Give the people what they want (i.e. a path)

I’m going to go a bit off-topic here and rant about something which isn’t cycling. Anyway, walking is transport too, and it’s my blog so there! There’s also a bit about ramps.

I’m sure you all know what a desire line is – it’s the path between two points that people want to take. This often manifests itself in bare lines of earth in a field of grass, where many people have walked across it in the same place.

Sensible authorities will legitimise these paths by making them permanent. After all, people just want to walk from A to B, so why make them go the long way round for no good reason? Aren’t we meant to be encouraging more walking?

With that in mind, I present to you Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park, more commonly known as the green area which surrounds the Imperial War Museum in London. There’s a clear desire line running across a large area of grass from one gate to another, and what’s the park’s solution?

A photo of a grassy park, with a dirt path running across it where many people choose to walk. The park has erected a small fence to discourage walking.

That’ll stop ’em!

A small fence.

A middle-aged woman carrying shopping steps over the fence.

How dare this woman take a direct route home? Hooligan!

That’s right, they’ve decided to punish people who choose to walk across the corner of the park by installing a low fence. Maybe the fence isn’t for that reason. It’s a fairly useless fence anyway as you can see, this woman has no problem stepping over it.

Update: After reading PaulM’s comment below (and having had a good night’s sleep) I see now that while the low fence presents no difficulties for most people, it’s an impenetrable barrier to those with mobility difficulties. This is pure discrimination. Some people can walk but find it hard to lift their legs much off the ground – why are they prevented from using the grass? This is unacceptable. (It’s not some 1970s relic either – the fence was added in late 2012.)

But why spend money discouraging people from walking that way? Just put a footpath in, it can’t cost much more than that fence! There’s plenty of grass, it’s hardly going to ruin the ambience of the park – the constant motor traffic on Kennington Road does that just fine.

I ain’t jubilant

Elsewhere in the capital, beside the London Eye, lies the bafflingly expensive Jubilee Gardens. (Strangely, for what is really just a small area of footpaths, grass and flowers, it even has its own website.)

The designers chose a path which ignores entirely the desire line of people walking.

An aerial photo of Jubilee Gardens showing the pedestrian desire line which is ignored by the installed footpaths.

The orange line is the desired walking line. The brown area is the rapidly-expanding flower-beds. (Photo: Bing Maps)

Lots of people cross the Thames using the footbridge, and then want to head south-east across Jubilee Gardens, but they’re not meant to do that.

First, there was a small flower-bed with a gap in it. Then the flower-bed was enlarged and the gap was closed. Then four benches were installed in the way. Then the flower-beds were enlarged again. And now…

A photo of Jubilee Gardens' ugly attempt  at preventing people walking: four metal poles with striped tape between them.

Yeah, real classy.

They’re going to ridiculous levels to stop people walking in a straight line. (They’ve even tried shouting!) There’s about five pairs of these stripy-tape barriers in place, and of course they achieve nothing. There are already new bare patches at the side where the flowers have been walked on.

INSTALL A PATH! Even some stepping-stones! Or a grass area! Anything but this annoying “you can’t walk that way because we messed up with the design” rubbish. Just because whoever designed the park failed to take into account the concept of people passing through it, shouldn’t mean that everyone will forever meander around the long, looping footpaths.

They’re fighting a losing battle, like King Canute holding back the tide. Just install a footpath and be done with it. (It’ll only cost another couple of mil, surely?)

It’s not all bad

Anyway, lest it be thought that I hate everything and only ever complain, here’s something which I like very much, and it seems to me that it’s kind of the opposite of the “you shan’t walk here” mentality.

A well-designed ramp for wheelchair users, set into stairs at the Southbank Centre in London

So good you don’t even notice it

I don’t use a wheelchair, and I don’t know anybody who does (so if you do and this bit’s all wrong then please let me know), but in my life as a transport geek I’m always looking out for how life is made difficult or easy for those who need to use wheels to get about. So often there’s a clunky lift (often used as a janitors’ closet) or a narrow ramp. But it looks to me that whoever designed the steps at the Southbank Centre really did a wonderful job.

To access the lower level of the Southbank Centre, where there’s shops and restaurants, you have to walk down the stairs. Except there’s also a ramp, but it’s not some patronising afterthought like many accessibility features I see.

Another view of the quality ramp at the Southbank Centre in London

It looks almost accidental

It requires no special skill to use, or even any thought at all. It’s just there, permanent, reliable and where it’s needed. It doesn’t ask wheelchair users to go around the back and press a button and wait, or round the side and down an afterthought of a ramp.

