Desire paths
September 15, 2013 10:47 PM   Subscribe

A desire path … can be a path created as a consequence of foot or bicycle traffic. The path usually represents the shortest or most easily navigated route between an origin and destination. The width of the path and its erosion are indicators of the amount of use the path receives. Desire paths emerge as shortcuts where constructed ways take a circuitous route, or have gaps, or are lacking entirely.

More pictures available in the Desire Paths group.
posted by Deathalicious (42 comments total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
See also: the desire lines of Brasilia, a pretty extreme case.
posted by parudox at 10:59 PM on September 15, 2013 [13 favorites]

I am always heartened when I see a Desire Path that has been surfaced or otherwise officially accepted rather than being blocked off by signs or other security measures. Rare, but it happens.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 11:27 PM on September 15, 2013 [10 favorites]

I don't have a verifiable source for this, but having spent college years in the old dominion it was generally held as fact that some wise old dude involved with the design of the "quad" at Virginia Tech had utilized these kinds of paths...basically the story went that they initially just planted grass everywhere and then after a academic year of traffic they landscaped walkways where traffic had naturally worn it down.

True story, or just an urban legend about how sensible VT engineers are about make the call.
posted by trackofalljades at 11:33 PM on September 15, 2013 [12 favorites]

trackofalljades, I've heard that story about several colleges/universities. Based on my own experiences at Ithaca College, I would not all be shocked if many of the paved walkways that bisect the main walkways in the academic quad there didn't come about in a similar fashion. They make no sense from the the very obvious plan that the main walkways follow but were the quickest way to move across the quad, despite the presence of several planned crosswalk paths spaced up and down the quad. Maybe the groundskeepers got tired of having to reseed the quad evey year and said, "fine, you win"
posted by KingEdRa at 11:45 PM on September 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

I read somewhere about how "letting people make the paths and then paving them" is not a great idea because it may produce paths ideal for able-bodied people but not all people. I can't find that source, but this comment is similar:
As a campus planner, I hate this story. The reality is that people are fickle, and things are pretty dynamic on campuses, thus changing pedestrian traffic patterns continuously. Moreover, sidewalks HAVE to be sloped at less than 5% for the disabilities act, so that precludes many straightest paths. AND, just to oversell, to get occupancy on a new building from the fire department you have to have all of the sidewalks complete (for safe evacuation), so nobody actually has this as an option.
It does happen though that some paths are worn down by people and paved later - here's an example.
posted by dreamyshade at 11:53 PM on September 15, 2013 [10 favorites]

The thing that's always been weird to me is when you see them in landscaping for parking lots.

Generally where some developer has put bushes or other plants.
At some point, why not just embrace it, stop replacing the landscaping, and put down some bricks or concrete?

I mean, I can kind of understand not wanting to put concrete paths that cut the corners of fields or parks, but in a parking lot?
Seriously, just stop making me squeeze between two dying shrubs.
posted by madajb at 11:53 PM on September 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

"Desire Path" is so much more elegant sounding than 'goat track' , which is what I've always heard used...
posted by jrochest at 12:07 AM on September 16, 2013 [6 favorites]

Seriously, just stop making me squeeze between two dying shrubs.

Seriously, don't plant ANY shrubs. Plant trees, so I don't have to fight so hard to get some shade.
posted by BlueHorse at 12:10 AM on September 16, 2013 [5 favorites]

This sort of reminds me of The Old Straight Track by Alfred Watkins. Watkins is considered the "inventor" of ley lines, but he didn't really have any interest in the New Agey stuff that people now associate with ley lines. He just thought they were straight line paths between points of interest for the neolithic occupants of Britain. Coffin tracks are another example - paths worn through fields for conveying the dead to the cemetery.
posted by ereshkigal45 at 12:19 AM on September 16, 2013 [5 favorites]

This happens a lot in winter. And because they only clear the official sidewalks, pedestrians have to remake the desire paths after each snowfall.

