The first hint of disaster came in an email I received while working at home.
“Did I hear right?” read the subject line. “In locker room…told truck went down bike lane on West Side Highway?”
What? I had heard nothing about it.
Then my cell phone started buzzing with texts. My husband’s phone rang. We switched on CNN to learn, to our horror, that a man driving a truck had mowed down a group of cyclists on the Hudson River Greenway in the vicinity of Chambers Street. At that time 6 people had been counted dead; the toll would later rise to 8, with about a dozen injuries.
The early image on TV was sickening. Behind police tape, ruined bicycles lay scattered by the side of the path. I recognized the name of a rental company on the handlebar bags of two of the bikes. It turned out that 5 of the dead were a group of Argentine men, friends since high school, on a celebratory visit to New York City.
My first thought on receiving those calls and texts was of gratitude. For family, for friends, for people in our lives in New York City and around the country who checked in on us as news of the terrorist attack went national. Their concern stemmed in part from the direct knowledge that my husband and I live in downtown Manhattan and ride bicycles for transportation.
So, my second thought was: That could have been me or my family or friends from our extended cycling community. I frequent the mile-long stretch from Houston Street south to Chambers Street, where Sayfullo Saipov mercilessly mowed down his victims. Pedaling the greenway that parallels West Street connects me to my mother-in-law in Battery Park City and to meetings in the Wall Street area. It’s not always the most direct route; I choose the greenway because it offers car-free safety, not to mention a breeze off the water and pretty views of the New Jersey skyline.
On one email thread about the attack a friend referred to our dear greenway, and in that moment the sentiment fit perfectly. We count on our greenway not only for transportation from here to there, but for leisure and recreation. On a sunny weekend, its length is packed with adults and children, walking, jogging, cycling, rollerblading. “It is as much a sanctuary as anything else,” said former NYC DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn in a post-attack interview.
To be sure, I’ve come across cars on the greenway myself, mostly farther to the north. My encounters were in daylight and the drivers were presumably sober, mostly embarrassed, and proceeding very gingerly to the nearest exit. Still, given the narrowness of the path, any vehicle bigger than the golf-carts routinely driven along the path looks menacing. I cannot imagine what terror a speeding flatbed truck would evoke. A family member of one victim, who was on the path at the time of the attack but uninjured, referred to “the danger that came from behind.”
Which leads to my third thought: What can be done to prevent tragedies like the one that ended 8 innocent lives along the Hudson on a beautiful Halloween afternoon? The terrorist drove his rented truck onto the greenway with relative ease. Advocates led by Transportation Alternative have called for the addition of more protections to the greenway since 2006. That’s when 22-year-old cyclist Eric Ng was run down by a drunken driver, just one example of a preventable death.
Bollards – vertical posts used as physical barriers to vehicles — are an obvious choice. Prior to Tuesday’s tragedy, bollards blocked access at some intersections along the greenway, but despite calls by advocates no standard had been developed by city and state officials.
By Thursday, two days after the attack, bulky concrete barriers had begun to be hoisted into place at 57 intersections. It is a measure to demonstrate action by the city and state. But given the pinch points and dangers to cyclists and pedestrians posed by Jersey barriers set at angles, one hopes that this is temporary, until permanent and appropriately installed protections can be delivered. (Jersey barriers are the concrete modules commonly used to separate traffic lanes.)
But here’s a crucial take-away from this tragedy: Protecting cyclists and pedestrians from vehicular crashes is an imperative that extends beyond the Hudson River Greenway to bikeways, pedestrian plazas and crowded sidewalks. In the streets of New York City we, meaning pedestrians and cyclists, are all soft targets relative to multi-ton vehicles. This week’s tragedy on the greenway was a horrific terrorist act, but preventable traffic violence ends too many lives on a regular basis. Crashes with cars killed 18 cyclists and 144 pedestrians in New York City in 2016.
As Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White told Fast Company, in perhaps the best article I read after the attack, “The widespread outcry after this act of terrorism is a chance for the city to do everything it can to prevent this from happening again, and it just so happens that those countermeasures will prevent more routine acts of reckless driving.”
An excellent op-ed in the New York Times similarly drew the connection between sensibly designed infrastructure to create safe streets and prevention of terrorism. It enumerated forward-thinking municipal policies in cities from London to Tokyo that limit the ability of vehicles to create mayhem while helping keep pedestrians and cyclists safe on a daily basis — with side benefits like reductions in pollution and congestion.
We need to do better as a city to protect vulnerable street users every day, to commit more determinedly to the deeply human core of Vision Zero. This is crucial at a time when cycling for transportation is growing and is to be encouraged for all its benefits to individuals and to quality of life in an increasingly congested urban setting.
I returned to riding my bicycle on the greenway on Friday. The intersection where I typically pedal onto the bike path, at Christopher and West streets, is the first major intersection north of where the terrorist drove onto the greenway. It has long had a line of sturdy bollards paralleling the highway. Unaccountably, they leave ample room for a vehicle to enter via the north or south pedestrian crosswalks. Two or three bollards added to either side would admit pedestrians and cyclists while blocking cars. This intersection alone underscores the critical need to develop a standard for protective measures on the greenway and in other public places. Now.