NOV 1, 2017
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.
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.”