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Opinion: Living with vehicular violence in America

Posted by on November 1st, 2017 at 10:25 am

Interstate Avenue.jpg

(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

What happened in lower Manhattan is a nightmare.

Unfortunately it’s a recurring one for many of us who ride bicycles in cities.

The idea that cars are weapons is not new to us. What’s new — now that even more innocent lives have been lost — is that thinking of cars as weapons isn’t as radical of an idea as it was 24 hours ago.

Cars are weapons. When someone drives one it becomes a loaded weapon. But unlike guns, cars are used by nearly everyone, everywhere, everyday. And unlike guns, cars don’t attract attention from authorities and they carry none of the constroversial stigma that guns do. On the contrary, cars and trucks are incessantly glorified in ways that normalize reckless disregard for everyone on the road except the all-important, all-powerful person behind the wheel. “Keep streets mean,” is Dodge’s irresponsible tagline.

Yesterday everyone saw just how “mean” streets can get when a man opened fire with a rental truck on that bike path. It has been officially tagged terrorism by authorities, making it just the latest in a disturbing global trend. Terrorist groups like ISIS encourage followers to use cars to inflict mass murder. These extremists have found our gaping weak spot. Like a Trojan Horse, weaponized automobiles are an easy way to breach America’s trillion dollar homeland security complex.

The disturbing thing is we didn’t need extremist propaganda to point out this vulnerability.

Just like America’s absurd inability to reign in gun violence has made us a laughingstock abroad, so too has our inability to reign in car abuse. Now we must add tool-for-mass-murder to the mile-long list of negative impacts we are all forced to live with due to the relatively unregulated use of motorized vehicles in this country.

What happened in Manhattan can happen in Portland.

On April 3rd of this year, Henry Nikila intentionally drove his car into a crowd of people in southeast Portland, injuring three of them. Why? They yelled at him to slow down.

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Now more than ever we should create spaces in our cities where people can walk and bike and exist without the threat of vehicular violence. This is NW 13th in Portland, a street that should be carfree more often.

On August 10th 2016, Russell Courtier used his Jeep to intentionally run over and kill Larnell Bruce. Bruce was black and Courtier had ties to white supremacy groups. The murder was ruled a hate crime.

And we’ve reported on numerous cases of intentional vehicular assault and of people who — for whatever reason — drove their cars onto bike-only paths.

To those of us who use bicycles as our daily vehicles, it doesn’t matter why people do these things. It’s the result of their actions we can’t stop thinking about.

Whether fueled by an ideological mission, malice, distraction, racial hatred, or road rage. Whether drunk with anger, alcohol, or religious fervor — there’s always one constant: the immense destructive potential of the automobile.

With anger in America — and anger towards America — at a breaking point, our transportation bureaus must act more like our police bureaus. Their job is no longer to just build roads, but to do whatever it takes to protect all the people who use them. There’s no homeland security until our bikeways and walkways are protected.

We don’t lack solutions, we lack the will to implement them. One solution stands out as both obvious and reasonable: More use of concrete barriers and steel bollards to keep drivers of cars and trucks away from vulnerable road users.

We use metal detectors to keep guns and knives out of buildings, we need bollards and barriers to keep cars out of bikeways.

An article in New York Magazine this morning makes the case:

The horror on the Hudson River Greeenway was an attack on pedestrians and cyclists. It was also eminently preventable. Sayfullo Saipov’s guns were fake, but his truck was real, and he used it to drive block after block after block, unimpeded by car traffic, free to crush Citi Bikes and their riders. He could do so because this ostensibly “protected” bike lane … isn’t…

In recent years, guided by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s allegiance to Vision Zero, the city keeps doling out new bike paths that are separated from ordinary traffic by raised curbs or parking spaces, or else just indicated by stripes of paint. That’s not enough…

We can’t crazy-proof all of New York, but the city could do a far more thorough job of safeguarding places where cyclists and pedestrians cluster.

We can choose to ignore the imminent threats Portlanders face on our streets everyday. We can keep planning and processing and promising forever. Or we can do something real and tangible about it. If our lofty “Vision Zero” proclamation is to have any shred of credibility, we’ll choose the latter.