"The thing that's always been weird to me is when you see them in landscaping for parking lots."

Parking lots are usually the worst offenders, especially if they're for a mall or big box store. I've been in a number of rectangular parking lots where the designers expect pedestrians to walk a country mile along the long axis and exit in the same spot as cars, instead of just crossing the short axis to a city sidewalk or corner.

Some years back I regularly crossed a raised open field to get to a grocery store. It still had a small concrete walk (left over from some building demolished long ago) that sloped down to the public sidewalk at the corner, where there was a crosswalk and lights. Then a strip mall came in and turned the field into a parking lot. They removed the little connector walk and replaced it with dirt. Then people (including me) tramped the dirt down into hardpan, and they grudgingly put in three little concrete disks where the old walk used to be. They never shoveled that spot in winter, though.
posted by Kevin Street at 12:34 AM on September 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

I went to college at a place where a bunch of these paths (I always heard them called "use paths" - i.e. paths made by use instead of prior planning) got paved during a building project spree.

A bunch of new ones sprang up almost immediately between the newly paved paths, because part of the reason they were there is that people wanted to walk on the grass, which was more pleasant than the paving in the quad.

This story has no moral.
posted by kyrademon at 12:50 AM on September 16, 2013 [9 favorites]

I am familiar with the story of the "clever" engineer who just neglected to pave the areas between buildings until foot traffic wore paths into the landscape connecting them.

All I can think is that those passing these stories around don't interact much with people who are handicapped / wear footwear other than combat boots or flip-flops.
posted by tigrrrlily at 12:50 AM on September 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Engineers lacking common sense? On MY internet?

It's more likely than you think.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 1:22 AM on September 16, 2013

I doubt anyone has ever designed a system of sidewalks from scratch using only worn paths as their input. More likely, some people have observed paths cutting across existing walkways and chosen, cost permitting, to pave some of those paths rather than try (and fail) to grow grass on them every spring.

Anyone making sidewalks would be required to follow regulations, which these days would include the provision of wheelchair access. Paths worn in the grass or snow would be just one input in the design process. Similarly, while you could design a drainage system in part by observing the places flooded and eroded by water, you wouldn't just ignore all normal construction requirements and let gravity and chance design your drainage system.
posted by pracowity at 2:04 AM on September 16, 2013

I am familiar with the story of the "clever" engineer who just neglected to pave the areas between buildings until foot traffic wore paths into the landscape connecting them.

All I can think is that those passing these stories around don't interact much with people who are handicapped / wear footwear other than combat boots or flip-flops.

...nor with engineers.
posted by threeants at 2:06 AM on September 16, 2013

I have two local desire paths of relevance to this discussion near my home.

This one is an obvious pedestrian path from the convenience store on the right to the residential area at the upper left. It requires navigating a private parking lot, often filled with trailers, and ignoring a hilariously ineffectual NO TRESPASSING sign at the railroad ROW. It's full of dense lawyer-speak and is probably there only because, well, $LAWYERS.

The second is across the street. You will notice a vacant Walgreen's. Now, when it was built about 15 years ago, they got hte city to vacate the cross street (Locust), which ran between the two paired one-way downtown streets (another issue not germane here), frustrating local traffic patterns immensely. And of course when they built the alley and the parking lot entrance they offset them from the existing streets and parking lot entrances, so anyone trying to traverse this while it was open had to do a stupid jog one way or another. A lot of people just kept cutting through the drug store property regardless of the vacation of the public ROW.

Fast forward to the closure of the store (relocated to a bigger, suburban-style site a mile or so west). It's sat vacant for about five years now. Of course, for a long time, people kept using those vehicular desire paths through the parking lot or alley. For a long time the Walgreen's property unit, or their agents, didn't seem to care much, but about a year ago the visible concrete bollards showed up. Apparently, for fire/emergency access, they need to leave one driveway open, so a lot of people would go in -- and find they could not get out. It's not really easy to see, but if you look at the two south exits you'll find traces of vehicular desire paths right over the terrace and curb drop, as going back the other way you're basically faced with being routed on a one-way street to a complex five-way stoplight-controlled intersection.

