It’s time to start thinking more aggressively about protecting people on foot in cities.
A few days ago, I sat at a café table in the middle of Times Square. Protected from traffic by a row of shiny, hip-high stanchions, I observed the crowds flowing through the recently reconstructed plazas, the way passers-by alighted on the polished black granite benches, walked swiftly through some areas, and lingered in others. Had I been sitting in the same spot shortly after noon on Thursday, when Richard Rojas barreled up the Seventh Avenue sidewalk in his dark red Honda, crushing pedestrians and killing an 18-year-old visitor from Michigan, Alyssa Elsman, I would have been shielded from danger. The car wound up impaled on the steel bollards, simultaneously proving their effectiveness and their uselessness: They kept a lethal weapon out of the safe zone but did nothing to stop the mayhem a few feet away. That’s the thing about securing a patch of real estate: it simply moves danger down the block. The most comprehensive solution is to enlarge the protected area.
If Richard Rojas had jumped out of his car yelling “Allahu Akbar!” his act would have been treated as terrorism, prompting investigations, crackdowns, and new security protocols. When I saw the alert flash on my phone, I immediately thought of last year’s truck attack in Nice. Instead, the mayor reassured us, we were dealing with a mere car crash, a more lethal and common occurrence and therefore one that usually merits a quick dose of headlines and then barely a second thought. As the MSNBC host Christopher Hayes tweeted, “This horrible event in Times Square looks like DWI, which kills *thousands of more people a year than terrorism* so we can ignore it.”
Rojas was no drunk driver who lost control of the wheel. It’s hard to know what was on his addled mind as he cruised through midtown amid the herd of cabs and vans, but his choice of Times Square was surely not casual. He targeted the spot in New York City where the largest number of potential victims is reliably concentrated in the smallest possible area. I wonder whether, as he drove south on Seventh Avenue, he intended to veer into the pedestrian plaza, found his access blocked by bollards, and so continued on until he realized that a would-be mass murderer’s best option at that point was to change course. A disturbing video taken by a bystander shows that Rojas waited until 42nd Street intersection was clear, then roared into a controlled U-turn and hurtled uptown on the sidewalk, crossing 43rd and 44th Streets before finally crashing at 45th.
That horrifying scene was also oddly familiar. In 2001,76-year-old Sidney Weinstein rammed a van into the crowd at Herald Square, killing seven. He claimed the gas pedal had gotten stuck, and police declined to file charges. In 1992,74-year-old Stella Maychick tapped the gas pedal instead of the brake, and plowed into Washington Square Park, killing five and shattering dozens. Again, the killing was deemed an accident. The latest horror added only slightly to the toll of pedestrians killed by vehicles on the streets of New York: 149 dead last year, with many more condemned to years of surgery, rehabilitation, and painkillers. Prosecutions are rare.
Pedestrian fatalities have fallen over the decades, but they ticked up last year, and their complete elimination — the goal of the De Blasio administration’s Vision Zero plan — remains elusive. Just a week ago, the City Council finally approved the “Barnes Dance” crossing, a system of diagonal crosswalks and timed stoplights that keep all vehicles out of an intersection for a while, allowing pedestrians to flow in all directions. There’s nothing new about this idea — it just fell out of favor because it inconvenienced drivers. Privileging pedestrians should seem like the default in Manhattan, but it isn’ t yet. About ten minutes before Rojas gunned the engine, I was chatting with a Broadway pro who complained that the pedestrian plazas in Times Square had made it hard for him to get in and out of the theater district by cab. “You just have to take public transit, ” he said, ruefully. He felt that too much foot traffic makes it hard for cars; I conclude the opposite: Cars have no business being in Times Square at all.
Ironically, the current incarnation of Times Square shows the way to greater safety. A decade ago, pedestrians overflowed the crowded sidewalks and spilled into traffic lanes. Then, in 2008, the city closed five blocks of Broadway to traffic, painted the asphalt, and filled the former roadway with rickety café tables. Now, after six years of construction, that turf has been definitively turned over to people on foot, thanks to a design by the architecture firm Snøhetta. A pattern of metal discs in the dark pavers reflects the colors from the screens above. The Times Square alliance has been moving around planters and kiosks and experimenting with Snøhetta’s new, heavy-duty model of wood-and-steel tables and chairs, all to differentiate pedestrian thoroughfares from quieter, slower areas. Elmos and other costumed characters can now only do business in small, clearly bordered zones. One of the organization’s goals is to lure at least some of the more than 100,000 New Yorkers who work in the immediate area to mix in with the population of tourists.
Until yesterday, one of the key features of the redesign went practically unnoticed: the custom-designed steel bollards, tough enough to withstand a vehicular strike but slender enough to let pedestrians flow through without. Council member Ydanis Rodriguez advocates installing these in other choke points around the city. That’s just one tool in an arsenal of street design and enforcement that can make walking (and biking) around New York a less lethal way of getting around. Maybe no barrage of rules or redesigned streets, no ticket-writing strategy or number of speed cameras can prevent a stoned psycho from getting behind the wheel and hurling his car at defenseless bodies. But the killing of Alyssa Elsman should not have let the city breathe easily. Instead, we should make sure that murder by vehicle becomes more shocking and less routine.
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