Hundreds of people watched in horror yesterday as a driver navigated his vehicle onto a sidewalk in Times Square, killing an 18-year-old tourist and injuring 22 others. The car plowed into the heart of a recently completed pedestrian plaza designed to keep walkers safe, eventually ramming into bollards along 45th Street.
The 26-year-old driver was making an illegal U-turn while driving south on Seventh Avenue when he entered the sidewalk near 42nd Street and drove three blocks north. Although he did not test positive for alcohol, and drug tests are still pending, the driver, who was taken into custody at the scene, has a troubled history and two previous DWI arrests.
In recent years, vehicles have been increasingly employed as weapons of terror, with mass murderers intentionally driving trucks into crowds of people in France, Germany, and Sweden. The fact that this driver was “just” potentially under the influence may have offered relief to some New Yorkers, but it shouldn’t be any reassurance. New Yorkers are far more likely to be killed by a drunk driver.
In 2014, the city launched a Vision Zero strategy in an attempt to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries. But even as traffic deaths overall have gone down in the city over the past three years, pedestrian deaths have risen slightly over the same period. Last year 144 pedestrians were killed on New York City streets.
As part of the Department of Transportation’s focus on redesigning a series of intersections known to be particularly dangerous to walkers, several streets were closed in Times Square temporarily starting in 2009 to create a pedestrian-only plaza nicknamed the “Bowtie.” The permanent version, designed by Snøhetta, was finished in December after seven years of construction.
Since 2009, the various street closures and turning restrictions have reduced crashes in Times Square, as well as improved vehicular flow in the surrounding streets. But it’s notable that the car in yesterday’s incident was only stopped by a series of retractable bollards on the sidewalk that were custom-designed for the specific needs of Times Square. (The manufacturers of the bollards were apparently sending out press releases yesterday touting their life-saving product.)
“One of the key challenges of transforming this congested vehicular district into a place for people was making Times Square more comfortable and natural to walk through, while securing it against unpredictable tragedies like the one that took place yesterday,” says Craig Dykers, founding partner of Snøhetta. The bollards offer protection while allowing people to move comfortably and naturally through the space, he says. “Without these considerations, more people would have been…