A brief history of urban anti-terrorism measures

An armed police officer stands guard near the Houses of Parliament yesterday. Image: Getty.

The car and knife assault on Westminster is the latest in a long line of attacks targeting Western cities. It raises new questions about how to respond proportionately to demands to increase security in urban centres. The Conversation

Since the early 1990s, London has led the way in advancing counter-terrorist security in the form of “rings of steel”. In the financial zones of the City and Docklands there are strategically positioned entry checkpoints, bollards and hi-tech surveillance combined with vigilant and visible policing at times of high threat.

In the last decade, additional measures have been deployed throughout London, centered upon the so-called Government Security Zone encompassing Whitehall and the Palace of Westminster. Lines of crash-rated bollards, concealed barriers in the forms of balustrades and imposing steel barriers outside the Houses of Parliament, have become an everyday feature of London life.

These most recent measures were put in place in the wake of 9/11 and 7/7 due to fears of indiscriminate attacks against public places. But over time, terrorist attacks have become more sophisticated, employing tactics and targeting locations which negate such traditional security architectures. In 2016, attacks in Paris, Brussels, Nice and Berlin highlighted the perpetual threat faced by cities in the “war on terror”.

Defence of crowded places

Defending vulnerable urban spaces against terrorism has long occupied state security services, but until recently these seldom impacted everyday life. As we have seen from these recent attacks, the modus operandi of terrorists has changed significantly in the new millennium.

Car and truck bombs targeting major financial or political centres – such as the IRA bombs in the City of London in 1992 and 1993 and London’s Docklands in 1996 – have been superseded by person-borne devices, especially suicide attacks. Subsequently, attacks have taken the form of Fedayeen-style mass shootings and the deliberate targeting of crowds with fast-moving vehicles.

Traditional territorial counter-terrorism approaches such as the construction of defensive cordons are now seen as largely inadequate and have had to be rethought. The methods and tactics adopted by terror groups are increasingly novel, innovative and tactically aimed at soft targets and more generally crowded places that cannot be altered without radically changing how citizens experience the city.

Security barricades outside the Houses of Parliament have been in place for years. Image: Georgie R/Flickr/creative commons.

Security aesthetics

Over the last two decades, urban revitalisation and improvements in the public realm have increasingly emphasised inclusivity, liveability and accessibility. However, these “quality-of-life” issues sit uneasily beside concerns to design-out terrorism as security becomes part of the urban design process. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the US, many highly obtrusive security features – notably concrete planters or steel bollards – were literally “thrown” around key sites in major cities to stop car bombings. They were not necessarily aesthetically pleasing within the public realm.

In the last decade, this initial swathe of security features has slowly given way to subtler alterations to the landscape – although in many cases bollard-type solutions still prevail. There is a predominant view among security experts that security features, where possible, should be as unobtrusive as possible. This had led to them being increasingly camouflaged and subtly embedded within the cityscape.

Examples of such camouflaged features include balustrades or artwork erected as part of “streetscape” improvement. These designs are still capable of stopping a seven-tonne truck travelling at 50 miles per hour.

Evolving urban security

Today, counter-terrorism strategies seek to balance security effectiveness with social and political acceptability. As a result, more integrated approaches to “designed-in” counter-terrorism have emerged. Instead of reacting at pace, a more reflexive response is now possible, taking into account issues such as proportionality and design aesthetics, as well as giving greater responsibility to planners, architects and designers to deliver more humane security solutions.

Yet, the implementation of design-based counter-terrorism has remained in flux, tempered by the increasing cost of urban security in an age of austerity combined with the reluctance of urban developers to consider significant security improvements within their designs. This lack of a regulatory requirement for designed-in security was reemphasised in a 2016 independent report on London’s preparedness for a major terrorist incident. It argued that London should become a city where security is designed-in and is part of the city’s fabric. It also suggested that a statutory obligation should be introduced for such resilience to be designed into new and existing buildings.

This will not be easy to achieve in the short term. The international reaction to the attack on a Berlin market in December 2016 showed how the difficulties in balancing reactive and proactive counter-terrorism elements within cities has brought us full circle, returning us to immediate post-9/11 security responses.


Increased security inevitable

In the wake of the Berlin attack, the media was awash with security experts promoting the virtues of mitigation measures to restrict access to “Trojan Horse” vehicle attacks. On the ground, markets and other public spaces rushed to put in place makeshift security and extra visible policing to quell public fears.

In a repeat of events in the early 1990s, “ring of steel” security approaches resurfaced in the City of London based on armed checkpoints, rising security bollards and crash-proof barricades. This was in response to a commissioned report that identified newly established areas of London’s Square Mile as “highly sensitive” to a hostile vehicle-borne attack.

Such an approach, where one area of a city receives extra security protection, has been a long-held aspiration of counter-terrorism professionals. It could become a prominent vision of how to proceed with designing for terrorism threat if attacks remain an everyday fear in crowded city locations.

The attack in central London will once again raise the spectre of a city under siege with talk of lockdowns and war zones and with the deployment of armed police on the streets to keep us all safe. This is an understandable short-term reaction. But a longer term question remains: how do you protect soft targets from terrorism through urban design and do so in a way that is both effective and does not destroy the vibrancy of an open and accessible city?

In time, the provision of security in central London will undoubtedly be enhanced but this may well have an impact on the public realm. To paraphrase a design critic writing about the initial steel barriers placed around the Houses of Parliament a decade ago, the hope would be that while we might live in dangerous times, they don’t have to be ugly ones, too.

Jon Coaffee is a professor of urban geography at the University of Warwick.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.