Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Cars kill, in acts of terror and everyday collisions. Cities have tools to stop it.
When you ride a bike in a city, there’s a great sense of safety in numbers. That’s why those Critical-Mass-style rides, where great clots of cyclists fill city streets until no cars can fit, are so intoxicating. In the sea of spokes and pedals, you feel untouchable. Tuesday afternoon was a reminder of how fragile that feeling is.
Around 3 p.m., a driver veered a rented pickup truck into a crowded bike path in lower Manhattan, killing eight cyclists and pedestrians and injuring 11, as he plowed down the corridor for nearly a mile. Near Stuyvesant High School, he struck a school bus filled with students before being apprehended by police. The path was strewn with mangled bodies and bike parts. Some of the children who witnessed the event were reportedly too traumatized to speak.
The attack is the bloodiest to occur in New York City since September 11, and has been declared an act of terror. It is the latest instance of a new normal in global terrorism: vehicles as efficient instruments of death. Just a few months ago, a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing an anti-racism protester, Heather Heyer. This summer, a van rammed into Barcelona’s celebrated pedestrian district and struck 13 dead. A year before, a cargo truck killed dozens of Bastille Day celebrators in Nice, France. London and Berlin have experienced recent bloodbaths by lorries. The driver in the New York attack, a native of Ukbekistan who left behind a handwritten note pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, was also carrying a paint gun and a pellet gun—an ironic visual underscore to the lethality of the truck itself.
With vehicles increasingly being used as the weapons of choice for such “lone wolf”acts of terror, the debate over how to protect vulnerable bodies has turned to design measures cities should take. Barcelona is now under pressure to install protective blocks and stanchions throughout Las Ramblas, the city’s vast pedestrian thoroughfare. Many cities have already done this. The redesign of Times Square, for example, has been praised for its use of such bollards, as well as how it reoriented traffic flow, especially after a car crashed into pedestrians there earlier this year. That only one person was killed in that incident was attributed to those changes.
In Tuesday’s attack, the driver struck a corridor that had a nominal layer of protection: It was a dedicated bike path. The Hudson River Greenway, frequently declared the nation's busiest bike path, is separated from car traffic by a low-slung, concrete plant bed and rows of trees.
But motor vehicles, from police cars to garbage trucks, frequently violate the division, and for years, the bike community has called for additional protections. In 2007, the year a cyclist named Eric Ng was struck and killed by a drunk motorist who careened onto the greenway, the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives surveyed greenway users and found that more than a third reported cars driving on the greenway. They called on the city to close unsafe crossings where bikes and cars mix, to narrow cross streets, and to install bollards that would bar cars more effectively. None of these measures were taken.
Physical changes to the traffic landscape save lives—both in explicit acts of terror, and in the mundane carnage cars and trucks inflict on urban residents every day. In the U.S., pedestrian and cyclist fatalities are at the highest they’ve ever been since the 1990s, with vehicle miles traveled on the rise and distracted drivers everywhere. Since driver behavior seems to be utterly impervious to positive change, many cities, some under the mantle of Vision Zero, are attempting to reverse the trend via street engineering. That includes New York, where most bike paths are not nearly so protected as the Hudson River Greenway. Beyond its work in Times Square, the city is developing predictive software to better understand what kinds of physical interventions reduce injurious and fatal crashes.
Clearly, “more” is part of the answer. In the case of Tuesday’s attack, “if bollards had been placed at the entrance to the bikeway, spaced to allow bikes to go through but too narrow for vehicles, I think that would have worked,” David Burney, the former commissioner of New York City’s Department of Design and Construction, says via email.
New York’s Justin Davidson echoed that sentiment this morning: “We can’t crazy-proof all of New York,” he wrote, “but the city could do a far more thorough job of safeguarding places where cyclists and pedestrians cluster.”
Still, barricades, speed humps, and narrowed lanes have limits as life-saving measures. They are localized by definition: Not every street will ever be lined with concrete barriers, and in a crowded city, all vehicles can be weaponized, intentionally or not. The cycling advocate Aaron Naparstek puts it this way on Twitter: “Every driver is rolling down the street with a loaded gun.”
There is a mismatch, then, between the threat of vehicle attacks and response. When terrorists use guns to kill, public debate turns (ineffectually, it must be said) to gun control—in other words, how to keep firearms out of the hands of would-be attackers. Vehicle attacks should be responded to in kind: Cars and trucks should be kept out of places where they can do this much harm.
Policies like congestion pricing, which brought crashes in London down 40 percent by reducing traffic, would be a start. And New York has closed small patches of its street grid to traffic, but like bollards, this does not equate with comprehensive safety.
What would? Piece by piece, neighborhood by neighborhood, New York could follow cities like Barcelona, Paris, Oslo, and Madrid, which are creating more expansive auto-free zones. Banning cars and trucks would not only make acts of vehicular terror far harder to execute, it would ease the quotidian bloodshed of fatal crashes. And then, those walking and riding through their cities would actually be safer, instead of just feeling that way.