How the Woodfield Mall SUV incursion reflected the madness of American car culture

Still from the video tweeted by a witness.
Still from the video tweeted by a witness.

Update 9/23/19, 6 PM: Based on a statement in the Sun-Times report that the Schaumburg police chief said “There was no indication the incident was an attack,” and may have instead been the result of a medical episode, I previously wrote that it appeared that the police chief was going out of his way to absolve the driver, despite a witness statement that the motorist seemed to be trying to cause damage.

However the Chicago Tribune report quoted Wolf as saying “There is no indication that this was a terrorist attack; there is no indication this was something pre-planned and no indication that the mall itself was a target or thought to be a target ahead of time,” which does not rule out the possibility of an intentional, spontaneous attack. therefore, I’ve removed the reference to the police chief apparently absolving the driver.

Update 9/30/19 3 PM: Despite the Schaumburg police chief’s previous statement that “There is no indication that this was a terrorist attack,”  on Sunday, September 29, the motorist, Javier Garcia, 22, was charged with a felony count of terrorism.

First of all, let me say that I’m very thankful that no one was seriously hurt in Friday’s terrifying incident in which a man smashed an SUV through doors of Schaumburg’s Woodfield Mall and proceeded to drive through the shopping center striking storefronts and displays. And it sounds like bystanders and first responders did a good job of handling the incident, which resulted in the motorist being apprehended with no shots fired.

But, most of all, this nightmare scenario seems to reflect the insanity of our car-obsessed society.

The man crashed the SUV through the doors near a Sears around 2:25 p.m. A video posted on Twitter shows the mayhem as the driver careens through the mall with screeching tires, striking a Forever 21 storefront and knocking over displays. He eventually struck a pillar, fled the vehicle, was subdued by bystanders, and arrested by police. Here’s a video of the pandemonium tweeted by a witness (warning, contains some F-bombs.)

Miraculously, the driver didn’t strike any people, although three individuals taken to hospitals to be treated for minor injuries, and four more were treated at the scene, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. The 22-year-old man is currently being held at a mental health facility, and police say a decision about possible charges will not be made until he is released. Schaumburg Police Chief Bill Wolf said Friday that so far there is no indication that the incursion was a terrorist attack or a premeditated attack, although he did not rule out the possibility of a spontaneous attack.

At least one witness stated that the man was, in fact, intentionally causing destruction. Abram Taylor, who was working at a Sprint kiosk, told the Chicago Tribune, “He was driving in reverse and hitting things, trying to do as much damage as he could. And I knew he was coming toward my kiosk.” After he fled, the motorist struck the stand.

While we still don’t have the full picture of what happened yet, let’s consider the scenario for a moment. The Woodfield Mall opened in 1971 as the largest mall in the nation at that time. (It’s still the biggest in the Chicago region.) It was during the thick of our city’s white flight era, when Chicagoans were taking advantage of federal loan incentives to move to car-centric suburbs like Schaumburg, which currently has a Metra station at its south end, but no rapid transit.

The shopping mall trend reflected the Twentieth Century movement towards a car-dominated society. Malls were designed to be extremely easy to drive to, with vast moats of parking, but they were usually difficult and unsafe to walk or bike to, surrounded by multilane roads that often lacked sidewalks. That’s the case with McConnor Parkway, the main road just east of the Woodfield Mall. The mall’s main entrance is on Golf Road to the north, which does have sidewalks, but with eight lanes it’s still a pretty terrifying place to walk or bike.

While shopping malls were typically located in pedestrian-hostile environments, they were designed to recreate the pleasant pedestrian shopping experiences that people missed after relocating to car-dependent ‘burbs. The idea was to create a safe place where people could enjoy wandering between stores and hanging out in semi-public spaces without having to worry about being struck by drivers. But Friday’s madness, which involved the type of vehicle that is fueling the current pedestrian fatality epidemic, shattered that illusion of safety.

The most dangerous intersection in Schaumburg is just northwest of the mall. Image: Google Maps
The most dangerous intersection in Schaumburg is just northwest of the mall. Image: Google Maps

Ironically, the same day the Woodfield Mall incursion occurred, the Daily Herald published an article called “Where do crashes occur in Schaumburg?” They found that the most-crash-prone intersection in the area is the massive junction of Golf Road and Meacham Road, located just northwest of the mall, with 563 collisions between January 1, 2016, and September 10, 2019.

On a lighter note, since this incident had a relatively happy ending, it’s fair game for Internet jokes and memes, of which there were many on Friday. Several observers noted the similarity to a scene from the 1979 film “Blues Brothers,” in which Jake and Elwood drive through a shopping center while being chased by Illinois State Police troopers, causing similar havoc. The scene was filmed in the then-vacant Dixie Square Mall in south-suburban Harvey. From Streetsblog USA’s Blake Aued:

Others predicted that the driver would see few consequences for his actions.

And multiple people used the incident to point out the absurdity of news reports focusing on what a pedestrian or cyclist was wearing when a reckless driver struck them.

So, again, let’s be grateful that no one was seriously hurt here. But the next time you find yourself strolling through a suburban shopping mall, be sure to be a responsible pedestrian and look both ways before crossing the atrium.

 

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG