Ambulances, fire trucks, hearses and other emergency vehicles had blocked part of Union Square, in New York City, as they worked to help a man who had fallen onto the icy sidewalk outside the United Nations.
But as the ambulance slowly approached, its siren blasted, honked and sounded its horns. Dozens of pedestrians were slowing down to watch, some even blocking the firetrucks and ambulances, as the man lay lying on the ground. A police officer later explained to the patient’s family, weeping beside him, that they had to stop the ambulance to avoid being hit.
That sound became ubiquitous throughout the city’s busy streets. Last year, the city’s public safety department announced an initiative to build bollards to keep pedestrians from making sudden turns in densely populated areas. But in crowded neighborhoods like Union Square, with cars driven fast on narrow streets, and people clamoring to get by, don’t these sidewalk-destroying bollards fail to pose a real safety threat?
What a messy debate
Whether to install a large metal barrier to keep pedestrians from walking the wrong way, protect pedestrians, drivers and emergency personnel from falling stones and bricks from built-up, damaged structures, is a serious question.
Yet, people have kept asking: can pedestrians really make decisions about whether they should walk the “wrong” way, or whether it is safer to just wait and cross the street when on foot?
The Department of Transportation explained the difficulties it faces in regulating this kind of pedestrian behavior: “Safety assessments in New York City are complex challenges and require careful consideration of the complexities of different buildings, the geography of high streets, the capacity of roadway shoulders and crosswalks, and bollards and other physical obstacles.”
Other experts argue that fixing the problem is not as difficult as city officials would make it seem. Citing past bollard designs that had proven effective, John Burns, a senior program officer at the funder-run, New York City-based Aldus, said that the agency is “legally entitled to paint the bollards black and make them look like a crosswalk, even if pedestrians do not understand it.”
If bollards cause any harm to pedestrians, that they should be made plainly visible or painted red to alert pedestrians to the sidewalk, Burns argued, is beyond his expertise. In fact, a city report found that the majority of the people injured by Union Square Bollards are pedestrians or bicyclists, not drivers or emergency responders.
And it remains unclear, just how bollards function as obstacle-free walkways. So, should bollards be made visible from a couple feet away? Should they be painted red? Should they even be located on a sidewalk?
Not in our subway
Crossing even a single subway platform can be a challenge. It takes a few seconds to memorize the rule of thirds (read: not to step before a handrail or on the platform) and to still feel safe enough to wander into oncoming train traffic.
Deciding whether to walk or ride the bus or subway can be a matter of deliberate deference. But try stepping onto a street a few streets away from a train station and see how long you will be able to spare.
Because most New Yorkers park their cars not far from their destinations, the risks posed by crossing busy streets is even higher than simply walking in subways.
Is that what authorities want people to do?
Given how often pedestrians violate existing rules to get to their favorite shops, on their favorite sidewalks, and in the cases of buses and trains, bollards may make life less safe for a pedestrian. Perhaps that’s why bollards have instead become a controversial tool.