The Public Square After Times Square

As a New Yorker, I’m no stranger to terrorist attacks, but I’ve probably had closer contact than most. I was in historic Fraunces Tavern in the financial district, having lunch, on the winter’s day in 1975 when a bomb ripped through it, killing four people and injuring 44. On 9/11, I was minding my two young children when the Twin Towers ten blocks away turned to rubble. We weren’t harmed, but the fallout -- air poisoned, schools shuttered, sleep invaded -- wasn’t pretty.

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So I should have extra cause to be thankful that the Times Square car bomb fizzled last Saturday evening, and grateful for the energetic police work that pulled the suspected perpetrator off a plane for Dubai Monday night. And I am. But as a longtime campaigner for public space and livable streets, I worry about the political and social consequences of this latest scare. From the look of things so far, these won’t be pretty, either.

For starters, the botched bombing makes it extremely unlikely that the NYPD will ever be called to account for its shameful Earth Day confiscation of bicycles chained to racks and fences along the presidential motorcade route on Houston Street. While this may seem small in the grand scheme of things, some cycling advocates had been nursing hopes that this gratuitous act might be the lever to finally pry open the department’s sorry record of indifference and hostility toward cyclists.

Indeed, throughout the unending Giuliani-Bloomberg era, it has been nearly impossible to get elected officials and the media to question any exercise of police power, short of overt violence or profiling. Even so, two veteran journalists told me last week that they were looking into the Houston Street incident, and one City Council member, public safety committee chair Peter Vallone, addressed some tough questions about it to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. Now, however, with politicians and the press falling over each other to congratulate the cops, the chances of a meaningful probe appear nil.

Since 9/11, each attempted attack, no matter how clumsy, has precipitated some new disturbing intrusion into the public’s sphere of free movement. As the week began, the Supreme Court announced that, due to “security concerns,” visitors would no longer be allowed to enter via the court’s front door, through the imposing marble columns and under the totemic words “Equal Justice Under Law.” While the timing was coincidental, the announcement was another step toward sacrificing the American public square, with its cherished rites and freedoms, on the altar of security.

Inevitably, then, the Times Square incident will influence how officialdom prioritizes the dangers society faces -- a process in which the decks have always been stacked against livable streets.

To take one example from the files, a dozen years ago the National Transportation Safety Board mounted a full-scale investigation into a fatal helicopter crash in the East River while federal and city officials alike disregarded entreaties from advocates to investigate cyclist fatalities caused by dooring mere miles away. Around that time, Congress was grilling auto and tire manufacturers for “mismatches” that put joyriding SUV owners at risk by making rollovers more likely; yet the far more common lethal mismatch involving occupants of sedans struck by rigid-frame, high-riding SUVs went ignored.

In the case of the Times Square incident, even the cynics among us have been taken aback by the attention given to what appears to have been an astoundingly amateurish plot. Sifting through the blather about bullets dodged, we find that the various chemicals and hardware stashed in the Nissan Pathfinder were almost certainly incapable of inflicting mayhem on a large scale. According to a former NYPD bomb squad expert interviewed last Sunday, even if the device had functioned, “it would [have been] more of an incendiary event” than an explosion.

Nowadays, however, nuances such as these all but disappear under the weight of a decade of post-9/11 conditioning. Thus, the Times, in a front-page piece on Monday portentously titled, A Dread Revived: Terror in the Trunk, solemnly intoned that the ever-lurking threat of a car bomb was finally “brought home.” Lost in the cheap gravitas is that for more than a century car-borne threats have been striking home on every U.S. highway, street and sidewalk. Those victims usually, though not always, come in ones and twos.

There was the evening in December 2001, just months after 9/11, when a disoriented driver plowed his SUV into shoppers in front of Macy’s, killing seven. Earlier, there was the horrific spring day in 1992 when a driver mistook the accelerator for the brake pedal and killed five people and maimed dozens more inside Washington Square Park. Unlike the Pathfinder, these “car bombs” actually detonated.

It is true, as livable streets advocate Ken Coughlin reminded me the other day, that “there are two different kinds of terror here: the intentional kind where the idea is to scare a populace or government into submission; and the unintentional kind, where the outcome is often death, injury and fear but there is no other guiding hand than the failure of officials to pay adequate attention.”

Ken’s construct is valuable, yet under the grinding weight of tragedy after tragedy -- toddlers run over by an unattended van in Chinatown; a beloved Bronx community activist knocked off her bike and under a bus by a car door; moms, churchgoers, students struck down -- the distinction gets blurry. Consider Frances Cioffi, who on 9/11 ducked out of the 36th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower for a coffee just minutes before the first plane struck, only to be killed a few blocks away in 2008 by an SUV that a police officer said was traveling at 60 miles an hour. Grappling with the irony, I wrote, in a provocatively titled post, The Terrorists Have Won:

The driver who succeeded where al-Qaeda failed... has no known ties to Osama bin Laden. He does not come from Afghanistan, but Long Island. He is not a mullah or an imam, but the founder and CEO of a financial software company.

My bluntly stated point isn’t so different from Ken’s: Terror comes in many guises. Terrorist wannabes aside, in New York City, year in and year out, it comes 200 times a year to pedestrians and bicyclists, most of whom would still be alive [PDF] if the driver who struck them had adhered to traffic laws.

And so it goes. Dangerous driving deemed devoid of murderous intent is okay; bicycles hitched to “security-sensitive” fences are not. Putting law-enforcement personnel on bloated “anti-terror” details is an appropriate use of police; assigning them to enforce traffic laws protecting pedestrians and bicyclists is not. “Narrow escapes” such as Saturday evening in Times Square merit blanket coverage; the everyday bullying of millions of walkers and hundreds of thousands of bike riders is, well, everyday.

There is this ray of hope, however: in just three years, NYCDOT has made remarkable progress in re-purposing our streets in ways that may reduce the threat of car and truck bombs. While the creation of pedestrian spaces in Midtown, including Times Square, has been the agency’s most visible project, its emergent legacy also includes a cultural shift in the kinds of activities and vehicles considered appropriate in our city, particularly in the dense, transit-rich urban core.

We need not eliminate motor vehicles outright -- “don’t ban cars, bill them,” might be a rallying cry for congestion pricing. But changing the terms on which they are permitted into the city -- and by which they conduct themselves while there -- could be a path for improving security in the broadest sense.