OK, now that I'm into this I'll throw in a third, less obvious variety -- the T intersection here. For a long time the north/south street here was the northbound one-way of a pair, and went through what is now a two-block YMCA complex. Because the city had not yet seen the light on its one-way pairs (and is famously so frugal that even doing the right thing is pushed off if it costs more than pennies), the northbound one-way had to then snake its way through downtown, going right one block, turning left, going north a few blocks, then being run back to the west before going north on the original street.

I always thought about this during the 90s dramedy Ed's opening credits for some reason....

The final point is that people who would come up this northbound one-way, which used to neatly intersect with the westbound one-way but now stops at the eastbound one-way, had no place to go, so they would instead zoom up the residential street going right past my house, which became rather treacherous at dinner-time due to people blowing through the two stop signs and two yield signs they would encounter on this vehicular desire path, forcing a quiet residential street to substitute for a street people had come to expect to give them a 33mph zippy commute with synchronized streetlights (that is, that was the synchronized speed, and still is, in my experience, another it-is-a-mystery).

Anyway, the point is that the city fathers laid these afflictions voluntarily on the downtown, and yet everyone wonders why the downtown is struggling. Because you make it very clear that the priorities of people coming to downtown for anything other than avoiding it, zipping through it, or bypassing it entirely are way down your list. That's why.
posted by dhartung at 2:09 AM on September 16, 2013 [11 favorites]

Silly people! If you look carefully at the paths crossing any campus (especially the quad), you can see the reversed image of the glyph of the Great Lord of Hell that the university or college is dedicated to. "Desire paths" are created by students, faculty, and staff whose minds have been influenced by the Great Lord to finish the design. (The design is reversed so it can be seen clearly from Hell; they are a bit like skylights, although more infernal.) If more engineers and campus planners studied demonology, this would all be easier, and less mind control would be necessary.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:46 AM on September 16, 2013 [9 favorites]

I believe Douglas Coupland's Microserfs recounts a story whereby Bill Gates would look out of his office window for employees following desire paths on the Microsoft campus and then summon them to be [version 1] promoted as the sorts of talented programmers who would find the most elegant solution or [version 2] fired for exactly these reasons.
posted by rongorongo at 2:47 AM on September 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'll say this once, and I don't want to say it again..... GET OFF MY LAWN!
posted by HuronBob at 3:01 AM on September 16, 2013 [5 favorites]

I believe Douglas Coupland's Microserfs recounts a story whereby Bill Gates would look out of his office window [...]

I am told by reliable sources that Steve Jobs just looked out the window to see which way Jony Ive was walking. No, Steve Jobs just watched the way they walked at Xerox PARC? No no no. Forget it.
posted by pracowity at 3:09 AM on September 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

On the ley lines thing, I'm sure I've read that in Irish folklore fairies can only travel in a straight line and if you were stupid enough to build a house with any part of it crossing a fairy path you'd have hoards of The Invisible barging through every day, upsetting things (or knocking bits off your house even.) Kind of like the landscaped environments in question above. I think corpse roads are related to this belief - don't quite remember the details but may be that the spirit has got to have an escape route.

On Wiki-ing,
According to folklore a fairy path (or ‘passage’, ‘avenue’, or ‘pass’) is a route taken by fairies usually in a straight line and between sites of traditional significance, such as fairy forts or raths (a class of circular earthwork dating from the Iron Age), “airy” (eerie) mountains and hills, thorn bushes, springs, lakes, rock outcrops, and Stone Age monuments. Ley lines and spirit paths, such as with corpse roads, have some similarities with these fairy paths.