For insights and updates from activists in Manhattan, follow @brooklynspoke, @transalt, @carolinesampo, @naparstek, @psteely, and @NYC_safestreets on Twitter.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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Drew
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Drew

Just yesterday I was riding on a residential street by mt Tabor, on a street with “sharrows”. When an automobile driver speedily ran a stop sign turning on to the street I was riding on, I had to slam on my brakes and make an emergency stop which luckily I was able to do safely. The next block down at a stop sign he stopped and wouldn’t drive forward in what I took as an attempt to intimidate me while he held up a middle finger at me and yelled for a solid 10 seconds. Even if the car driver is the one in the wrong, he blew a stop sign, not me, they have all the power. He could have backed up into me and hurt me if he had wanted, so I just stood there and waited. Keep your head on a swivel out there.

Kyle Banerjee
Guest

Comparing victims of a real terrorist act with ordinary cyclists navigating issues inherent to cycling is a rotten idea and is disrespectful to actual victims and those who care about them.

Whipping everyone up about this stuff is exactly what terrorists want. Give them the attention they crave and you give them power while encouraging more of the same.

It is even worse to suggest that fully separated infrastructure would have helped. This attack occurred on fully separated infrastructure — guaranteeing that the attacker could mow down vulnerable users unopposed. That same infrastructure trapped them with the attacker.

bikeninja
Guest
bikeninja

For too long, driving a 5000 lb hunk of steel at high speeds has been considered a right here in the USA with only a trivial set of tests preventing nearly anyone from operating a motor vehicle on the public right of way. The only way to solve this is to make operating these dangerous implements a strict privilege acquired by rigorous testing similar to flying a plane, including mental and personality tests. But we have to unlearn 65 years of automobile propaganda that equates driving with freedom. As we are learning, the automobile is more like the famous monkey trap than it is like freedom.

Nick
Guest
Nick

In terms of protecting pedestrians and cyclists from vehicles, bollards was my first thought as well. But then I had to wonder: Is it possible that more people would be injured or killed by an accidental collusion with a bollard than would be saved from a potential terrorist attack? This is impossible to answer, of course, since terrorist attacks are unpredictable, rare, and often cause significant loss of life. At any rate, I think that “hardening” our public spaces against terrorist attack is futile. There will always be a soft opening, as long as we live in a relatively free and open society.

Mike Sanders
Guest
Mike Sanders

My mother visited the nearby 9/11 memorial and strolled along that section of the path during a visit to NYC last week. The path is part of the Hudson River Greenway ped/bike path that runs from Battery Park in southernmost Manhattan along the island’s west shore to the George Washington Bridge and then onward up the valley to Albany. The section where this happened runs on the west side of the West Side Highway for several blocks, separated by islands with trees and bushes. At a stoplight, the guy swerved off the road and onto the adjacent path. There’s a lot of foot and bike traffic on that path because it serves as a very popular connection between Manhattan and the cross-Hudson ferries for Staten Island and the NJ shore. The path is also part of the East Coast Greenway between Maine and Miami. The best way to avoid situations like this is to keep ped/bike paths separate from the street with connecting paths to adjacent streets, like the I-205 trail does in several places. And enforce the no motor vehicles rule on things like the Springwater Trail. Homeless RV’s parking on such facilities, as some did last year, should not be allowed, period. We should be able to find ways to keep things like this from happening again. As we design and build future connections across PDX and beyond, we should make sure that they’re designed to prevent things like this from occurring again.

Doug Hecker
Guest
Doug Hecker

I am an equally opportunistic when it comes to informing both vehicles and cyclists. They both do messed up things daily. I often think that cyclists are in some sort of utopia while riding thus disregarding stop signs amd lights. Like Drew, while I was on SE 78th last week, I had two cyclists blow a stop sign as I was driving the speed limit. They wanted nothing to do with my pissed off reaction. I can’t blame them but better that then for them to be ran over. I also do my fair share of fingers while riding my bike on my daily commute for those drivers who stare at their phones.

But back to the topic, people kill people and they use various devices to do so. Could a cyclist strap a bomb to themselves and ride into a crowd of people? How would we be prepared for that at the Saturday Market? Nice use of terror and gloom as it pertains to Portland.

Daniel Patrick Johnson
Guest
Daniel Patrick Johnson

A guy intentionally ran into someone at a pedalpalooza ride this summer. No serious injuries, and Police showed up shortly.

