The Current

Can urban planning protect our streets from vehicle attacks?

While vehicle attacks are difficult to predict and prevent, urban planning and design — like installing bollards — could play a role in mitigating the death and carnage, experts say.

Bollards and speed restrictions may be key to minimizing damage

Roads and streets can have strategic bends — so vehicles need to slow down — before they reach a vulnerable space, like an open square, experts say. (Jon Tam)
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While vehicle attacks are difficult to predict and prevent, urban planning and design — like installing bollards — could play a role in mitigating the death and carnage, experts say.

Toronto became the latest metropolitan centre to fall victim to a vehicle attack on Monday when a van mounted the pavement and plowed into pedestrians in the Yonge and Finch Avenue area of North York. The alleged driver, Alek Minassian, has been charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder and 13 counts of attempted murder. Police are not linking the incident to national security.

The Toronto van attack suspect trained with the Canadian military for a very brief amount of time. Alek Minassian joined the Canadian Forces last August and got 16 days into his 13-week basic training before he asked to leave, according to a statement from the Department of National Defence. 3:13

"The places we should be most concerned about in our city are the spaces where there is a high volume of pedestrians, little separation and cars going fast," Toronto's former chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

The slower the vehicle is going, the easier it is for pedestrians to notice if something is wrong, she said, and to get out of the way.

"Moving cars quickly cannot be the key priority. Keeping people safe needs to come first."

She added that "the slower the vehicle is going, the less likely that the injuries will be traumatic."

Managing speed doesn't need to mean imposing speed limits. Cities can use physical structures like bollards or speeds bumps. Roads and streets can even have strategic bends — so vehicles need to slow down — before they reach a vulnerable space, like an open square.

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      Cities must strike the right balance, however, said Alan Bell, a former member of the British elite military forces.

      Bell, the president of Globe Risk International — a consulting firm that advises companies on terrorist and criminal threats — said Monday's incident was a "one-off event," and warned against a knee-jerk reaction.

      "We have to have an infrastructure in place to be able to respond to these type of events, whether it's a criminal act or it's a terrorist attack," he told Tremonti.

      "Some of the countries I work in go the opposite way. You have roadblocks every hundred metres. You have chicanes to keep the speed down."

      An Instagram account, @saintbollard, devoted to bollards from around the world.

      Putting a 'Band-Aid' on a city

      Claire Weisz, an architect and urbanist based in New York, agreed that security concerns shouldn't erode the character of a city.

      There is an opportunity to reimagine cities as places where cars are not the priority, which would benefit the daily safety of pedestrians and cyclists, she said. But it will take some forward planning rather than reacting to big events like Monday's attack, she added.

      "If we just look back, what happens is you put a big, giant Band-Aid on something," she said. "You lose the vitality of that place."

      "People start avoiding the place, and then pretty soon it's not the city that you want it to be."

      Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.


      This segment was produced by The Current's Geoff Turner, Ashley Mak and Alison Masemann.