Look at the telltale signs of people, they will tell you what the street needs.

Calgary’s hidden desire lines

There’s a wonderful urban planning principle that what we build for, we will get. The idea is if we build for cars and traffic, we will get cars and traffic. If we build for people, we will get people.

The problem is that it’s sometimes difficult to figure out what exactly “building for people” looks like. People are behind the wheel of all those cars, after all, but they are also increasingly on foot, bicycle, and transit. The needs of cars have been studied extensively for many decades and catered to in many cases. So how do we figure out what people need?

One simple and wonderful way is to look for desire lines, which are paths taken by pedestrians outside of the “designed” street form. They are usually sort-cuts or more efficient ways to get from one place to another. If the desire is high for enough people, these lines will appear as worn paths in the ground, much like the two here on Elbow Drive SW and Crowfoot Circle NW.

Two desire lines in Calgary, on Elbow Drive SW (left) and Crowfoot Circle NW (right) [SpurYYC file photo]

Desire lines on Elbow Drive SW (left) and Crowfoot Circle NW (right) [SpurYYC file photo]

It’s amazing – once you know what you’re looking for, you start to see them everywhere. Some are small corner cuts that indicate where missing pavement might see good use, and others are an indication of the fact that a sidewalk on one side of the street really isn’t sufficient.

Desire lines are such a great tool that planners often use them in pedestrian heavy areas to see where people wish to walk before constructing any pathways at all. Such a strategy is results in beautiful patterns and useful walkways for people. Some of the best examples for this are university campuses, where walking is the chief mode of transportation. The University of Calgary is a great example of how to build for people by paving over existing desire lines:

University of Calgary's many walkways, following the desire lines of the people.

University of Calgary’s many walkways, built on the desires of the people [Google Earth]

Desire lines don’t just create an opportunity for better footpaths and more strategically placed sidewalks, they can be used to identify how any system isn’t optimally serving a large number of people wishing to travel from one place to another. They can be used to study people’s railway travel habits, or to identify places in the street where many pedestrians would like to cross, but are unable or unwilling due to safety. In Calgary, this does not manifest itself very often, as our roads are generally fast moving and free flowing, not allowing many people to cross outside of the intersection. In New York City, however, gridlock gives pedestrians the ability to cross at non-crossing locations, leading to improvements like Six and a Half Avenue.

A relatively new crossing at Six and a Half Avenue in NYC [Wikipedia]

A relatively new crossing at Six and a Half Avenue in NYC [Wikipedia]

Next time you’re out on the street, look for these desire lines, and feel free to share them here!

Willem Klumpenhouwer

Willem is a PhD student in transportation planning and engineering at the University of Calgary, working on improving transit schedule design. In his spare time, Willem does programming projects and is a volunteer and improviser at the Loose Moose Theatre.

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  • glen

    This is an interesting occurrence to watch for. How do you account for pavement use, though? I mean, the path is easy to see on grass, but say there’s a path through a field next to a much more used route over pavement – the path on the field will stand out, while the more used path on the pavement will not. Are there such things as false desire lines?

    • Good question – you can’t really know unless you actually count people. If they’re being used enough to wear the ground, to me that is enough use to warrant at least looking into improving the area.

      I would say there is no “false desire lines”, because they are evidence of use in areas not designed for use. Design should follow the people, wherever possible.

      • glen

        I would guess you’d want to have a balance between following people/desire and just paving everything though, right?

        Of the top of my head, there might be such a desire line just off the right of the south train line approaching Heritage station, in front of that fence marked “Kingsland” (I think). Seems there are often pedestrians walking that way. Will take a look on the way home.

      • You could measure wear on pavement or cement – there’s an elevator in the Biological Sciences building at UofC that has worn footprints where people most often stand (next to the buttons). Aggregate usage patterns over years/decades…

  • Me

    I finally figured out why transportation planning is in such a bad place. They need desire lines to figure out what to do when most people would just be able to use common sense.

  • Mike

    I had the pleasure of meeting Michael Hough a number of years ago and this was a favourite topic of his. He told the (possibly apocryphal) story of an complex he worked on where they did not put in sidewalks initially, they just grassed the whole thing and then came back in two years to put the sidewalks in after the residents “told” them were the sidewalks should be.

    Anyway, its nice to see desire lines used as a planning tool. Too many planners see them as a clue as to where they should put a fence to force people back onto the approved paths.

  • Hermina Joldersma

    I remember planners doing this at the University and being intrigued (and pleased) – I don’t recall the term being used, though. Very interesting! I’m assuming City Planners do know of this, and use it if possible?
    What happens if “desire lines” cross from one private property into another? A good example where this should happen, but does not, is Motel Village (corner of 16th Ave and Banff Trail). A lodger there who wanted to walk from one of the motels to one of the restaurants faces a myriad of chain link fences blocking the shortest route. Could the City mandate “pedestrian openings” in those fences? One could argue that making those parking lots more pedestrian friendly would be good for business generally – almost “a park with parking spaces” rather than the concrete maze it is now.


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