Yes, We Do (Need to) Talk About Truck Control

Yes, We Do (Need to) Talk About Truck Control

In the days following the recent massacre in Las Vegas, as most Americans were calling for better gun control laws to prevent similar incidents in the future, many conservative lawmakers decried the supposed “politicization” in a time of tragedy, instead urging patience.  A handful of right-wing nut jobs clung to a particularly idiotic talking point: “If it had been a truck attack, would we be talking about truck control right now?”

(Header image: a phalanx of temporary barriers protect bicyclists and pedestrians from vehicular attack at last month's CicLAvia open streets event in Los Angeles.)

I hate to even dignify this stupidity by reminding you of it.  As many people rightly pointed out at the time, drivers require extensive testing before obtaining a license, and vehicles require registration and insurance.  But that is only the tip of the truck control iceberg.  Since the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building (if not earlier), and even moreso since the attacks of September 11, 2001, controlling vehicular access to “soft targets” has been a signature of architecture and urban design in cities. Shiny stainless steel bollards, heavy concrete barriers disguised as planters, even stairways and ramps have been deployed as multitasking design features to keep vehicular attacks at bay.  These vehicular control measures have become so ubiquitous that we hardly even notice them.

The point is, we do have “truck control.”  And we have been thinking and talking about “truck control” even more lately in the aftermath of recent truck attacks in Europe.

And then yesterday, a man intent on murder, drove a pickup truck down a 20 block length of “protected” bike path in Manhattan before slamming into a school bus.  Eight people were killed, and eleven more were injured.

As the details of the horrific event were still unfolding a few people did start talking about truck control, including New York Magazine architecture critic Justin Davidson, the transit website Second Avenue Sagas, and a regular New York bike commuter (and, full disclosure, a close friend).

Many of these comments were met with skepticism and fair amount of “we can’t let the terrorists win” rhetoric.  (If implementing better protections for bike paths is letting the terrorists win, I wonder how those commenters would characterize the absurdist security theatre playing out in the world’s airports every day.)  But just to be clear—and to answer the ridiculous question I mentioned above—yes, in the immediate aftermath of this truck attack, there were people who were talking about truck control.  Then again, we already have “truck control” for buildings and sensitive locations, just not very much for the everyday humans who walk or bike.

Implementing better protections for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure wouldn’t just protect us from terrorism, it could save lives every day.  In 2015, over 6,000 pedestrians and bicyclists were killed by cars.  That’s about 15 every day.  And those numbers are only getting worse.  There are plenty of proven strategies for prevent this carnage.  Most involve slowing down car traffic, and providing better separation between cars and bicycles or pedestrians.  

Unfortunately, our current political system seems intractably beholden to the interests of drivers.  Here in Los Angeles, city councilmember Mike Bonin is facing a recall campaign as a result of road redesign he implemented in his district after a bicyclist was killed.  Drivers (many who don’t even live in Bonin’s district) are so vehement in their prioritization of shorter commute times over human lives that even though the road diet has been reversed and all vehicular lanes have been restored the recall campaign is still proceeding.  And this isn’t limited to car-centric Los Angeles.  In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has been a vocal opponent of congestion pricing, prioritizing the interests of drivers in the city with the nation’s most extensive transit network.

Implementing better protections for bicycle and pedestrian spaces in our cities is about more than just preventing the next terrorist attack like the one that happened in New York (or those that preceded it in Europe).  Better truck (and car) control could save lives in US cities every day.  As with gun control, we know there are strategies to reduce and prevent the needless loss of life when cars crash into bicycles and pedestrians.  But much like with gun control, we must actually prioritize human life over the convenience of a few minutes saved in traffic for drivers.