It’s not an accident

Preface: there are not two sides to hate, bigotry, or white supremacy. There can be no space for these attitudes. Countless morally sound arguments opposing these odious issues have been presented by nearly every spiritual, ethical, and political authority on the planet.

In this post, I want to focus on a specific intersection of our urban places, hateful attitudes and traffic violence.

A community parade in Savannah, Georgia uses a public street.

Recent events in Charlottesville and Barcelona have shattered the illusion that cars and people on foot can coexist peacefully. Groups that embrace hate from ISIS to white supremacists have weaponized the automobile against civil society.

This is not new. Here is a short and incomplete list of incidents where autos have been turned into instruments of terrorists.

  • Nice, France  July – 86 dead
  • Stockholm, Sweden – April – 4 dead
  • London, UK – March – 5 dead
  • Jerusalem, Israel – January – 4 dead
  • Berlin, Germany  – December 2016 – 12 dead
  • Columbus, Ohio – November 2016 – 11 wounded

Why has this happened?

There is no single reason why cars and trucks are being used as weapons in global terrorist campaigns. But there are some explanations for why terrorists are choosing autos to maim and kill pedestrians.

  • The prioritization of speed over safety. For decades, our transportation infrastructure has been designed to prioritize the speed and convenience of automotive trips over the safety of the traveler. This has led to design decisions that place pedestrians in vulnerable spots. Terrorists have realized this vulnerability can be exploited using conventional vehicles.
  • The notion of ‘shared responsibility’ for traffic safety. Even within the organizations tasked with ensuring safety in our transportation systems, there is this notion that everybody – from the elderly to the adolescent – is responsible for their own safety. This is inconsistent with reality. Drivers of cars and trucks have a much higher responsibility as their choices can cause injury and death for others, while the same cannot be said of pedestrians and bicyclists. Terrorists exploit this asymmetry that remains unacknowledged by many civil servants.
  • The lack of public space in neighborhoods and cities. When there are no parks, plazas, or other spaces for people to assemble, they turn to the streets. Unsurprisingly, this leads to conflict between drivers (who get frustrated by delays) and the protesters (who use the street as a place to assemble). Terrorists leverage this frustration in their sympathizers and use it to encourage vehicular violence against anonymous people.

What city leaders do about it?

Thankfully, quite a lot can be done to keep people safe in cities. Many of these tactics actually make cities more humane and pleasant for everybody by enhancing the public realm. However, these strategies may not be favored by all so-called traffic engineers who see their mandate as the reduction in delay for drivers. If your priority is the protection of people in the public domain, you should consider re-configuring streets and gathering places to ensure the safety of pedestrians. Here are some methods:

  • Reduce vehicle speed. Over three centuries ago, Newton published his famous laws of motion – these laws still apply today to calculate the force of a moving car. To reduce the kinetic force of a car (aka its destructive potential), either the mass or the speed must be reduced. City planners can’t do much about vehicle mass besides truck restrictions – but speed can be controlled through street design geometry. Urban places can be modified to reduce vehicle speed in myriad ways:
  • Provide physical barriers. Have you ever noticed those giant red concrete spheres at the entrance to Target? What about those short columns in front of government buildings? These are bollards – their primary purpose is to prevent vehicles from entering spaces where they don’t belong. These barriers absorb the impact of a speeding vehicle and prevent harm to people. Other objects can be used as a physical barrier between crowded spaces and traffic:
    • cars parked along the curb
    • heavy-duty benches
    • street lights
    • planters and mature trees
    • protected bicycle lanes
    • bus stop shelters

Perhaps in the near future there will be a protocol for Vehicle-to-Pedestrian (V2P) communication that will alert people when a dangerous vehicle is approaching. With the growth of autonomous vehicle technologies, there may be other intelligent options on the horizon to protect pedestrians from motorists. But there is no point in waiting for these technologies to mature – the tools to protect pedestrians are freely available to any city willing to apply them.

The measures described protect everybody on the street. Our First Amendment may protect immoral and deeply offensive speech. Our cities can provide physical protection to everybody in the public realm.