In some parts of Ireland, Brittany and Germany there were fairy or spirit paths that while being invisible nevertheless had such perceived geographical reality in the minds of the country people that building practices were adapted to ensure they were not obstructed.

posted by glasseyes at 3:14 AM on September 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

I kinda get a kick out of noticing desire paths (thanks for the name) that deviate from the most direct route and join up with another desire path as if they had gravitational attraction.

I also like the ones as per the example in the post where people have said 'fuck it... I'm not climbing no stairs when I can just use the nature ramp beside them'.

When I walk, I often play a mental game of 'make the best beeline possible', which sometimes has me crossing quiet streets at severely acute angles... as in a block to cross the street rather than a 90º turn to walk directly across.
posted by panaceanot at 3:34 AM on September 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is where roads came from, too. Sometimes geography constrains where a road can be, though. like in hilly terrain, where the roads are usually on ridges.
posted by thelonius at 4:13 AM on September 16, 2013

trackofalljades, I've heard that story about several colleges/universities.

Heard it as an anecdote about the wisdom of the first president of Daytona State College (then DBCC), too... and the walkway layouts between buildings were pretty weird, but always convenient.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:26 AM on September 16, 2013

> "Desire Path" is so much more elegant sounding than 'goat track'

And a little less bookish sounding than "Affordance", which is what I think eco psychologists might call them. This also accounts for the 'able-bodied' factor. If we were squirrels, our 'desire lines' to 2nd floor destinations would go up via trees.
posted by anthill at 5:28 AM on September 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

At UBC you could see the desire paths that crossed through sport fields. Eventually posters went up pleading students to not let the fields degrade into 'sadness' through laziness.

That, and every corner of soil between sidewalk corners.

Though I kind of prefer these sheep-path alternatives to regular sidewalks, walking on a bumpy soil surface just feels right.
posted by Slackermagee at 5:30 AM on September 16, 2013

"Desire Path" is so much more elegant sounding than 'goat track' , which is what I've always heard used...

Today is the first time I've head them called anything but "cow path."
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:54 AM on September 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

I noticed one recently in my neighborhood's park. It was a weird one, though - It curved out about a foot from a paved road through the park and ran alongside the road for only about ten feet, then rejoined the paved road. I couldn't figure out what on earth was causing people to deviate from the road like that - there were no trees or branches or nearby obstructions, no fantastic view nearby that people could have been meandering to look at, nothing.

Then when I went out to the park after a really heavy rain, and saw that patch of the paved road totally flooded in that spot, I figured it out.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:27 AM on September 16, 2013 [11 favorites]

At my college (Southern Illinois University) there was an area of residence halls that was separated from the main campus by a busy highway and an active railroad track. It's the area in the lower left corner of this map.

In their wisdom the campus planners in the mid 1960s decided it would be fine for students from twelve different residence halls to cut across to the main campus on their own. After many accidents, finally a student was killed and three years later a pedestrian overpass went up, funneling all the kids from east campus across at one point. (in the map, it's the overpass at right). In the spirit of the desire trail, many students ignored this overpass by continuing to cut through some woods and just walking across the tracks & across the highway to get much more quickly to the south part of campus (including the football stadium). Because it was unlit, unsactioned, unsafe, muddy, dangerous, and was used to funnel arms to South Vietnam this shortcut was known as the Ho Chi Minh trail.

Predictably, students were regularly hit by cars and assaulted, including one rape/murder in 1981 that finally prompted dministrators tp build a pedestrian overpass there, too. (At left on the map.)

So my point is that if the clever dirt paths across the quad at VT are "desire trails", then I guess what we have at Southern Illinois are Death Bridges.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 6:48 AM on September 16, 2013 [8 favorites]

This is the most common metaphor I use to explain how to introduce new tech to users.
posted by judson at 6:53 AM on September 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

That's funny, the story I heard about the paths at VT is that a significant number of them were built to use up budget surpluses every couple years.
posted by clavicle at 7:02 AM on September 16, 2013

They did deliberately make use of these 'Desire Paths' at the University of New Mexico. Shortest, preferably shaded way was what I generally took. Too many people had ill-behaved dogs, so I tended to avoid the grass.
It really was on purpose.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 7:05 AM on September 16, 2013

I think I 1st learned this idea from Christopher Alexander. Terrific post, thanks.
posted by theora55 at 7:25 AM on September 16, 2013

The reality is that people are fickle, and things are pretty dynamic on campuses, thus changing pedestrian traffic patterns continuously.

