Security

City to Spend $30,000 Apiece on Anti-Terror Bollards

Trying to protect our cities from terrorism by erecting vehicle barricades is “as preposterous as it is futile,” says one planning expert

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In response to two high-profile car-ramming attacks in Manhattan last year, the city is embracing a new $50 million weapon in the War on Terror: metal posts.

On Tuesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that 1,500 of the three-foot-tall posts, known as bollards, will soon be coming to highly trafficked sidewalks and pedestrian plazas throughout the city. The permanent structures will replace the concrete barriers hastily erected in parts of the city following last year’s major incidents — a drug-fueled rampage in Times Square that killed one person and injured twenty-two, and an ISIS-inspired attack on the Hudson River Greenway on Halloween that left eight dead and twelve injured.

“When someone with a vehicle plows into a group of innocent pedestrians, it’s disgusting, but we know there are some out there who mean to do us evil, and we will protect against it,” the mayor said at a press conference in Times Square. “This major investment will help us to be even safer going forward.”

How, exactly, the city plans to invest $50 million in squat posts remains unclear. According to a City Hall press release, the concrete structures installed after last year’s incidents will soon be replaced by “more attractive temporary blocks,” which will in turn be switched out for the 1,500 permanent bollards beginning in March. The vast majority of new bollards will be the familiar metal posts, mayoral spokesperson Austin Finn told the Voice, while others will be unspecified “geometric structures.” All told, the city will wind up paying more than $30,000 per bollard. (The mayor did not take questions at the press conference, and the Voices request for a price breakdown, and a list of sites where the bollards will be erected, went unanswered.)

Following Tuesday’s announcement, critics seized on the outsize figure and drew parallels to runaway prices for subway construction recently detailed in the New York Times. Others noted that installing 500 bollards in Las Vegas is estimated to cost $2.5 million, or a more reasonable $5,000 per post. While Jon Coaffee, a professor of urban geography at the University of Warwick, cautions against simple comparisons, noting that moving underground infrastructure could cause varying challenges for different cities, he also says that the average cost of a bollard should be a few thousand dollars.

Looking past the price tag, New Yorkers, and Americans in general, should get used to seeing more of these security barriers in busy areas. According to Coaffee, metal bollards are “incredibly effective at stopping vehicles from entering urban spaces,” and have thus become a “default option” for cities hoping to combat potential terrorists.

“They also undoubtedly perform an element of security theater,” adds Coaffee. “They are a way of conveying, in a very physical sense, that governments are doing something to thwart the terrorist threat, or at least mitigate its impacts.”

But efforts to convey that message with ubiquitous security structures have not always been welcomed by city residents. Anti-terror bollards installed last summer in Melbourne, Australia, were widely regarded as an unnecessary eyesore, and were subsequently covered in paint and fabric as part of a #bollart protest. Though Coaffee says the “continuing ‘bollardification’ of [American] cities” has yet to spark similar protests, Tuesday’s announcement is already stoking anger among some pedestrian advocates.

“The idea of hardening our cities against terrorists with vehicle barricades is as preposterous as it is futile,” Jeff Speck, a city planner and author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, tells the Voice. “The antiterrorism industrial complex has completely warped our national conversation about public safety. Why have we thrown untold trillions of dollars at a threat that is, at last measure, 568 times less deadly than car crashes?”

Beyond being concerned about letting the terrorists win, some worry that the bollards could wind up encroaching on already limited pedestrian space. It’s of particular concern in Times Square, through which some 355,000 people walk each day. “What you don’t want to do is trap people in a large crowded area,” warns Walter Enders, a security expert and University of Alabama economics professor. “You need to give people, some of whom are older or not agile, the ability to enter and exit that area without getting pushed.”

Still, there are opportunities for the new bollards to serve the city’s pedestrians in ways not mentioned in de Blasio’s thinly detailed plan. While the mayor remains opposed to congestion pricing (and frames his own congestion-easing measures as a strategy for increasing driver speeds), it’s not inconceivable that the plan could pave the way for more pedestrian-only spaces in vulnerable parts of midtown or Lower Manhattan. Consider that Governor Andrew Cuomo is slated to endorse a widely backed congestion pricing plan, and the prospect of our SUV-loving mayor restricting cars from certain crosstown blocks becomes a bit easier to imagine.

For now, at least, the bollards will eliminate those enormous cement barriers haphazardly dropped throughout the city over the last year. That may not be worth $50 million, but it’s worth something.

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