Ever since cars first rolled onto city streets more than a century ago, pedestrians have lived with the threat of murder by motor vehicle. (The very first traffic death in America was in Manhattan.) Drivers slam their cars into crowds of people because they are drunk, angry, panicked, distracted, or fanatical. Whatever the reason, the result is always the same: streets strewn with mangled bodies. It’s easy to shrug off those deaths as a fact of modern life, but the truth is that we have a simple tool to prevent many of them — one that cities don’t use nearly enough. Bollards, knee-high columns of steel so slender that foot traffic flows freely among them, and so inconspicuous that people forget they are there, can be fiercely effective both at stopping vehicular attacks and deterring them in the first place.
When Richard Rojas barreled down a two-block stretch of sidewalk in Times Square last May, killing Alyssa Elsman, his Honda finally came to rest on a set of steel bollards that had only recently been installed to protect a pedestrian plaza. Had planners drawn the perimeter more widely, or broken his trajectory with an obstacle placed strategically mid-block, they would have drastically reduced the mayhem.
The driver who attacked Barcelona yesterday, killing 14 and maiming dozens, drove unimpeded along a quarter-mile of Las Ramblas’ wide, leafy median. “There are a million ways of preventing that,” says Rob Reiter, a pedestrian-safety consultant. “If you put in a 20-foot-wide fountain that people could sit on, plus four or five bollards, and make them retractable so that emergency vehicles could get through, that would have taken away his ability to kill a lot of people.” One of Reiter’s clients, Calpipe Security Bollards, installed the stanchions in Times Square.
The vulnerability of pedestrians is a morbid downside of a great improvement in city life. As more and more cities (including Barcelona) ban cars from central areas, planners have to confront the fact that crowds of pedestrians are natural targets, and the more people congregate there, the higher the number of potential casualties. Bollards make it easy to enshrine those urban transformations and at the same time protect pedestrians who are reclaiming turf from cars. James Alex Fields, the white supremacist who mowed down protestors in Charlottesville last weekend and killed Heather Heyer, used one of the streets that cross the pedestrian Downtown Mall. A county employee reportedly warned the city council in April that the setup made the Mall vulnerable to a terrorist attack; he was politely rebuffed.
In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio has made reducing pedestrian casualties a priority, and council member Ydanis Rodriguez has called for better sidewalk protections. Many will see that as just one more element of an already invasive and expensive security apparatus. The streets around Trump Tower have become an oppressive no-man’s land, excluding pedestrians as well as vehicles from a chunk of midtown Manhattan during the president’s sojourn. But unlike concrete barriers, fences, and temporary roadblocks, bollards can feel like ordinary pieces of street furniture, closer to lampposts or traffic signs than fortifications. They are not cheap — Reiter estimates that a single $2,500 piece can cost as much as $5,000 by the time it’s installed on a New York street — but they need not be ubiquitous to work. Instead of lining curbs with armies of stanchions, placing a few at busy intersections and a couple at mid-block can help deter deliberate attacks and mitigate the carnage from accidents. And while elaborate security cordons around specific buildings simply shifts the danger a few dozen feet, bollards can protect large areas that are vulnerable precisely because they attract the daily life of a city as well as those with grisly intent.