We’ve all done it. Stepped off the designated path to take a shortcut or check out a more interesting feature. When enough people follow in each other’s footsteps along an alternative route, that track becomes a feature of its own: a desire path.
When you look for them, desire paths are everywhere. Frequently—but not always—the result of poor urban design, desire paths are the purest expression of the saying “vote with your feet.” Desire paths form when the prescribed route fails to meet the needs of the user. Sometimes, this is a correction to a meandering or inefficient path that doesn’t achieve the most direct result. Studies show that desire paths are likely to form if the dedicated route is as little as 20% longer than the shortcut.
Hard corners and right angles are another type of bad design that results in diagonals or clipped corners as people take one or two steps off the path. Before long, a muddy expansion to the path is created, something that could have been avoided by including a more gentle corner in the initial design.
Efficiency isn’t the only reason people create desire paths. In some cases, these paths form to enhance the user’s experience—to get a better look at a view, to avoid an obstacle, even to skirt around something we might be superstitious about, such as a leaning pole or ladder. Other times, people may create alternative paths out of a spirit of resistance, driven by a desire to literally step off the beaten path.
Desire paths don’t just exist in the physical world. If you’ve ever created a bookmark in your web browser that takes you to a specific sub-page on a website, you’ve created a digital desire path. Just like with urban design, these desire paths may be encoded as official features. The apps on your smartphone or the ability to retweet in Twitter, are digital desire paths that have been absorbed into the official design.
Understanding human behaviour is key to all aspects of good urban planning (and digital planning) and the flow of pedestrian traffic is no exception. A gently meandering path may look appealing, but if most users are in a hurry to get from point A to point B, desire paths will inevitably form.
To overcome this problem, some urban planners take a wait-and-see approach to designing pathways by installing grass in high-traffic areas and waiting to see which pathways emerge. Once the most popular routes are established, they are paved, creating a network that meets the needs of most users.
Stopping desire paths after they have formed is more difficult than it might seem. Desire paths fill a specific need and placing obstacles or repairing damaged areas without addressing the root cause of the problem usually results in more pathways being formed. A single obstacle may block the original path, but most times, individuals will simply go around. Once they form, significant infrastructure may be needed to fight against human behaviour in the form of barriers and signage. Overcoming desire paths may require more infrastructure and resources than simply adapting to people’s wishes.
This begs the question: Should we stop the creation of desire paths? Where these paths threaten ecological habitats or people’s safety, the answer is clearly yes. However, where desire paths are created in response to poor urban design, perhaps we should let people have the final say as to the best route. Following the path of least resistance may create fewer headaches for everyone.