The ramp isn’t even noticeable to someone who doesn’t need to use it, it’s built into the steps so gracefully. The design recognises that people need to get from up here to down there (or vice-versa) and that while most people can use stairs, some might not be able to, and it caters for everyone beautifully. It’s also useful to parents with push-chairs, or tourists with wheeled luggage, of course. And it does all this without any fuss at all. Great infrastructure.

And finally…

Anyway, that’s all I have for now. Normal subject will be resumed shortly. (I have something good brewing about cycle paths.)


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19 responses to “Give the people what they want (i.e. a path)

  1. The most basic design parameter for designing for walking is to cater for the desire line. If that is wrong, the design has failed. Examples of where this has been messed up will be any pedestrian crossing offset too fast from a junction so people walk round the guardrail, footbridges with long winding ramps where people cross at road level and your great example of worn out grass. Great post.

  2. Edward

    Great post. Good point.
    Wasn’t it King Canute?

  3. If you look at the Jubilee Gardens photo the paths form a squashed roundabout as if the ‘designers’ thought people would walk the way they drive cars.

  4. Paul M

    On the subject of disabled people – or indeed elderly people or people who temprarily are relying on a stick or crutches while a cruciate ligament/achilles tendon/sprained ankle etc repairs – those low fences are an injury added to insult. A fit able person can skip over them without difficulty, but others cannot, so in effect they have added discrimination to their list of crimes. That alone should get them in the dock before the bench.

    And of course Canute didn’t hold back the ride, nor was he trying to. He was making a point to his sycophantic courtiers, that he was not divine or superhuman

    • Thanks for the comment Paul, it’s made me quite angry at the IWM! You’re quite right about the low fence. I didn’t realise when I was writing in the middle of the night way past even my bedtime, but as you say the fence doesn’t stop anybody able-bodied from walking across the grass, but it does prevent people with mobility problems from using it. Clear discrimination.

  5. It must be History Week: when I cycled to work this morning, someone called me a Cnut.

  6. Hate to be picky but it was Canute who tried to turn back the tide. Herod slaughtered the infants, hoping the forthcoming Messiah would be among them. Slight difference!

  7. May I just also add, that if you have to push a small child (or a big lardy one) around for any length of time, it does give you a small taste of the barriers in place to those who can not just hop over a small fence, or just nip down a couple of steps. These little changes to design, like the ramps, make a whole world of difference to many many people, not just those with disabilities.

    • Like those projects which give teenage girls an idea of what it’s really like to be a mother by providing a robotic baby programmed to cry and wet itself, perhaps we need to give wheelchairs (or children in push-chairs) to urban planners and architects, and make them get around with them for a few weeks.

      Actually, I rather like that idea! Would make a great TV programme.

      • enas

        Good idea. I have an even more revolutionary idea: what about giving them bikes?

      • inge

        Maybe the planners and architects could, of course beforehand, have some informative conversations with commitees and foundations for the disabled and elderly et cetera. Just to see, you know, if there would be things to take into consideration . It’s just a thought.

  8. Jamie

    And if you’re passing the Eye, and want to cut diagonally across, you have an even more illogical set of wiggles to contend with.

    But in my kinder moments, I think that despite the years of consultation mania and expense that preceded its completion, and the high cost of the works themselves, the finished article ain’t bad. Maybe I have to hang with it, chill out, and convince it’s good for my mental and physical health to meander a bit further.

    I do like the flat topped edgings, which grown adults can’t resist walking along, taking them back to childhood. And straight diagonals may have not given such a pleasing ‘aesthetic’.

    As I say, that’s me resisting my more natural wail of incomprehension…

    • Yeah, going the other way is tricky too, though the park-keepers’ ire seems to be mainly aimed at the southeast/northwest route, probably because the flower-beds are more in the way in that direction. (Or are they? I’ve never crossed the other way!)

      You’re right, it is a nice little park which does look good, I can’t deny that. But I don’t think that a nice wobbly ‘X’ of paths through the middle wouldn’t ruin it, and wouldn’t remove too much green space either.

      I don’t think there’s any choice – if they don’t put in a path then they’ll be constantly replacing trampled flowers anyway!

  9. Some parks put the paths where people want them: Look at Hyde Park from the air, or Primrose Hill. They are proper parks with paths cutting straight across like they should!

  10. great work, i cant believe the cost of installing flower beds and fences….
    maybe the path people want to take didnt suit th fen ghui, or the landscape gardeners idea for the design? and im a designer myself! either way, pure stupidity!

  11. Jeff

    Awesome post! Came here when looking up “desire path” on google.

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