Sturdy grey barriers were installed outside Toronto’s main train station less than a day after two dozen pedestrians were mowed down by a driver in another part of the city, a security measure that prompted immediate pushback and is being reconsidered.
Thigh-high pieces of concrete called Jersey barriers now line the plaza in front of Union Station, with others at the ends of the block, to prevent people from driving onto the sidewalk.
Toronto City Councillor John Campbell said on Wednesday that no doubt pedestrians need to be protected, particularly in the heavily travelled downtown, but that there has to be a way to do it without making the city look “like a war zone.”
According to two sources, the decision to install the barriers was made on Monday based on the assumption the attack on Yonge Street in north Toronto was terrorism-related. The plan went ahead that night even though the government and police by then had said publicly that terrorism did not appear to be involved.
City spokeswoman Wynna Brown said a broader strategy for protecting the station has been in the works for some time, including plans for interim security measures designed to fit into the streetscape. After Monday’s events, city staff decided to install barriers right away. The choice is being reassessed.
“This discussion that they’re having is whether the Jersey barriers should remain in place over the next month or so until the interim measures are ready for installation,” Ms. Brown said.
Over the past few years, vehicles have been used around the world to kill pedestrians. A 2017 report from Public Safety Canada warned that terrorists are “increasingly adopting low-sophistication, low-resource” tactics.
“This is evident in the repeated use of vehicles and knives in terrorist attacks, particularly in Europe,” the report states. These kinds of potential weapons are easy to obtain and it is therefore difficult to prevent their use in attacks.“
As a result, it is now common for cities to use buses or large trucks to block vehicle access to streets near parades or public functions. But protecting streets on a day-to-day basis is more challenging.
From London to New York to Stockholm, cities that have suffered such vehicle attacks have struggled to find the best way to improve safety without negating the appeal that draws pedestrians. Many rely on retractable bollards, while others have used design elements such as planters.
Brent Toderian, Vancouver’s former chief planner, has been a strong advocate for city-builders to pre-empt what he called “the Sherman tank” approach to security. Instead, he argues, they should incorporate security into the design of the streetscape.
“Security consultants want the security features big, heavy and impenetrable looking,” Mr. Toderian, who is travelling, said in a written exchange. “This is why I called on designers to get into this passionately and pro-actively, lest we all be stuck with the results of a security-specialist-led approach.”
Monday’s deadly rampage brought this debate to Toronto. Witnesses said a man behind the wheel of a rental van in North York aimed his vehicle at pedestrians as he drove along the street and sidewalk. Ten people were killed and 14 injured.
The installation of barriers began that night outside Union Station, about 13 kilometres to the south.
The station serves local and regional transit, as well as intercity rail, and is the busiest transportation hub in the country. The overwhelming majority of its users arrive by transit, though, and a large number exit directly into the underground pedestrian network. Although many others walk along the street, neither of the intersections at the ends of the station is among the city’s 20 busiest for pedestrians.
Traffic also moves quite slowly around the station, which former Toronto chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat said was the result of deliberate design decisions. She called it “absurd” to install barriers at this spot and argued that protective separation, if needed anywhere, should be installed along the fast-moving suburban roads where pedestrians tend to be killed by negligent motorists.
“It’s easy to throw up a barricade at the side of the street and say, ‘Oh, look at what we’ve done,’ ” Ms. Keesmaat said. “The risk is that you sterilize the city. And the risk is that you create a perception, you make people feel unsafe.”
A generation ago, when the threat of vehicle-borne bombs became clear, cities began incorporating protective measures at some buildings. At their best, they were unobtrusive or served multiple purposes. For example, large concrete planters keep vehicles away from the U.S. consulate in Toronto’s downtown. A similar function is performed at some site by building a wide plaza above street level.
Michael Black, who sits on the steering committee of the advocacy group Walk Toronto, said such dual-use measures are the key to pedestrian-friendly security. He cited a metal frame to which newspaper boxes are fixed as an example.
“A perfect barrier, but it doesn’t look like a barrier,” he said. “Amenities, street furniture, trees, if arranged properly, can protect pedestrians.”