The Ingenuity of Desire Paths
If you build it, they will come — or so the saying goes. Over the last century, we’ve learned that this is adversely true in the case of roadway expansion. Though planners typically engage in such projects to provide relief from traffic congestion, it usually leads to more cars on the road upon completion.
When it comes to pedestrian infrastructure, this mantra begins to fall flat. Able-bodied pedestrians are one of the most autonomous transportation agents, and unlike cars, people tend to walk on the environment that suits them best rather than being tied to specific infrastructure. Individual walking patterns are more nuanced and are highly influenced by sensorial elements such as sight and sound.
In circumstances where the sidewalk does not serve them, pedestrians are quick to find a better option, crossing the street to avoid noisy construction or finding a shortcut through the grass. Should enough people decide that cutting through the grass is the best way to get to their destination, a new pathway forms from footprints, eroding the grass until it surrenders. This demarcated short-cut is known as a “desire path” as it clearly shows where the people desire to move in juxtaposition to the formal paths that were created by planners.
Desire paths are visible across the world, in all sorts of formal and informal settings, delegating the most direct route to the doctor’s office from a parking lot or the perferred way to cross the grounds of the National Congress of Brazil. Large, grassy areas seem to be particularly susceptible to desire paths — even more so when coupled with high volume traffic, such as university campuses. Some schools, like Michigan State University and Virginia Tech have used desire paths to determine where they should pave formalized asphalt paths that are more durable for all weather use.
In a sense, desire paths outline the contentious relationship between the built environment and end-users, acting as “feedback” on decidedly poor urban and landscape design. This sometimes escalates into passive aggressive landscape battles in which grounds keepers will respond with new obstacles like planted trees or shrubs- or even new grass. Most of the time, new desire paths rise again in their place.
UPDATE: Local college planted a tree in the middle of a desire path to discourage use; two years later desire path has been successfully blocked, re-seeded…and moved two feet to the right. (Original post and more photos in comments) from r/DesirePath
The desire path concept also applies to other facets of design and innovation. On social media, there are several instances of desire paths in which people work within the limitations of the system to bend the rules. For example, people posting screenshotted essays on Instagram or Twitter to skirt the character count. Desire paths indicate the path to least resistance. Digitally, this can mean using a direct search function rather than spending time navigating a webpage or sending someone a quick message on Slack or Teams to avoid waiting for an email response. Digital desire lines shine a light on service gaps that that can be improved for better user experience.
Whether you’re voting with your feet, or with your tweets, desire lines serve as valuable lessons for improved design. Users will always find the path of least resistance and as designers we should aim for our designs to be clear and easy to use, so no shortcuts are needed. While well-intentioned, we must be humble to learn that our paths might not have been the best to follow and should remain open to feedback for future iterations.
Lead image from Google Maps.