I made an unusual and subtle discovery during my last trip to Las Vegas. (Let’s be fair now; it was only my second time there ever. I’m hardly a regular, and I was a kid during the previous visit.) Despite my limited experience there, I could tell almost immediately that the powers-that-be were engaging in a compressive infrastructural installation process, and I tried to capture this installation through the photo below.
Any ideas what I might be referring to? In both of these photos, they’re black, shiny, bulky, and abundant. If you’re capable of reading the title to this article, it’s obvious. Never mind the Sex Pistols; here’s the bollards.
It was patently obvious during this summer 2019 visit that these black bollards were a brand-new installation. The concrete at their base had that fresh, recently-dried color, and the bollards themselves were in impeccable condition. Since the primary function of bollards in this context is to maintain errant vehicles from deviating off the road and into pedestrians, it’s remarkable that not a single bollard appeared sullied, especially given the (I expect) higher than average tendency for rambunctious or impaired driving in Sin City.
The above photos come from a neighborhood close to but still removed from the Las Vegas city center, but after visiting the Las Vegas Strip later in this same trip, it was obvious that black bollards were becoming the norm.
The above image, of course, comes from Las Vegas Boulevard (“The Strip”), at the Luxor Hotel, one of the southernmost points to the widely known entertainment district and (lesser known fact) completely outside of the incorporated limits of Las Vegas itself. Most of the Strip is in unincorporated areas. The black bollards were equally new here; in fact, the installation was so much a work in progress that, at the end of the week, I spotted noticeably more black bollards than at the beginning. And 2019 seemed to be the magic year. Here’s a Street View of a spot further north along the Las Vegas Strip near Caesar’s Palace in spring 2019; here it is again in 2020. They’re sprouting like dandelions.
Las Vegas carries the unusual distinction of being a city whose design overwhelmingly supports the automobile, yet still has tons of pedestrians. After World War II, when automobile dependency and suburbanization both increased exponentially in the United States, Las Vegas was but a modest little city of 20,000, mostly known for accommodating shotgun weddings and lots of gaming (then as now). But over 90% of the region’s population growth has occurred in just the last 40 years or so. It’s designed for the car, but the crowds throng the Strip, and, with few exceptions, most of them walk from one destination to the next. The breadth of the Strip, its relative scarcity of intersecting streets, and the lack of on-street parking means that most people either use taxis (or Lyft or Uber) or the park in one of the massive casino garages, then avail themselves of the numerous pedestrian bridges and overpasses to navigate the vehicular sewer that is Las Vegas Boulevard.
So what was the point of the black bollards? Does the Las Vegas Strip really need another means of separating pedestrians from cars? Anyone remotely attuned to world news—especially European news—should easily be able to deduce the answer. And while I hate to single out the continent across the pond, it’s impossible to deny that it has suffered a disproportionate share of high-profile, mass-casualty events related to vehicles jumping curbs and ramming pedestrians on sidewalks. The deadliest of these attacks took place in Nice, France in 2016, resulting in 87 fatalities, but a similar attack in Barcelona killed 13, while a 2018 attack in London did not result in fatalities (unlike multiple others in previous years), but its proximity to the House of Parliament raised a host of new security concerns. And the US has not been immune to similar efforts: a terrorist used a rented pickup truck to strike pedestrians and cyclists along Hudson River bike path in New York City in 2017, killing eight.
Though I have featured bollards numerous times over the years in this blog, I’ve rarely explored how they can serve to thwart terrorist attacks. (Well, except for those bollards in Afghanistan; that almost goes without saying.) But more often than not, I’ve depicted bollards as less aggressive guidance tools for steering traffic away from bike lanes or street corners—situations where they operate mostly to prevent motorists from making mistakes, not to stop them from a premeditated malicious act. Truth be told, I’ve also deliberately used the less common term “stanchions”, which serve a similar purpose to bollards, but they tend to be smaller, thinner and less sturdy—again, more of a guidance or steering device rather than a means of protection. Note the stanchions prevent a gentle, high-speed right turn in Alexandria or downtown Bethlehem, but these spindly little white posts would do nothing to stop a high-speed attack from the nefarious intentions of a person in a cement truck…or a Honda Civic. But stanchions are no doubt cheaper, and one can remove them easily if necessary.
