Thursday, August 23, 2012

Fatality Caused by Planning Misstep?

A tragic accident occurred today on Broad Street, in Lower Manhattan, near the New York Stock Exchange.

A pickup truck loaded with sand lurched out of control, across a sidewalk, and into two pedestrians, killing one of them, a 70-year-old man, leaning against the wall of a building, eating Chinese food.

Gruesome images of the scene were captured by witnesses on their mobile devices and posted on Gothamist, a New York City community webzine.  If you can't stand the sight of blood, you won't want to look.

Thinking It Through

On the one hand, today's death could get chalked up to simply another fatality in a city that has over 100 similar fatalities each year.  As one of the country's most walkable cities, as well as home to some of the country's worst drivers, pedestrian deaths are inevitable in the Big Apple.

But what makes this death particularly compelling involves the circumstances for why a pickup truck loaded with sand was being driven perpendicular to the sidewalk in the first place.  After all, the truck was not driving along the street, parallel to the sidewalk, like most vehicular traffic does.  Nor was it careening through an intersection, and swerving to avoid another vehicle or pedestrian.

No, it was a security vehicle for a Lower Manhattan business development group helping to protect the New York Stock Exchange, sitting just down the block.  Several years ago, a group of business organizations in Lower Manhattan had commissioned new security mechanisms for Broad and Wall Streets, in the heart of the city's famous financial district.  Older security measures meant to prevent vehicular bombings of the area had been rushed into place following 9/11, but they were aesthetically bulky and menacing.

So what?  Well, as many of the older buildings around Wall Street have become technologically obsolete, and undesirable as conventional office buildings, they've been retrofitted as apartments and even private schools for the neighborhood's growing residential population.  The man who was killed this afternoon was having his lunch next to a doorway to one of those private schools.

These new residents to the Financial District may not be corporate tenants, but they're still paying through the nose for rents.  Plus, with the Stock Exchange being the financial industry's iconic epicenter, business leaders are sensitive about the street's image.  It was decided that more permanent security structures were necessary, but they didn't need to be entirely utilitarian in their design.

So an architectural firm came up with a novel turntable solution that included permanent bollards (objects embedded into the street to prevent vehicular traffic) on either side of the main traffic lane, plus a series of smaller obstacles mounted on a turntable set into the pavement.  When an authorized vehicle came to the blockade in the street, the turntable would be activated and rotate half-way, so that the smaller obstacles would be moved out of the way of the authorized vehicle.  That vehicle cold then maneuver over the turntable and down the street, with the turntable then being rotated back to its secure position.

Not a bad idea, huh?  Except, apparently, the turntables have been plagued by mechanical problems.  Workers and residents in Lower Manhattan posted today on Gothamist that the turntables usually seem to be stuck in the "open" position.  And they report that two silver Honda Ridgeline pickup trucks with sand in their beds have been parked in front of the turntables to block them instead (on this video from the New York Post, you can see a second Honda pickup truck parked perpendicular to the sidewalk).  When an authorized vehicle is cleared to enter the security zone, somebody has to move a pickup truck out of the way, let the authorized vehicle pass, and then reverse their pickup truck to park it back in front of the idle turntable.

So much for technological innovation, huh?

Today, it's suspected that the driver of one of the pickup trucks may have suffered a seizure, and with his vehicle already positioned against the pedestrian traffic in front of him, hit two of them.

One, fatally.

The Devil Is Where?

Still, you ask; so what?

What started out as a cool idea of installing turntables didn't turn out so well.  They became unreliable.  So somebody came up with the idea of obtaining pickup trucks, loading their beds with sand, and using them as blockades whenever the turntables weren't working.  Maybe the people who came up with the truck idea never imagined one of their drivers would suffer some sort of medical emergency or otherwise become so distracted that he would accidentally run over pedestrians.  But apparently, neither did it strike anybody at those planning meetings as potentially troublesome that aiming motor vehicles directly at unprotected pedestrians wasn't a good idea.

It's not like New York's pedestrians are looking to be side-swiped by pickup trucks as they navigate the city's sidewalks.  If you've ever walked Manhattan's sidewalks, you know how cacophonous such an experience can be.  So many things competing for your attention; having to allow for a pickup truck driving at you perpendicularly is one of the last things you'd expect.

Maybe the trucks weren't supposed to be parked perpendicular to the sidewalk. Maybe the security drivers were supposed to park their trucks in the middle, between the permanent bollards, and just move back and forth in the street, parallel to the sidewalk.  Maybe the procedures simply weren't being followed.

People like me tend to think through these scenarios more than other people think is necessary.  I've been criticized more than once for over-analyzing something - and maybe some of you readers are thinking that right now about my essay of this tragedy in Lower Manhattan!

Yet consider all of the planning that went into these security bollards on Broad Street.  Those turntables and bollards may be the most noticeable features of this security project, but several other unique ideas were included in the streetscape's overhaul.  For example, instead of ordinary asphalt, special cobblestones pave the streets.  Wood pavers on Wall Street outline the wall which really used to exist there, and was the street's namesake.  Similar outlines of a canal that used to flow where Broad Street is now are installed between the cobblestones, along with other pavestones highlighting historic facts about this, one of the oldest settlements in pre-Colonial America.

Photo by Ryan Gorman
All of that engineering, design, and research - foiled by an out-of-control pickup truck.  Granted, any number of calamitous things could have happened to this specific pedestrian this afternoon to take his life.  Mankind's best planning cannot overrule God's sovereignty.

But in terms of revising their plans, no amount of going back to the proverbial drawing board is going to bring back today's victim of the one little part of contingency planning that just wasn't thought-through well.

The next time somebody accuses you - or you want to accuse somebody - of planning something too much, think about today's silver Honda pickup truck.

Would you want to be the guy... eating Chinese food... who was blindsided by it?
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