Yeah. Sometimes there's too many desires.

On campus there was a desire path that was the optimal route between two building entrances. There was also an entirely different desire path that was the optimal uncovered route between those same entrances in rain and snow. The former was a nice dusty goat trail, but the latter was a wider swath of hard-packed mud on which water pooled, necessitating people parallel it farther into the adjoining grass. There were also summer desire paths which passed right over steam vents, and winter ones which detoured around them.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 7:33 AM on September 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

The trick to mitigating desire paths is to understand *why* they exists. In cases where there are occasional floods that force people off the maintained path, proper drainage will make the desire evaporate. If it's a case that there's a vent in the ideal path, make the ideal path work

Basically, desire paths are created when it's easier to create them than it is to take the already existing path. Note that you do not have a desire path if you have *no* route, that's a poorly maintained required path or a poorly secured secure area. If you cannot have people pass that way, you need to make it impassible, if you can, you need to make the access happen or live with the desire path.

Having abled bodied users define what new paths you need makes perfect sense. They are *already* doing so and will do so unless you make it impossible. It is important, for many reasons, to make sure mobility impaired users can still travel everywhere they need to go, as to as many other places as possible, but the reason desire paths exist is people are already using them. Using desire paths as the sole method of layout is a problem, of course -- but when they are, you already had a mobility problem anyway, and you need to be handling that first. But having a switchback paved path to keep the mobility impaired able to handle the grade *and* a staircase replacing the desire path straight down the grade isn't a bad thing.

Well, except here: If you're hiking in the wild, do not short cut the switchbacks. A desire path straight up the hill creates a channel water will run down, and erosion will start ripping that up quickly. You may think that "there's no way this grade needs switchbacks," and while you can walk up the grade straight, you're wrong. The switchbacks are there to keep waterflow under control just as much as they are there to ease the climb/descent.

Trails cause damage. The idea is we stay on them and limit the damage to only the trail. Desire paths here cause more damage, both immediate and in the long term. Don't do it. You can cut across the quad, but don't cut across the trail.
posted by eriko at 8:17 AM on September 16, 2013 [5 favorites]

I have a little patio with some steps leading up from the yard, and when he started to get older my basset hound stopped taking them and made a little desire path through the garden to hop up on the patio. We laid down some stones on his path for him so he'd had an easier time, but then after we did that he just stopped taking that path and made another one through the garden on the other side.

Dogs, right? Go figure.
posted by branduno at 9:16 AM on September 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

When I was an undergraduate, in spite of being a STEM type, I hung out with the artistic and architectural types (they had better drugs). One of the ideas I heard the archies toss around was not pouring walkways or completely landscaping (i.e. putting down sod only) right away around a new building, but rather waiting to see where the foot-traffic went naturally and then pouring the walkways and completing the landscaping. This still sounds like a good idea to me. I resent planners forcing me into inconvenient routes to satisfy their (poor) aesthetic whims.
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:48 AM on September 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm a power wheelchair user, who mostly admires desire paths at a distance. Given my chair, I'd enjoy taking the "nature ramp" around those stairs. For those without the daily lived experience, here's some background on why the regulations exist the way they do.

Medicare won't provide an outdoor-only chair, and basically focuses on any powerchairs' use in the home. These chairs require less powerful motors, smaller batteries and fewer features. And this means designing for non-agile chairs on sidewalks/pavements.