Alex Reedin
Guest
Alex Reedin

I take issue with the statement that “cars are driven by nearly everyone, everywhere.” This is not true – cars are driven by most voting age adults, most places. Kids can’t drive and can’t vote, and the poor, young adults, the differently abled are both less likely to drive and less likely to vote in a happy ‘coincidence’ for the motor-industrial complex. (Not intending to imply a conspiracy to keep non-drivers from voting – but the lack of mobility associated with not driving in most of the US is likely a contributory factor to lower voting rates among most of these groups).

bikeninja
Guest
bikeninja

Perhaps it is about time we follow the lead of cities like Florence and ban automobiles from the central parts of major cities. Only specially licensed delivery vehicles and cabs would be allowed within the portion of the city where large numbers of people congregate. The motorists can be relegated to the endless vistas of suburbia and exurbia. These automotive wastelands will be too dangerous to transgress by foot or bicycle so there will be no need for sidewalks or streetlights, Since many motorists no longer obey stop signs or red lights such traffic control devices will no longer be needed either. Thus both groups get what they want. A safe human scaled environment for those not addicted to automobiles and a no-holds barred zone of freedom and convenience for everyone else. We can keep rents down in the safe zone by making it law that you can only live there if you do not own a car. As the safe zone becomes overcrowded it can be expanded as needed.

RH
Guest
RH

Can’t live in fear. Continue cycling and be happy. Elected officials won’t do a thing in the near term.

BB
Guest
BB

When terrorists used airplanes to wage an attack on NYC, we immediately made airports high security areas and hired an army of security agents to enforce a stricter way of conducting business. Nothing less should be done regarding motor vehicles – from now on anyone driving a car should have to prove why they are doing so, log a turn by turn manifest and register the time at which they will be using streets. Ignition locks to prove the car trip and operator are valid. Zero tolerance for breaking any law in a car. You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.

Lazy Spinner
Guest
Lazy Spinner

What?! This was a premeditated act of terror where a rental truck was used as a weapon. ISIS has been encouraging these sorts of attacks because it is an obvious means of hitting quick, without warning, and without arousing advance police suspicion. To conflate this with regular folks using a motor vehicle as transportation and local instances of bad driving/road rage is just inflammatory and reeks of cheap click bait.

Following this logic, due to 9/11, air travel is abused because people with anger issues are permitted to fly. They might go to extremes. Restrict flying!

Transporting goods by truck is an abuse because a semi was used to kill people in Lyon. Some owner/operator in the midst of a nasty divorce might go to extremes. Ban the trucking industry!

You know, renting a truck should just be outlawed because Timothy McVeigh bombed a federal building with one. Some guy in a bad mood moving to a new apartment might go to extremes. Mandatory hiring of licensed and bonded professional movers!

Jonathan, I agree with you that our roadways should be made safer for bikes and peds but, you are now slipping into irrational, emotional NRA like invective here. “Did I hear truck and bike in the same sentence? Quick! Deploy “Drivers Bad!!! / Bikes Good!!! / This would not have happened if…” talking points!”

This happened because an angry man with a cause was intent on killing people and found an easy way to do a lot of killing. This did not happen because of poor bike infrastructure design by NYC or liberal driving privileges anymore than it was caused by immigration policy. These poor visitors on Citi Bikes were a target of convenience at the time he decided to strike. He could have just as easily decided to speed down a crowded block of trick-or-treaters or through the NYC Halloween Parade a few hours later. He could’ve waited until Saturday when the path had more people on it. He could have hit the NYC Marathon this coming Sunday. Because it was bike riders, you see a chance to make this about bikes, your site readership, and, ultimately, you.

Champs
Guest
Champs

Looks like it’s terrorism’s turn to be contextualized and co-opted for an agenda less concerned with results than a prescriptive approach to cycling that works for some (if not all) countries, and maybe other ways of getting around if it helps make a case.

The prescription for bollards, barriers, and more comes from an industry that profits from these things. Market research says consumers want protected lanes, and ebikes are a growing profit center. Any business, whether it’s bikes, guns, cars, or anything else, cares more about what sells than what works and they’ll find the data to support it. Surprise of surprises, this informs their benefactors as well.

Human transportation and quality of life are a few of the things I personally put before an industry’s solvency. To that end, I see the goal as safe neighborhood streets for everyone. Replacing millions of car trips with people using active transportation to and from local stores, schools, restaurants, and parks would be far more transformational than a protected, covered and climate-controlled right-of-way parallel to MAX.

These are not radical ends. I simply question the conventional wisdom seen as the means because they represent a commercially driven freeway mentality.

