In the coming days, politicians will try to convince you that what happened on the West Side Highway in Manhattan this week was an issue of terrorism, immigration, or religion. But just like the plague of mass shootings is a gun problem, the thousands of people killed by cars as they walk our streets every year is a car problem.
A gun lobbyist would typically step in right about now to ask whether those who demand gun control after mass shootings also want to ban cars after events like this week. To which I say: Hell yes. Cars don’t belong on the streets of big cities, and we should do everything in our power to get rid of them.
You can’t stop crazy. But you can reduce the number of people allowed to drive their 4,000 pound machines into city parks, along city beaches, past playgrounds, and alongside the sidewalks of the most pedestrian-packed places in the nation. If we banned cars from every city in the US tomorrow, we would stop vehicular terrorism overnight — and save thousands of lives.
When a man shot and killed 58 people at a Las Vegas music festival last month, no one pointed to the lack of bulletproof vests worn by concertgoers, because the problem was clearly the stacks of weapons stockpiled in his hotel room.
The truck that was used to kill eight people on Tuesday is no different, except unlike firearms, cars are still welcomed unconditionally in every city in the US. Gun ownership has its own constitutional guarantee — there's no equivalent for cars — but imagine if cities embraced guns the way they do vehicles: Free gun storage outside your apartment! A designated lane in the park for concealed carriers!
More than 40,000 Americans were killed by cars in 2016 — the equivalent of a fully-loaded Boeing 747 falling out of the sky once every three days. It’s more than the 33,000 annual gun deaths, and more than the 20,000-plus people killed by synthetic opioids that year. Half of those automobile fatalities occurred in urban areas; about 6,000 of them were pedestrians.
Exactly 10 years and 11 months ago, a different man steered onto the same Manhattan bike path that Sayfullo Saipov did this week. He also accelerated for a mile, and then he killed my best friend. My friend’s name was Eric Ng, and he died on the same block as Saipov’s first victim. The drunk driver struck Eric so hard that he was knocked out of his sneakers.
This happened in the middle of the night, but if that drunk had been a day-drinker, I have no doubt the death toll would have been as high as it was on Tuesday.
After Eric was killed, the city of New York put up a few plastic bollards along the bike path, as though this was not a car problem, but a bollard problem. On Tuesday, Saipov drove right over those plastic bollards.
Vehicular terrorism is still a minuscule part of the overall picture of pedestrians being killed by cars. But it is a rising tide, with automobiles used as weapons this year alone in Charlottesville, Barcelona, London, and Stockholm. But before terrorism experts start calling for a radical redesign of our security culture and the NYPD permanently surrounds Trump Tower with dump trucks, let’s make this easy: Ban cars in New York City. Boom, you saved all those lives.
Of course, the cities we have today could not ban cars tomorrow. No current public transportation system functions well enough to carry an entire city population. Not everyone can walk or ride a bike. Too many taxi drivers would be out of work.
We are not ready, but the car-free city is being tested in bits and pieces around the world. We should learn from all of them, and apply those lessons as soon as possible.
Oslo plans to ban all cars from its city center by 2019. Madrid has a goal of 500 car-free acres by 2020. In Paris and Mexico City, people are restricted from driving into the city center on certain days based on the age of their cars or the number on their license plates. Inside Barcelona’s superblocks, all car traffic that isn’t local is banned. Over 75 miles of roads in Bogotá, Colombia, close to traffic for a full day every week.
With an extensive network of bike lanes, and plans for a bike superhighway that stretches to the suburbs, Copenhagen has convinced more than half of its population to bike to work. A planned city outside Chengdu was developed to make walking easier than driving, with all destinations built within a 15-minute stroll. In 180 cities, some 31 million people globally leave their cars at home each day and ride on bus rapid transit systems, a sort of aboveground subway built of buses. When London introduced a congestion fee that charged drivers a premium to travel into the city center, so many people took public transit instead that traffic crashes declined by 40%.
Self-driving cars have the potential to prevent anyone from being killed by a car ever again. Of course, that requires a city of only autonomous vehicles, and manufacturers who care about the vehicular death toll. If manufacturers don’t program driverless cars to protect pedestrians, then we will be corralled to the sidewalk like so many sheep, blamed for our deaths should we be so bold as to venture near the roar of traffic. That does not sound like an idyllic urban future.
Terrorism is not predictable or preventable. But the threat of cars in cities is in our control. A hundred years ago, when cars first became an accessible purchase for city dwellers, and the idea of a pedestrian being killed by a car was still shocking, the City Club of New York published a “municipal murder map,” which exclusively listed locations where people had been killed by cars.
Such a map would have been a service this week. It would have shown that on the same bike path where an ISIS sympathizer killed eight people on Tuesday, Olga Cook was also killed by a driver in 2016. Carl Henry Nacht was killed there in 2006. Later that year, so was my best friend.
Back then, I did my best to make sure it would never happen again. In response, someone installed some plastic bollards.