FY general I: yes, ADA limits sidewalk/pavement 5% slope in the direction of travel. Just as important cross-slope must not exceed 2%. Basic powerchairs have limited differential slip. Traversing a rainy or snowy cross-slope means losing control of the chair, turning in circles or sliding into the street.

The oddest desire paths in my neighborhood are cascading outward from the asphalt on the high-use bike/ped path. I guess they're partly due to runners wishing to avoid cyclists in a thoughtless rush; runners wishing for a softer surface than the asphalt; and dogs trotting on their owner's right side hot on squirrel heels. These desire paths are getting harder and harder by the year; I bet they'll undermine the edge of the path before scheduled repaving.

If one can afford it, the last decade has seen more off-road-capable chairs, with deluxe features like suspension, knobby-low pressure tires, and better balance with center wheel drive. I had the chance to try a four wheel drive Frontier Extreme. I rode up a pile of gravel, through a sand-trap, and painlessly over a six-inch curb. Sadly, it's too big to fit on a bus or through my front door. But it would be just the thing for a wheelchair-using farmer, rancher, gardener, football coach, or hunter.
posted by Jesse the K at 11:37 AM on September 16, 2013 [5 favorites]

I have always said that anyone planning/engineering any kind of new development needs to get around it solely on foot for about a month.
posted by pernoctalian at 12:11 PM on September 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

At my university, I guess they'd never heard of waiting for desire paths and instead thought that a bunch of paths radiating from a central fountain (that was not close to any particular building) were a great way to get from one place to another, even if you had to go way out of your way. They bitched about people cutting across from one building to another even if there was no sidewalk going that direction. I never could figure out why they thought anyone would walk in a giant zigzag to get to class if they didn't have to.

They also got mad at people pouring soapsuds in the fountain for pranks, but seeing as it was in an unshaded area (in Texas!) with no comfy seating, it was not really of any other use other than looking "collegiate."
posted by emjaybee at 2:01 PM on September 16, 2013

The thing that's always been weird to me is when you see them in landscaping for parking lots.

I was able to watch this in action near the shuttle stop I am at daily. There's a parking lot has an entrance (for cars) at the west, but everyone parking in the lot walks to the hospital buildings east of the lot. The hospital sprung for new desert-y landscaping all around the lot, including the entire east side of the lot. I watched people struggling through the bushes and cacti every morning until finally some landscapers showed up to clear out, and edge with stones, some of the largest routes through the bushes.

Hello? Yes! Planning folks! People do eventually get out of their cars and walk into places!
posted by Squeak Attack at 2:22 PM on September 16, 2013

I guess they're partly due to runners wishing to avoid cyclists in a thoughtless rush; runners wishing for a softer surface than the asphalt

Current wisdom is that even bike and ped/runner usage should be separated, not only due to collision risks, but just a desire for a different pavement. Anyway, as a cyclist, the "thoughtless rush" is generally what pedestrians think we're doing, but "maintaining cadence" is what we think we're doing -- that is, the optimal speed for improving overall speed or endurance. Since often the bike paths are built as bike paths per se with designated monies we don't think this is a bad thing.

People do eventually get out of their cars and walk into places!

Yup. To gmap another local example, a recently-built hospital has terrible understanding of the car-building pedestrian experience. They have "solved" the ability of pedestrians to follow desire paths by putting up plastic chain-link, of course. It didn't help that they decided that not only would there be a drive-up main entrance, it would be the only entrace for most clinic and/or hospital visitors, even if their visit was at the far end of one of the wings, so everyone has to a) park a long way from the entrance, b) walk all the way to the entrance, and c) once inside, walk a good part of that distance back to their place of visit. One can see the wisdom of encouraging exercise here, perpahs, but a good percentage of hospital/clinic/urgent care visitors are going to be infirm, using a walker or wheelchair, etc. So they "solved" this bad design problem by instituting a valet service. The young men who do this get quite good at sprinting in all kinds of weather to the far end of the lot. *facepalm*
posted by dhartung at 3:37 PM on September 16, 2013

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