which did not give way.

Yet this result was not an unqualified success, and the failures point to the weakness of any perimeter-based solutions to vehicular terrorism. Before hitting the crash barriers, the Parliament attacker swerved into 15 cyclists and pedestrians, injuring three, including a women cyclist who was seriously hurt. These vulnerable people were on the “wrong” side of the barriers—and thus completely unprotected.

Since the 2017 attacks, London tried to deal with this problem with new physical infrastructure in particularly sensitive places. All along Westminster Bridge, a waist-high heavy fence was erected to protect the crowds of commuters and tourists. London, at least, chose to put the barriers in the street rather than on the sidewalk, theoretically taking room away from drivers and not walkers.

Yet the barriers, spearheaded by the Metropolitan Police, are less friendly to pedestrians and cyclists than they appear. Pedestrians now must funnel their way through narrow spaces at either end of the bridge before proceeding to more open space within the fences. More dangerously, cyclists have complained that they are on the wrong side of the barrier, stuck with the cars and trucks rather than the pedestrians, a fear that became reality in August’s attack. They note, too, that the barriers themselves present a new “crush risk” in the case of trying to avoid an unintentional traffic crash. That is, a wayward driver with no ill motive would now force a cyclist into an unforgiving steel barrier rather than onto the sidewalk.

New York City

Last Halloween, a truck attacker killed eight people along New York City’s Hudson River bike path; four months earlier, just before Memorial Day weekend, a car attacker killed a pedestrian in Times Square.

In response, New York, too, is erecting physical infrastructure between people on sidewalks and people in vehicles. In April, Mayor Bill de Blasio reserved $103 million in the long-term infrastructure budget “to install permanent barriers, bollards, granite blocks, concrete blocks at well-trafficked central areas.” As in Paris and London, police, not transportation officials, are the lead agency on this project.

To protect Times Square crowds on New Year’s Eve 2017, the NYPD deployed massive concrete bollards. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

Again, the visible results, so far, are not promising. In Times Square, steel bollards erected as part of the Bloomberg-era redesign of the area were unobtrusive to pedestrians. But the new cement blocks stamped “NYPD” and strewn haphazardly across entrances to sidewalks to supplement these barriers are highly obtrusive. These blocks can also be found at the Columbus Circle entrance to Central Park, where they force crowds through narrow “pinch points” as they scramble from the red zone to the green.

Last Christmas, the police department dealt with the threat of vehicular terrorism by dumping dozens of concrete barriers and metal fences all along the key sidewalks of Fifth Avenue and Avenue of the Americas. This measure cut off important crosswalks, forcing pedestrians to take detours, and crowded commuters, shoppers, and tourists who had descended on the area to take in the Rockettes or see the Rockefeller Plaza tree.

Is there a better way?

It’s easy to see why cities turn to bollards: immediately after a traumatic, deadly attack, they’re an obvious way to show than anxious public that public officials are doing something to protect people. And they do save lives: The well-designed bollards in Times Square—slim, less obtrusive steel barriers—helped keep the death toll to one in a fatal attack in May 2017.

But physical barriers are not necessarily the best solution. First, in busy cities such as New York, London, and Paris, just as many pedestrians are stranded on the car and truck side of barriers as on the “safe” pedestrian side; people still have to cross the street, after all, at major intersections. Second, the most commonly deployed barriers fail tests against high-speed heavy vehicles; sturdier barriers are far more expensive to install. Finally, corralling people in newly confined areas increases the risk from other types of attacks, such as making it more likely people would suffer stampede injuries running away from a gunman.

Car and truck terror is obviously a frightening development—but cities can respond in ways that make the environment more livable, not less. Cities should keep a few precepts in mind in redesigning their streets.

First, vehicle terror is a reason to speed up a positive urban trend: the increased pedestrianization of core areas. A decade ago, then-real-estate-developer Donald Trump chastised Mayor Michael Bloomberg for pedestrianizing much of Times Square, saying it was “an experiment” that “should be reversed.” Today, it would be unthinkable to remove the protection that this pedestrian plaza provides to the vast majority of people in Times Square—those on foot—from the minority in cars and trucks. Similarly, the city should pedestrianize the streets around Rockefeller Center at Christmastime. London is already pedestrianizing parts of busy Oxford Street; why not do the same for the area around Parliament Square?

Paris wants to continue to cut car and truck traffic into the city. This should mean that the city needs fewer river crossings for such vehicles. Why not change the balance of Paris’s 32 vehicle and three pedestrian crossings over the Seine to 31 and four, and transform the Pont d’Iena bridge into a haven for walkers and cyclists? With a security perimeter there, the Eiffel Tower could be freed to open strolling again.

Second, transportation and parks officials should have an equal role with police in deciding where and how to protect walkers and cyclists. In some places—New York’s Hudson River bike path, for example, right near a busy highway—direct physical barriers at the point of entrance may be the best solution. In other areas, it may be better to achieve the same goal in more indirect and elegant ways, such as, eventually, technology to prohibit access near a landmark to all but pre-vetted delivery and bus drivers, with speed and direction automatically governed by external sensors. Drivers who need access to a central city would have to pass a background check, similar to that for people who work in sensitive areas of airports.

Finally, physical barriers take up space—which inevitably means someone has to lose that space. City officials should take the space occupied by physical barriers away from street users with the potential to do the most harm, rather than vice versa. If pedestrians face a fresh threat from drivers, it is the drivers, not the pedestrians, who should face new controls.

As record crowds and new security needs take away even more space in our cities, an inevitable part of the answer should be per-mile congestion pricing and better mass transit, including far better options for the disabled, elderly, and people with small children. The terrorists can’t win this battle, but poor urban planning can help lose it.

This article is adapted from the forthcoming Vision Zero Cities Journal, published in conjunction with the Vision Zero Cities Conference in New York City, November 7-8.

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