Justin
Guest
Justin

As soon as I saw the news, I saw this as a man using a motor vehicle to murder cyclists. Whatever someone’s motivations might be, that’s what happened, so I agree with you Jonathan. I think people who say your post is disrespectful are somehow elevating these eight victims over all the others that have been intentionally killed by drivers with their motor vehicles. In all due respect, I do not see a person killing cyclists because they hate cyclists as any less terrible than someone doing so because they hate America. These killings are equivalent in my opinion.

eawriste
Guest
eawriste

In May a person used a car to kill people near Times Square. He managed to kill one person, and injured 22. Metal bollards prevented him from entering Times Square. Many more people would have been killed without physical protection.

http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/05/pedestrian-safety-and-the-rampage-in-times-square.html

pdx2wheeler
Guest
pdx2wheeler

Terrorism is designed to instill terror and fear to achieve an ideological aim. I can tell you some drivers I’ve encountered over the years have used that proximity and lack of protection in a concerted effort to achieve their ideological aims of scaring me and other cyclists off the roads. When a person uses their vehicle to harass and intimidate a cyclist that’s not violent car culture, that’s terrorism.

Mike
Guest
Mike

“There’s no homeland security until our bikeways and walkways are protected.

We don’t lack solutions, we lack the will to implement them. One solution stands out as both obvious and reasonable: More use of concrete barriers and steel bollards to keep drivers of cars and trucks away from vulnerable road users.”

The hyperbole overwhelms. But ok, let’s talk about the examples cited and entertain solutions.

How would the city of Portland have stopped Henry Nikila from driving into people standing on SE 97th Avenue? How would the city of Gresham have stopped Russell Courtier from driving over and killing Larnell Bruce?

It appears the only suggested solutions would be to:
1) Have jersey barriers or bollards between the sidewalk and street on every single block of the entire Metro area
2) Ban cars from the entire Metro area and have some sort of total police state to ensure 100% enforcement of said car ban.

Neither of these are going to happen (nor should they), and neither of these would necessarily do anything to prevent any future incidents, whether premeditated, crime of passion, or unintentional.

Paul H
Guest
Paul H

The idea of separating automobiles from any space used by pedestrians or cyclists has no sense of cost vs. risk. Make street-side food carts pay to put up bollards? Put up concrete reinforced fences around every park and schoolyard (and increase taxes accordingly)? Have motorized, recessed pop-up barriers at every crosswalk? Outlaw gatherings of more than a certain number of people (including parades and group bike rides) unless they’re physically protected from any and all motor vehicles?

Risk mitigation is a great thing, but it’s done responsibly only when costs are computed accordingly. Those costs may be financial, limits on personal freedom, limits on private enterprise, or more demands on your time — but there are always costs. The question must always be ask whether the costs incurred outweigh the risk mitigated.

SD
Subscriber

Thanks Jonathan, for the well-written article. It is clear that there was thought put into making a carefully qualified comparison. I am confident that intelligent people can read this article and understand your concerns and intent.

KTaylor
Guest
KTaylor

I think Jonathan’s premise here is very sound. Since the last presidential election, we’ve seen that many vitally important things in America have been protected (often terrifyingly flimsily) by nothing more than custom and honor. Motorists too are on the honor system, and abuse it daily – – even nice people. The Manhattan terrorist attack highlights flaws in our system that have daily repercussions for vulnerable road users. That system has needed overhauling for a long time, and it seems reasonable to me to talk about that in the wake of this attack.

emerson
Subscriber

I think this is well written and will age well. The comparisons are relevant and timely.

With all that happens now gathering in crowds in the U.S. makes me uncomfortable — never know when someone will open fire, detonate a bomb, or drive a vehicle into an event.

I did notice last year at the Christmas tree lighting in downtown Portland that the police had set up heavy trucks, TriMet Buses, and dump trucks as barricades to the street leading to Pioneer Courthouse Square. This was done, I can only surmise, to prevent a truck or a truck bomb from impacting the crowd.

We live with the dangers autos present every day, in almost every way, and everywhere we choose to live our lives. Whether we are cycling, walking, or just being outside in our cities and suburbs.

Some say too soon? Or the everyday threat we live with is somehow an inappropriate linkage to terrorism? To that I say, what’s the difference if the end result is trauma, injury and death to innocent people at the hands of drivers?

I say this discussion must happen and hasn’t happened soon enough.

