A Desire Path Turns into a Sidewalk!

On the eastern edge of Saint Paul, there’s a dangerous intersection: a four lane stroad, with on-ramps/off-ramps to I-94, and (until recently) almost no pedestrian infrastructure. It is, however, a critical link for the neighborhood, so people had to make the best of it.
Satellite image showing worn dirt footpath through grassy rectangle, bordered by interstate onramp, McKnight Road, and Hudson road.

Image of McKnight / Hudson intersection from Google Maps (2016)

To get to the grocery store from the south, you had to navigate to the west side of McKnight (no sidewalk on the east side), walk under a dark freeway bridge, and then were faced with no obvious route to access the Sun Ray stores. The choices:

Option 1: Take the sidewalk north, which abruptly ends and has no connection to the Sun Ray stores. Then:
    a. walk in the street with traffic
    b. walk along the curb (if you’re lucky, and it’s not covered with snow/ice)
    c. walk a bit further north, through a large parking lot, to a secret stairway at the opposite edge, which goes down the hill to the grocery store
Parking lot with thin striped line delinating access to stairway - nearly invisible from the sidewalk

Staircase at the back of a parking lot


Option 2: Elect to take a more direct route, through a completely unused rectangle of land. No sidewalk here, and it still ends at a fast-traffic road you have to cross, but it’s shorter and you don’t have to have special secret stairway knowledge.


This situation resulted in a seriously well-formed desire path, as you can see here:

Sidewalk apron that abruptly ends, with a thin dirt footpath stretching toward the cub foods in the background

Worn dirt path toward the grocery store, from 2016 google maps streetview

In the fall of 2017, as part of MNDOT’s I-94 construction work, they put in a new (very short) multi-use path underneath the freeway. This included a wide path with nice curb cuts, new “flashing yellow” left turn lights for automobile traffic, and refreshed crosswalk paint. It was a huge improvement for the under-94 crossing, and made my commute much safer.


The next spring, the construction crew was back and was grading a path across the grassy rectangle. I was so excited, I stopped to awkwardly talk with the workers and see if they were really going to put in a sidewalk. They said yes!


And then there was a sidewalk.
Striped crosswalk, with fresh concrete sidewalk going off to the left

Google maps image from August 2018, showing the newly-constructed sidewalk

It’s not perfect, but it’s a meaningful improvement that affects the lives of people who frequent this area. It’s currently in the running for my favorite sidewalk, even though there’s nothing scenic or attractive about it. It’s heavily used, too. One day before 8 a.m., the morning’s snow revealed the tracks of many people who’d taken this walk.

Sidewalk stretching into distance toward grocery store, with a thin coating of snow and many footprints

Footprints on the snow-covered sidewalk

Jenny Werness

About Jenny Werness

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Jenny (she/her) is a carfree, bicycling, tree-loving St. Paul resident, with a Ph.D. in organic chemistry. She believes that our rapidly changing climate should be of utmost concern to all of us. Board of Directors of streets.mn, 2019-2024; Executive Committee - Content Manager.

17 thoughts on “A Desire Path Turns into a Sidewalk!

  1. jf

    Especially for pedestrian campuses like corporate HQ/universities, I’ve always thought they should first put grass everywhere, see where the desire paths show up, and then pave those paths.

    Too often planners like to put straight lines at the wrong angles, so people cut corners or make new paths anyways. Then the institution puts up a fence or barrier to force people onto the unnatural paths.

    Maybe this path planning scheme needs a fancy buzzword term to catch on?

    1. Jenny WernessJenny Werness Moderator   Post author

      That’s such a smart idea! Let the people who actually use the space have a voice (or a foot?) in where paths are installed. Maybe some streets.mn folks can come up with a good buzzword for your concept?

    2. Joe

      There are many stories of that happening, such as at Virginia Tech (https://vtnews.vt.edu/articles/2014/08/080514-vpa-drillfieldpaths.html) and UCBerkeley (https://www.peterme.com/archives/000073.html). Many seem apocryphal, such as the story that Finland waits for snow, observes the tracks generated and then builds sidewalks (https://www.rbkc.gov.uk/idoxWAM/doc/Other-777167.pdf?extension=.pdf&id=777167&location=VOLUME2&contentType=application/pdf&pageCount=1).

      A similar idea is a “sneckdown”, which are curb extensions observed after snowfalls: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sneckdown.

    3. Melissa WenzelMelissa Wenzel

      When I was gong to college for environmental education (going on 2 decades ago now), this topic came up. As a student at the U of MN, mainly the Saint Paul campus, I started to pay attention to “wanna be” crossings. It’s sometimes more noticeable in the winter.

    4. Frank Phelan

      I spent some time at the then College of Saint Thomas, and there was a theory that ultimately the entire quad would be covered in concrete, as the kept pouring concrete sidewalks from every conceivable angle of each building entrance.

  2. Eric Ecklund

    Where ever there are desire paths they should just put in a sidewalk. Okay maybe not 100% of desire paths such as illegal crossings over railroad tracks, but most should have a sidewalk because there is a clear demand to have a sidewalk there.

    1. Jenny WernessJenny Werness Moderator   Post author

      Agreed, especially in situations like this one where there aren’t even other sidewalk options.

  3. jacobus

    I worked at [nearby corporate campus] for a few years, and used to take that secret stairway to catch the bus at SunRay. Man, it was a pain in the neck to get around on foot in that neighborhood. Glad it’s improving.

    And in 2068, when the Gold Line comes through, it’ll be really great!

    1. Jenny WernessJenny Werness Moderator   Post author

      It’s still a pain – recently they installed light poles in the MIDDLE of the tiny sidewalk north of this area. I assume as part of a future project, but sheesh…

      But these little improvements are good, and I too look forward to the gold line (if I’m still alive by then?).

    2. Frank Phelan

      2068, good one.

      But you bring up something I’ve been thinking about. When I hear about proposed or coming projects like this, I’m at an age where I wonder how much good it will do for me once they are built.

      This is the opposite of when a bridge is rebuilt. At this point in my life, I’ll never have a year or whatever of detouring while that bridge is reconstructed at some point after I’m gone.

    1. Jenny WernessJenny Werness Moderator   Post author

      In terms of infrastructure or destinations? Sun ray mall is just across the street (grocery, restaurants, gym, a bunch of other stores). They did put in a sidewalk there as well but I can’t remember how it connects.

  4. Lou Miranda

    Thanks for writing this post to point this out. Maybe there are some urbanist-friendly engineers at MNDOT.

    The satellite view does point out just how much land we waste, though. Imagine if another business were on that land island. Maybe fewer people would have to cross that desert island.

    1. Jenny WernessJenny Werness Moderator   Post author

      I strongly agree, Lou! I would love for that space to be a little cafe or shop. Honestly, even a park or some greenery would be a huge improvement.

    1. Jenny WernessJenny Werness Moderator   Post author

      The crosswalk is technically there (all intersections have crosswalks), but it’s not painted or anything. Drivers definitely do not stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk here. I’m not sure paint or signs would make any difference, but I do wish they’d put them in.

      The sidewalk on the northern side of Hudson service road also ends at the first car entrance, just past cub foods. So, it’s far from pedestrian friendly.

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