Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Sometimes the Best Path between Two Points is a Straight Line

There can be wonderful uses of curved lines in land use.  The curve of a gently bending street that provides constantly changing vistas to draw pedestrians onward.  The welcoming curve of a ceremonial arch.  Even the curve of an outfield fence.

And there can be curves that are horribly ill-conceived

Twice in the last few weeks, I’ve seen alignments for non-vehicular routes that wandered back and forth like drunken sailors.  One was the proposed alignment of a sidewalk.  The other was the constructed alignment of a bike path.  Both times, I gritted my teeth.

Curved paths for non-vehicular paths send terrible messages.

Have you ever been heading somewhere on foot in a hurry, only to have to follow some capricious wandering alignment that was designed by someone who was never going to use the path?  How did it make you feel?  I’ve had the experience and it made me feel trivialized.  It sent me the message that my needs as a pedestrian were frivolous.  That my travel was less important that the travel of motorists heading to the same destination.  That my need for timely arrival was secondary to someone else’s subjective judgment of beauty.

And that’s a horrible message to be sending, particularly to the young.  With climate change perhaps the defining challenge of the next generation, we should be encouraging people to get out of their cars.  Instead, with curvy paths that don’t respect a desire of non-motorists to travel efficiently and quickly, we send the message that their non-car transportation is cute and not really all that important.  What a wrong-headed message to be sending.

Imagine you’re a fourteen-year-old soccer player riding your bike to a championship match.  Now imagine that, as you near the pitch, you’re forced to slow on your bike so you can follow some tight curves that were laid out for no reason other than aesthetics.  What’s the message?  To me, the message is that next time you should ask your mother to drive you because the path designer didn’t care about your need for timely arrival via bicycle.

And have your ever looked at the wear pattern on the edge of a heavily traveled curvy sidewalk?   You’ll almost always find worn and bare areas on the inside of the curves as the pedestrians try to follow a straight line on a curvy path.  It’s a message to which we should be listening.

If we want more people to get out of their cars, we need to respect them as pedestrians and as bicyclists.  And respect means allowing them to arrive quickly, not to detour them along some silly wiggly path that only a self-centered landscape architect would love.

And you know the worst part?  The wiggly path doesn’t even look that good on the ground.  It only looks good on paper.  But, of course, paper is where it gets reviewed and approved.  So for ten minutes of a review body’s approval, we disregard fifty years of bicyclists and/or pedestrians.


One of my community roles is a seat on the Petaluma Transit Advisory Committee.  Many of our meetings are awfully dull except to transit geeks.  It’s hard to get excited about the procurement schedules for new buses or contracts to clean bus stops.  But sometimes more interesting stuff comes our way.  And a couple of those topics will be on the agenda for our Thursday, May 7 meeting.  I’ll write more in my next post.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. I suspect that we can lay the knee-jerk habit of pointlessly curving footpaths at the door of Frederick Law Olmsted. Check out the map of Central Park:

    1. Betty, thanks for the comment. I'm not enough of a landscape architectural historian to know the truth of what you suggest, but it does seem credible. However, even if Olmsted did pioneer curvy path, I don't think any blame attaches to that connection. Curvy paths are completely appropriate for walking with one's sweetheart on a Sunday visit to Central Park. It's the other landscape architects who took the curvy idea and applied it to paths that should be functional to whom we should direct our opprobrium.

  2. It was one of the Christopher Alexander projects that did the "don't put in sidewalks, wait a year, then put the sidewalks where the trails got warn" thing, right?

    I've been thinking recently about how we remember the designers who get it horrifically wrong. Gehry, Wright, other starchitects are remembered for buildings that are visually stunning, but largely unusable maintenance nightmares. Eichler built hard to navigate energy inefficient suburbs that are remarkable examples of car dependent isolationism, except for meddlesome architectural review subcommittees of HOAs.

    The best designers are those who build unremarkable systems that fit into our lives without us noticing. Curves are a way of building remarkable systems.

    1. Dan, thanks for the comment. I love the thought in your closing paragraph. (Admittedly, I often remark on places that fit well into our lives, but I know that I'm not normal.)

      I can't confirm the Christopher Alexander connection. But I once worked with a landscape architect whose rule was to withhold 10 percent of the landscape budget for a year and then to pave the places where the grass or shrubs had been worn thin, which adds up to the same thing.