Written by By Liza Cannon, CNN
It could be you who stands on that very sidewalk.
Many walkways throughout New York City are controlled by private companies that provide the owners access to virtually any space, sans public board and footpath, where they can install, modify and/or replace trash cans, benches, sign posts, bollards and traffic signals.
The situation may be called privatization of public space, or an overly commercialized way of using the city’s public assets, but it’s a situation that residents are choosing to be directly affected by. And they don’t think it’s going well.
A mother carrying her baby walks along the row of bollards in her neighborhood. Credit: Liza Cannon/CNN
In October 2017, Street Vendor Project, an organization dedicated to fighting for vendor rights, partnered with the NY City Council to write a new law aimed at mandating that bollards be installed in areas where the pavement has been encroached on by traffic, no matter who owns the bollards. City Council’s bill passed in the spring of 2017 and was signed into law last June.
But despite the robust law, it’s not stopping bollard owners from designing new bollards, or even creating a ton of additional bollards, without consulting residents or altering their zoning. In some areas of the city, owners have already added more than ten new bollards.
In response, 24 members of the NY City Council have proposed an amendment to the law which would require bollard owners to let people know what their plans are and give residents a chance to sign up for notifications and input on new bollards.
An example of a bollard in New York. Credit: Street Vendor Project
Others believe that banning bollards is impractical, so they just keep replacing the same bollards, even if they’re too close to the sidewalk.
Despite the seemingly endless stream of new bollards popping up, the NY City Council is still waiting for the city’s inspector general to study bollard distribution in the city. An initial analysis in 2016 found bollards placed too close to the sidewalk can cause damage to the pavement, but it’s not clear whether that damage is repaired on site.
Soon, the city’s Department of Design and Construction, which regulates construction on the city’s streets, will begin an anti-bollard campaign to better explain their placement in the community.
(In response to the request, the city told CNN, “We agree the development of highly visible bollards next to sidewalks presents potential safety concerns and that ‘equitable representation of pedestrian space’ and ‘safely integrating commercial activity’ are priorities.” It gave no further details.)
A bright red traffic signal, one of the many bollards around that block. Credit: Liza Cannon/CNN
Street Vendor Project spokesperson Danielle Fong said that bollards aren’t just a problem of low public space and ownership; they are also too heavy. “A bollard weighs more than a 12-pound sack of sand,” she says.
Under the proposed amendment, bollards in selected areas will have to be taken down or moved, such as within 400 feet of a driveway, driveway intersection or public gathering space. Owners of several bollards in lower Manhattan that have been constructed in public spaces will also be given a chance to ask the city to remove them.
Another gripe residents have with bollards is their erosion into the sidewalk. This adds pressure on resident’s to keep walking on the slippery pavement rather than use the on-street ramps.
A busy bollard in lower Manhattan. Credit: Nick Thompson/The Street Vendor Project
Toward the end of January, an expletive-laden petition was issued by some bollard owners objecting to the law because of the language of the legislation. The proposed amendment, the petition stated, will strip citizens of their right to speak for themselves.
What are bollards good for?
“Bollards are little islands of sound. They’re eyes in the sky. Where there’s gunfire, bollards were designed to provide a little protection. They’re also great for people walking. They’re great for the simple sound of the sidewalk that is overlooked in some buildings,” said street vendor and co-founder of Street Vendor Project Dana Velez.
The disparity in bollard locations and layouts is also causing confusion. “These are all black boxes, depending on where