One Way to Deal With a Desire Line

Soon enough it will be Winter. Again a landscape covered with white powdery snow will reveal where travelers want to go. The first figure is an aerial shot of the former environment around the McNamara Alumni Center on the University of Minnesota campus. The second figure is in front of (behind) McNamara . Though there is a sidewalk just on the right of this image, pedestrians prefer the straight line path between the Scholars Walk and the diagonal path across Walnut from Beacon Street to the intersection of Oak Street and Washington Avenue. And why shouldn’t they? It’s cold outside. The extra few feet (extra few seconds) are not worth it, even for a cleared path.

In this Aerial photo via Google Maps you can see what the scene looked like before the recent "improvements". Pedestrians could walk diagonally across Walnut to the Scholars' Walk

In this Aerial photo via Google Maps you can see what the scene looked like before the recent “improvements”. Pedestrians could walk diagonally across Walnut to the Scholars Walk

The 2009 Campus Master Plan for the University of Minnesota is a very clear document regarding transportation. It prioritizes pedestrians, as is completely appropriate for a campus. There is nothing about “modal balance” or other nonsense. [I was involved with the development of transportation elements of the plan. I am also an employee of the University.]

Guideline 35 says:

Develop pedestrian connections that will:

  • Continue to share corridors with other modes of movement along streets or paths;
  • Enable pedestrians to take the most direct route between major destinations;
  • Prioritize pedestrian movement over other modes of travel whenever possible.

Guideline 57 says:

Design signature streets to accommodate all modes of
travel, with walking as the highest priority followed by bicycling, transit, and private vehicles.

So you would think when a desire line emerges, it would be considered for improvement since it is evidence of a direct route. Certainly you would think direct paths would be preserved rather than removed.

Desire line at McNamara Alumni Center

Desire line at McNamara Alumni Center

Sadly, this desire line used to be the regular sidewalk path until recent landscaping work done at the McNamara Alumni Center. But the people (well about 20% of the people based on my springtime count) could not be kept down by a mere four inches of concrete, they rebelled, in the typically passive-aggressive Minnesota way, by walking across the desire line rather than the rat run of the planner, especially in Winter when the curb is so conveniently hidden under snow, but even in summer, when there were dying plantings showing the ineffectiveness of the curb.

Still, I complained to campus facilities staff about the remodeling (1) making it a worse pedestrian condition, and (2) flying in the face of the campus master plan.

I am told this change was to slow down bicyclists coming from Washington Avenue to the Scholars Walk. I personally never noticed much of a bicyclist problem on the Scholars Walk, and there is Beacon Street right next door (and now Washington Avenue Mall a block away) so I doubt this will continue to be a significant problem. But perhaps a regent encountered a bicyclist.

I am also told that this was not a University of Minnesota, but a University of Minnesota Foundation decision. See the distinction? Me neither, and I work there. They share the domain and the Foundation Board is in part appointed by the Regents. I am sure this is important for tax purposes or some such.

A tree! That's how we solve a desire line.

A tree! That’s how we solve a desire line.

Staff said they would try to get this fixed. In spring I even met onsite with a campus planner, who agreed there were better solutions. This summer there was to be work here (to fix some poor construction in the remodel I am told), so there was an opportunity to rectify the situation.

Thus I am surprised to see at the end of this past summer a tree planted where once there was a path, and later a desire line despite curbs aimed nominally at slowing bicyclists and actually just extending the trip of pedestrians (if not increasing the likelihood of their tripping). Now I like trees, but I don’t see them being planted in the middle of streets. So why is it planted where once there was a sidewalk?

Sidewalk at McNamara

Sidewalk at McNamara 1

Sidewalk at McNamara 2

Sidewalk at McNamara 2

Here we have a tree giving the figurative finger to pedestrians who want to take the most direct route between major destinations (like the Stadium Village Campus Connector Bus Stop on Oak Street and the East Bank of Campus, for instance) in direct contravention of the guidelines of the University’s officially adopted plans.



1. If 1200 people  are each delayed three seconds, that is 1 person hour per day that is lost. I don’t know the pedestrian count, but that seems the right order of magnitude. (I know, this is America, and we don’t value the pedestrian’s time).

Desire Line at Nano Building

Just for Future Reference: Another Desire Line at Nano Building leading from the Rec Center is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

7 Responses to One Way to Deal With a Desire Line

  1. Walker Angell
    walker September 29, 2014 at 7:19 am #

    David, they were concerned about people falling when trying to cross the icy mound of snow. The tree is there as a natural handhold to help prevent these falls. 🙂

    • David Baur September 29, 2014 at 9:52 am #

      I came to the comments to make the same joke. Cynical minds think alike?

      • Walker Angell
        Walker Angell September 29, 2014 at 10:13 am #

        Cynicism keeps us sane.

  2. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke September 29, 2014 at 9:16 am #

    This is a long running frustration of mine, as well. There are dozens of spots around campus where the design directly contradicts how people actually use the street. The fact that they cite the myth of the scofflaw cyclist as justification is even more backward. I’ve critiqued the U’s campus design (particularly about bicycle planning) many times, but they’ve made strides over the last few years. For example, if the school administration actually want bicyclists to get off the Scholar’s walk, they need to provide a high-quality alternative (plus the disincentives of signage, creating social convention & low-key enforcement). Without creating good-quality direct routes for bikes, all the threatening (and ugly) signage in the world won’t do much good. The U is finally starting to pay attention to this kind of design work, but there is a long way to go. (Protected cycletracks on 4th and/or University should be the #1 priority.)

    Anyway, I’d guess that one problem is that few of the people making decisions walk and bike to get to school. Administration parking lots are centrally located.

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell September 29, 2014 at 10:16 am #

      Excellent. I’ve long thought traffic engineers and planners should be required to walk and bicycle (and scooter & wheelchair) at least as much as drive on every surface they are responsible for.

  3. Adam Miller
    Adam Miller September 29, 2014 at 11:54 am #

    Do they still put up snow fences to stop people from walking diagonally across the Mall?

    • Joseph Totten
      Joseph Totten October 12, 2014 at 1:06 pm #


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