Mike Quigley
Guest
Mike Quigley

“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” I believe Reagan said that when he was accused (rightfully so) of backing the violent, right-wing Contras terror group in his holy war against Nicaraguan Sandinistas.

America loves its wars against defenseless nations. Trouble is, it can’t stand the sight of its own blood. And that’s it’s weakness.

pruss2ny
Guest
pruss2ny

your writing and impassioned but rational discourse (yours, not necessarily within the comments section) drew me to this blog and educated me, a transplant from NYC, on issues facing a community I initially encountered as wreckless and over-entitled. My time on here has changed much of my attitude in a positive and progressive way, and I presume I’m not alone.

But I find this line of argument, as others have mentioned, detestable. You have poetically/eloquently morphed cars/autos into gunfire (“Yesterday…a man opened fire with a rental truck on that bike path.”) and with this nifty trick of prose, why stop with just yesterday’s senseless hate filled murder….why not co-opt other hate filled events to advance your thesis that none of us will be safe until pedestrian/bikeways are safe? some suggestions:
“50 people murdered by rain of gunfire in Las Vegas, but we on Bikes in Portland know this pain
all to well on a daily basis”
“Orlando nightclub goers mowed down by hail of bullets, much like the threat portland bikers
face daily”

I was on the phone with people scrambling (futile, really) for their lives on 9/11. I was hypnotized by bodies jumping from 90+ stories up wondering if that was one of my guys. I smelled the acrid smell of burning building and bodies from the UWS…and I know i’m not the only person in PDX to have experienced that. And if that experience taught me anything it was that even though I waded thru an immense pile of grief, I HAD NO IDEA or RIGHT TO CO-OPT someone else’s experience of that event, as though I understood their pain just because I had my own pain.
Nor do I have the right to pretend to understand the depths of despair someone feels for the loss of a friend killed while biking home from work. Regardless of where it comes from grief is destructive and deeply personal journey that you have to respect.

Writing about weaponization of vehicles is likely a worthy topic, but comparing what happened yesterday to a daily/recurring happening in the life of a pdx biker is belittling and repugnant.

Drew
Guest
Drew

Well written article, thanks Jonathan. The small and major violences we see every day on the street are cut from the same cloth. I was threatened in Lake Oswego this week by a man who purposefully pointed his speeding car directly at me for no reason I could understand. He pulled away at the last moment, honking. Was he a terrorist? Less crazy than the nut in New York I suppose but whatever motivated him was just as senseless.

X
Guest
X

Two people I have known, not close friends but acquaintances, have been killed while riding their bikes in Portland. Both were riding legally in marked bike lanes. They are just as dead as any person who died along with many others in a notorious act of international terrorism.

eawriste
Guest
eawriste

In Long Island City near Court Sq. on Halloween a man became angry with a group of teens throwing eggs. He ran a light, jumped a curb, and attempted to kill them with his car. He repeatedly ran over one of them. He is charged with attempted murder.

http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/teenager-tossing-eggs-struck-hit-and-run-driver-article-1.3603075

Catie
Guest
Catie

A cyclist was killed on the West Side bike path in 2006. People complained then about how many vehicles were ysing the path as a cut through. He was the second cyclist to be killed by a car on this off-street bike path that year. The problem was known and not taken seriously.
https://mobile.nytimes.com/2006/12/03/nyregion/03bike.html

Joe
Guest
Joe

acts of aggression behind the windshield seems to be the case these days… stay alert always…
I have had some crazy road rage so far in 2017 and lived thru it all.. * thanks for the story *

Emily Guise (Contributor)
Subscriber

I couldn’t agree with you more, Jonathan. Thanks so much for writing this.

Richard
Guest
Richard

I am grateful for this article, Jonathan. I don’t find it offensive/inappropriate/unrelated to productively build dialogue around safety in any context where a person or persons are mowed down by a car. Obviously, motivations for violence vary, but none should be treated like an off-topic exception. This driver’s motives may differ from someone who would mow down people for other reasons, but it doesn’t change the value of lives lost and the need to do something about it that is within our control. We have no control over someone’s motives, but we have some control over predicting and mitigating them. In this case, more substantial bollards (i.e. concrete or steel) would have likely been a viable deterrent. Does this solve all of car violence for all things ever? No. But just because we can’t solve everything, it doesn’t mean we should do nothing. Here’s to doing something, anything to prevent violence like this in the future.