Las Vegas Boulevard has opted for what I would never persuasively call “stanchions”. These black bollards are thick, heavy, bolted into the cement, and likely to stop anything less than a military convoy vehicle. What prompted this protective measure? Alas, a person with ill intent used her vehicle to jump the curb of Las Vegas Boulevard way back in December 2015, plowing into pedestrians on the sidewalk, injuring 34 and killing one. Responding to a request from Metro Police, the Public Works Department of Clark County (remember, most of The Strip is outside of the Las Vegas city limits) aimed to prevent such a tragedy, which didn’t achieve the high profile of the New York incident, no doubt in part because the body count was lower.
Was this all it took? If one callously reduces the impetus for anti-terrorist infrastructure to the mere body count, was the December 2015 vehicular attack sufficiently lethal to begin rolling out the black bollards in 2017? Or did another more premeditated and significantly more gruesome incident spur an elevated consideration of safeguards against terrorism in general? Yes, I’m talking about an attack that took place a bit later in 2017, a mere stone’s throw from the Luxor Las Vegas hotel and casino featured in the above photo, and the one below.
Pivot just a bit further to the right from the Luxor and we have the potential culprit.
I ascribe no fault whatsoever to the owners and operators of the Mandalay Bay resort and casino for the gruesome mass shooting that took place through a room on the 32nd floor on October 1, 2017. The exigencies of urban architecture in a setting with high land values create a need for high-rise hotels. And high rise buildings are the optimal habitat for snipers, which is entirely the reason Stephen Paddock sought a place like Mandalay Bay by which to unleash a shower of bullets unto a crowd of people enjoying live music at the Route 91 Harvest festival that evening, killing 60—the deadliest mass shooting in American history. It could have just as easily happened at a neighboring hotel. But two years later, when I visited Vegas, the site of this atrocity remained largely concealed behind a high chain-link fence with mostly opaque canvas.
And here’s a view from the other direction, with Mandalay Bay in the background.
I’m not sure it will ever be reasonable for me to carry that causal nexus forward to the presence of all these black bollards along Las Vegas Boulevard. After all, the chronology doesn’t quite line up. Regardless, the fundamental principles of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), the practice of analyzing and minimizing the likelihood of mass criminality through the built environment, requires an analysis of the most credible threats before beginning any corrective measures. And applying CPTED practices along the Las Vegas Strip would require a risk assessment for vehicle ramming and sniper-style shooting as two entirely different threats, even if they both carry more or less the same terroristic intents. But black bollards that are short and durable but prevalent may be a preferable option at encouraging safety as it relates to both threats: they effectively prevent most vehicles from jumping the curb onto a pedestrian-filled sidewalk, but in the event that huge crowds need to escape from a sniper, they don’t completely impede the curb so pedestrians in flight still have ease of motion to escape by crossing the street, with reduce risk of trampling injury. A huge Jersey barrier lining the curb would inhibit quick escape.
I hate to use this line of reasoning, but CPTED does require an understanding of intersectional crime prevention: the remedy for one criminal threat could exacerbate the vulnerability for another. In Las Vegas, the black bollards were already underway when Paddock initiated his barbaric act. At that time (not quite five years ago), the vehicle rammings of Europe and New York were fresh in people’s memories, and mass shootings, while never rare in the US, are variegated enough in their approach that the easier prevention tactics are less environmental and more educational: training people to look for warning signs of a potential armed assailant. The black bollards are a lot uglier than the lush landscaping that previously lined many parts of the Las Vegas Strip, but massive plants are, quite frankly, a greater security risk—it’s easy to hide explosives in the bushes. The presence of bollards only makes it that much more difficult to cross the street on Las Vegas Boulevard; the intersections are not just infrequent but they mostly look like this one near Mandalay Bay:
And so the black bollards continue. In more recent months, the City of Las Vegas has taken a cue from Clark County, even though the portion of the Strip that runs through the municipal limits is nowhere near as flashy or fashionable or pedestrian filled. Here’s an image of Las Vegas Boulevard just north of Sahara Avenue (the southern municipal boundary) back in April of 2019. And here it is again in 2022. They might not be Black Bart and they don’t quite look like a cowboy, but they’re far less likely to take your money than Vegas’s most notorious one-armed bandits.