Urban settings are dangerous places for pedestrians. How to change that

I’m hesitant to overthink the damage done to this woman’s ankle, her badly broken foot and maybe, her nervous, scrambled emotions. But I’m also irritated, annoyed, that my opinion on this incident, which police say she tried to run over seven bicyclists with her car, doesn’t matter. The police have the lowdown, and they know what went wrong. But the rest of us? We’re just bystanders, petulant schoolgirls at a masquerade party, reacting to their parents’ judgment for not doing more to stop this tragedy.

I wonder whether that should matter, because it’s unclear whether the bollards, they’re not a permanent fix. (They look so much like “a bollard is bollard,” anyway.) One source described them as “a good temporary fix,” but adds that “the whole thing, it makes pedestrians nervous.” The Post says pedestrians get nervous about these bollards because, “they’re not connected to any other thing.” And, somehow, this seems dangerously contradictory: What makes people nervous about bollards is that, well, they’re bollards. What else makes anyone nervous about anything? Pedestrians’ anxiety about the bollards it’s tempting to interpret, as my colleague Sarah Hennon did this week, as “a widespread sense that DC is so terrifying to walk in that it’s unreasonable to expect people to feel safe.” And if that’s the case, a perfectly sensible concern, what about the other side of the equation, the factor that might keep people away from neighborhoods that are dangerous to walk in?

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people walking away from a neighborhood when they don’t feel safe, or when they believe they’re an at-risk species in a neighborhood. In fact, the pictures of the victims, revealed to journalists Friday, showed people with bats protruding from their shoes (or, worse, their toes), making for chilling pictures and a powerful photo essay — not an ugly one, but a strong one. Even a wave of vocal social media condemnation didn’t really dampen things. The outpouring of grief has largely been about the horrible, physical trauma of the incident. But it’s important to point out a big, unresolved, thorny omission from the public discussion: How do we make street life safe for everyone, especially everyone, especially people who are not as safe as everyone else.

How do we improve the safety of sidewalks and streets for everyone, especially pedestrians, in ways that go beyond bollards? How do we keep people safe from people who don’t want to be seen or feared? I’d offer two concrete examples:

■ Give them a way to call for help. According to the Washington Post, those eight men and women from the Robotics Academy of Washington, who decided to walk along Connecticut Avenue on Thursday, called 911 “many times.” The Post writes that each time, the 911 operator transferred them “to a different person” or the operator hung up. “A message that also arrived that afternoon shows that the dispatcher was told by the other person that the children were doing nothing wrong, and the dispatcher said it was ‘not a problem’ to hang up.”

Then there was this: The transfer became three separate calls, all of which the dispatcher never returned. (This marks the third transfer reported by the Post this week; another call was never returned.)

Meanwhile, Mayor Muriel Bowser issued a statement apologizing for the lack of urgency on the part of the 911 operators, and the police chief said he is “deeply committed to improving the way we’re handling emergency calls.”

I don’t think the bollards are the only way to make life safer for pedestrians, but it’s useful to know how, within our framework, other forms of more-casual intervention on the part of pedestrians may work.

■ Don’t lock people in cars while they walk. This isn’t as easy as bollards. But if all the bollards don’t work for pedestrians, they might work for drivers, who are more inclined to be unyielding and

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