Brussels, Belgium–I had recently moved from Los Angeles, my home of twenty years, to Brussels. It would be my first time living in a traditional city since becoming interested in urban design. So I was constantly looking for little urban insights and pleasures on the ground. For instance, I immediately noticed that housing prices here are roughly half of what I encountered in Los Angeles.
Within a few weeks of my arrival, the bombings of Brussels occurred.
The atrocity raises some interesting questions in regards to urbanism—are there certain urban designs that can prevent or discourage terrorism? Should the threat of terrorism influence the design of our cities? How would it?
While terrorism may leave us shocked and breathless, it’s worth remembering that traffic deaths greatly outnumber deaths due to terrorism. In sheer numbers of lives lost and saved, cars are the bigger culprit. Terrorism, for its part, exacts a great toll paid in fear as well as loss of life and limb.
What makes a city resilient in the face of terrorism?
The more ways one can move about the city, the more resilient it will be in the face of crisis. But, these options are not equal; cars are big compared to the space available for them—if everyone were to drive, no one would move. Here, man in his humblest form is king—we are always ready to walk, several miles if need be, without the aid of any special operator or infrastructure. Density and proximity ensure walking home is a reasonable or even routine affair.
Walking loses its appeal, however, as travel distances increase, especially for the less physically able among us. And as much as walkability is ideal, many cities are just not suited for it, in their current state. Work is too far to reach via walking.
Biking & Bikeshare
Even on a calm day in Brussels, traffic congestion is common; biking can easily be faster than driving, certainly if you have to find parking. So we figured that a bike would probably be the fastest way home. For those who had taken transit to work, there were still bikes at the local bikeshare stations available—especially in areas with a mix of people coming and going, of homes and jobs, a testament to the value of mixing homes and workplaces.
At the station closest to me, there were none by the time I left—this area has office parks amidst surface parking, not homes, and sits on the edge of the city.
Carpooling & Carsharing
Fortunately, on the day of the bombing, a colleague of mine had been renting a car, and he gave me and others a ride most of the way home. Surprisingly, traffic was not worse than normal.
Additionally, at my workplace, many people who had driven that day sent out emails to offer spare seats in their cars. Attempts to start carpooling networks in America have foundered for decades, and here was one starting organically, immediately in response to a crisis. Given that most people commute alone, even a small mode share for cars—say, 10–20%—can carry much of the commuter population in times of emergency.
Access to a car in one form or another is helpful—but only if the streets are free of blockades and crippling congestion. Here, a low ratio of cars per capita proves useful—it will ensure that there are other means of getting around, and that cars won’t congest the roads as much, and keep travel distances lower.
Mass transit was the target of both bombings—the airport and the subway. In the immediate aftermath of the bombings, the city’s public transit agencies restricted service. Since then, most, but not all of the different bus and rail lines have been restored.
I’m not aware of any local for-profit mass transit operators—the local transit agencies have a fairly comprehensive network of subways, rail, trams and buses. How would smaller, nimbler for-profit operators respond?
A colleague of mine recently flew into the Charleroi airport, which has since absorbed many of the flights originally scheduled to depart and arrive from the bombed Brussels airport. She showed me a photo of an enormous, slow line of people waiting there, for a shuttle back to Brussels.
An independent operator less constrained to set schedules might be quicker to pivot and service such changes in passenger flow. Alternatively, independent busdrivers, if they existed, could make their own determination, using their years of experience and intimate neighborhood knowledge, about whether to drive; the drivers would weigh the risks of bodily harm vs. forgone wages, just as Uber drivers do; so too would riders consider paying more for safe, convenient carriage in a crisis.
In the aftermath of the Brussels bombing, many routes were canceled or severely reduced. Uber was still operating, but had turned off surge pricing—the app read “ALL CARS BUSY” for hours after the bombing. The baseline Uber driver wages are low—to keep prices low and demand high. Our distaste for ‘price gouging’ in times of crisis meant that getting a ride was not going to happen—driving in Brussels even under normal conditions is stressful enough, let alone in the chaos of multiple bombings, with no additional recompense.
Parenthetically, the most reasonable option would be for Uber to continue to allow surge pricing during crises, but to cap its commission at 20% of the standard rates—that way, only the drivers, and not Uber itself, get paid more during a crisis. If there is indeed a higher level of danger, it’s fair that willing cab drivers be paid accordingly. Alternatively, a cab ride shared among multiple passengers, a la UberPool, would increase capacity as well.
Molenbeek—A ‘Breeding Grounds’ for Terror?
In the wake of the massacres in Paris and Brussels, Molenbeek has been fingered as a ‘breeding grounds’ for terrorists. Is its built form a contributing factor?
Doubtful. Like much of the city, Molenbeek is comprised of low multistory buildings, plazas and narrow roads. In a suburb with big houses served by cars housed in garages, it would be much easier to conceal the sights and smells of a bomb-making operation from prying eyes. The real problem is, among others, those eyes weren’t prying very hard. The “eyes on the street” failed, but alternative urban forms would have fared at least as badly. Carrying the bombs via your own car carries less risk of getting caught than what the terrorists actually did—which was to take a cab.
A garage in a typical suburban detached single-family homes would make it easier to build a car-bomb with impunity – a bomb far more destructive than the suitcase bombs the terrorists actually deployed.
Image source: Nathan LewisIf anything, this form, the city of the flâneur, centered around strolling and idling in the streets— offers the greatest shelter for human life. A low ratio of vehicles to people means deaths from traffic are low; and the frequent walking keeps people sprightly and mobile in the face of crisis as well as age.In examining terrorism and mobility, there is a welcome concurrence; the virtues of urban design and resilience are the same: choice, self-reliance, variety, propinquity and flexibility.
If you’re wondering how your city might measure up, you might ask: is it difficult to walk home? Are people paralyzed by congestion daily? Is biking rare? Are the transportation options limited and subject to ‘single points of failure?’