January 16, 2024

The gift of desire lines

Today, I woke up to the first snowfall in New York City in 701 days – the longest snowless stretch in history, beating the previous record by nearly a full year.

It’s pretty when I look out my window to take in the snow-covered city for the first time in nearly two years. But beyond the aesthetics, there’s something else that the snow can show us.

As pedestrians and motorists make their way through this white blanket, they leave a path behind them. Each person takes a slightly different route, but after a while, patterns on the concrete and asphalt start to emerge. Many footfalls have entirely cleared the sidewalk in one stretch, while less-busy paths remain pristine in the snow.

We’re witnessing the creation of what designers call desire lines. Also called desire paths, these lines are organically formed routes that show what users of a space want to do with it. You can see these all around, even without snow – most frequently, just look for a dirt path cutting between two sidewalks. The architects of a space wanted users to go one way, but users desired to go a different way. Thousands of steps later, the ad-hoc path is now permanent.

Desire lines in action, live from Queens

Designers can fight desire lines, with fences and barriers, landscaping and signage, but it’s an uphill battle. Instead, many clever designers have taken to embracing desire lines as a free research and planning tool. Planners at institutions like Michigan State University have left their campuses unpaved to see where students form trails in the dirt, then returned later to formalize them with sidewalks. A British urban planner drew up maps of bubblegum and cigarette butts to figure out where to best place benches.

Snow itself helps create what urbanists call “sneckdowns,” or snow-created “neckdowns,” a narrowed, traffic-calmed street. The blank canvas of a snowfall quickly shows us how much street space can be reallocated to pedestrians and cyclists while still allowing traffic to flow. It turns out that while the number of fender-benders increases in the slippery snow, the slower speeds and more cautious drivers cause a measurable decrease in fatal crashes.

Desire lines are an effective tool beyond the planning of public space. In its early days, Twitter famously followed user behavior as it formalized organic innovations, including the hashtag, “@username” convention, and other tools. UI researchers often use eye-tracking and heat-mapping tools to build websites and apps that provide an easy, fluent user experience.

Step by step, users will reveal to us how they want to use the world. If you’re in the business of dealing with people – and really, who’s not? – you should listen to them.

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, just wrote his first book (Simply Put), and works with cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

Get my new book, it just came out.

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