I’ve been thinking a bit over the weekend about the attacks in Barcelona. And Charlottesville. And London, Nice, and more places than I can quite keep track of recently. And what I’ve been thinking about most is the weapon of choice in all these attacks: motor vehicles. Cars, vans, trucks. Objects whose purpose is to enable people and goods to get from A to B. A purpose I have long considered a main driver of my professional life. Pun intended. But in these cases, the transport purpose of vehicles is being perverted.
Not that motor vehicles have ever been innocent. Even before the idea to consciously use them as terrorist weapons was fomented, motor vehicles have killed people in their thousands. Through the sprawling, sedentary urban forms and the subsequent inactivity they foster, through carbon emissions and local air pollution, and of course, through road traffic incidents. Some who is run over by accident is as much a casualty as someone who is run over on purpose.
Which is not to say that an accidental weapon is as potent as one used with intent. The terrorists, no matter their ideological background, are driving into crowds, into pedestrian areas, in places where they can cause the most damage. So how do we limit the damage?
Obviously there are debates about surveillance and police presence in vulnerable places, about the means available to gather intelligence about terrorist cells or radicalised and potentially violent individuals, about the regulations and background checks required to access vehicles, particularly rented ones. Still, if transport is the weapon, surely transport planning can be part of the solution.
The security services have already been speaking on the radio about concrete barriers and similar physical infrastructure. Indeed, they have been talking about such things for years. I once attended a meeting in Wales back in the days when the new Wembley Stadium was under construction, and Cardiff was hosting football matches and events of international importance. The Welsh police and anti-terrorist units discussed the need then to have physical infrastructure that could stop car bombs from approaching and detonating near ‘soft targets’ like the stadium. The room was full of planners, transport planners, architects, engineers, and urban designers. We were being tasked not with coming up with the idea of having physical barriers in the first place, nor even necessarily where they should go. No, our job was to integrate such barriers into the urban fabric.
So what is the transport planning part of the solution to this new use of vehicles as weapons? It is to develop the public realm with beautiful planters, seating, bollards, and other street furniture or even street art that also act as barriers to motor vehicles. Perhaps it is also to create new pedestrian spaces. Or make more spaces pedestrian-only, 24-7, protected by physical infrastructure, rather than opened up to motor vehicles and deliveries at various times of day. And then to solve the delivery issues by creating appropriate delivery consolidation locations, loading bays, and more creative delivery options, such as bicycle couriers who are allowed to enter the pedestrian area. And whilst we’re on bicycles, why not combine the creation of new, segregated bicycle lanes with lines of attractive and protective concrete planters? Planters have been used instead of kerbs or verges to segregate cycle facilities before, so why not make sure they also serve a defensive function on crowded roads and bridges?
If we put our minds to it, transport planners can think of many ways that they could help develop a defence system to deal not only with the use of motor vehicles as weapons, but also to address some of the other dangers motor vehicles present to human life. Concurrent objectives could include segregating vulnerable cyclists and pedestrians from motor vehicles to reduce accidents, creating better spaces for pedestrians and cyclist to encourage more active travel, and increasing the distance of places crowded with people from the generators of local air pollution. It might not be enough to completely stop the use of motor vehicles as a weapon in the future, but we can do something constructive to save lives now.