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Securing the Streets

eye on the news

Securing the Streets

A better approach to New York traffic would help prevent terror and keep New Yorkers safer all around. November 2, 2017
Public safety
New York

The crash barriers have been going up all over Manhattan—not directly because of Tuesday’s Islamist terrorist attack on bicyclists and pedestrians, but in ad hoc attempts to prevent such violence. The Halloween afternoon carnage certainly means more such obstacles will be coming, to protect pedestrians and bicyclists from such attacks. These incremental efforts to secure the streets work, and unlike many other efforts to prevent terror—such as long lines at airport security—they have ancillary benefits, rather than costs. Protecting pedestrians against terror protects them from more common accidental street carnage, too.

New York and many other cities are already familiar with the vehicle-as-weapon. In May, Richard Rojas, a Navy vet, rammed his car into a Times Square crowd, not because he was a radical Muslim but because he was mentally ill, angry, on drugs, or some combination of the three. He killed 18-year-old tourist Alyssa Elsman and critically injured four others. That attack was bad enough, but it could have been worse; anti-terror bollards—short metal posts placed together closely in a line—stopped Rojas from moving further into the dense area.

White nationalist James Fields, Jr., used his car to murder Heather Heyer in Charlottesville this past August. Europe, too, has seen attacks by similar angry young men who have embraced extremism. Radical Islamists have killed pedestrians in London, Barcelona, and Berlin in the past year. After each attack, New York, always observant of global trends, has responded by visibly altering its streetscape. Large cement blocks now keep drivers separate from walkers on sidewalks in Times Square; New Yorkers and tourists have adopted them as places to sit and check their phones. St. Patrick’s Cathedral recently received large stones to line its sidewalks and protect crowds from Fifth Avenue drivers, and Rockefeller Center, across the street, has heavy planters. Trump Tower, of course, got its anti-vehicle barriers last November, on Election Day. Europe, too, has altered its streets: in Paris, new bollards protect visitors to the Louvre’s pedestrian plaza.

In Gotham, police are also deploying empty trucks and cars as protection. Police and sanitation trucks now block off many entrances to parades and street fairs, where, even after 9/11, a mobile wooden barrier sufficed. In some cases, security measures mitigate problems created by other security measures. Ten years ago, patrons didn’t line up for a security check before entering a Broadway theater; today, all theaters make an extra-theatrical event out of checking ladies’ purses, and high-profile shows wand guests with metal detectors. This process creates lines of hundreds of people outside, hemmed in by flimsy metal crowd-control barriers. To mitigate the risk of an attack on such lines, the NYPD has quietly begun shutting down some theater streets just before shows. On matinee days, drivers can’t drop off their passengers near Hamilton; thwarted by empty police vans, they must leave them half a block away.

So far, many of these efforts seem temporary, the way that taking off one’s shoes at the airport once seemed temporary. They’re likely permanent, or at least indefinite. New York needs more such measures, and needs to deploy them in a systemic, rational manner. It’s not clear, for example, why a Hamilton crowd merits a closed street, but a Cats crowd a few blocks away doesn’t.

It’s also unclear how the city will protect the masses of pedestrians in midtown over the Christmas season, which starts next Thursday with the arrival of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. Concrete, stone, and metal can protect some sensitive buildings, but uncontrolled, unvetted drivers near throngs of pedestrians pose an unacceptable and growing risk. People on foot greatly outnumber those in large vehicles, and it’s impractical to wall them off altogether; such a step would create the risk of stampede. Pedestrians deserve more space, not less, and more protection.

On some of midtown’s most crowded blocks, particularly around Rockefeller Center, Bryant Park, and Times Square, the city should shut down traffic altogether, with entrance only for delivery drivers who pass a checkpoint and for cab drivers transporting the handicapped or elderly. Likewise, city officials have long known that users of the Hudson River bike path were not adequately protected from bad drivers—and thus from people with malicious intent, as well. In 2006, a doctor and a recent NYU graduate were killed within six months of one another, mowed down by an NYPD tow-truck driver and a drunk driver, respectively. Last year, a hit-and-run driver killed another cyclist; he recently received a short prison sentence.

The greenway, the busiest such path in the nation, is vital transportation infrastructure. Yet cyclists and walkers must contend with far too many drivers turning off or onto the adjacent busy highway at high speed. If the city had properly reduced these conflicts by protecting more of the greenway, as de Blasio administration officials have now pledged to do, it likely could have prevented Tuesday’s attack, or reduced its impact, just as Times Square’s Bloomberg-era redesign blunted Rojas’s deadly drive.

Some might say that such changes mean the terrorists have won, but by extension, that means that the terrorists win when I consent to a search of my belongings to get on an airplane; like most people, I prefer that my fellow passengers undergo such searches rather than not. Moreover, many ways exist to fight terror. Prevention and mitigation at the street and sidewalk level is only one. Fixing the streets is also far easier, and yields clearer positive results, than some of the other measures Western countries have taken over the past 16 years, one month, and 21 days.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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