You put it there and no one will use it

I think it’s fair to say that when it comes to mundane things, people are lazy. Of course some people, including myself, prefer to call it optimization instead of laziness. I find one materialization of this optimization in myself whenever I travel by bus towards downtown. To get to the bus stop, I have to cross the road; the bus stop is directly across the road. Only there is no pedestrian crosswalk right there – it has been cruelly placed almost 30 meters to the side, thus generating over 60 meters of excess walking just to get to the bus stop. With a total distance to the bus stop of less than 200 meters, this amounts to significant excess walking.

So nine times out of ten I wait for a safe interval to cross the busy four-lane road. I justify this, among other things, by the fact that the crosswalk does not have traffic lights and thus the drivers couldn’t care less about it. So even if you tried to use it, you wouldn’t get anywhere – or maybe you would have the satisfaction of knowing you had the legal right to be where you were when the car ran over you. Plus if some rare kind soul would stop to let you cross, the car on the other lane would inevitably ignore the law and run over you at full speed. (Seriously, these things happen way too often in Finland)

This concept of optimization is also very visible in all parks and placement of pathways. That is, people rarely use the ready-made pathways if there’s a more convenient route available. It amazes me that park and urban planners haven’t taken this into consideration more. It must be the environmental architects who think that the pathways should be put where the look nicest, not where they’d actually be used. Ever see naturally formed paths forming straight lines and exact 90-degree turns? Me neither.

But surprisingly, it turns out that paths naturally formed in open spaces aren’t usually optimized for the shortest route. From Philip Ball’s book Critical Mass, I found out that Dirk Helbing and Péter Molnár have been studying pedestrian dynamics (like these articles on a social force model and an active walker model) and it’s really fascinating stuff. Example from Ball’s book on their model: if given an open space with no pre-existing paths, the first people take a direct route to their destination. But soon direct routes evolve into a compromise between directness and the tendency to follow existing paths – and the model ends up forming patterns that quite accurately portray what happens in the real world.

So it turns out even laziness – oh, excuse me, optimization – has a social angle.

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4 Responses to You put it there and no one will use it

  1. heather says:

    Maybe there is another bus stop opposite and they are trying to make that crossing in the middle so that it will benefit both parties?

    Sometimes I also think the same like you but, is it dangerous if bus stop and pedestrian crossings are too close because the bus is so big.. and..hmm..

    I am looking forward to Finland’s light rail taxi. 🙂

  2. sim says:

    There is another bus stop some distance in the other direction, but it has it’s own crosswalk. There’s also a tunnel under the road 30m the other way, so plenty of options – I guess my point was that you can’t win unless the crossing is exactly where people would naturally use it.

    Of course, planning park paths etc. to be more naturally placed is much easier than urban things like crosswalks.

  3. Cybbis says:

    When our office was in Itä-Pasila, near Messukeskus I always admired the fact that it’s almost the only place where they have build diagonal shortcuts to help you move in a natrual manner. It really made my daily work trips much more convenient and it probably didn’t cost a penny extra in the building phase. Although I am almost the single Helsinki resident that waits in the pedestrian lights, I too can’t resist taking a shortcut through a grass if that’ll save me time even if it would be forbidden.

  4. sim says:

    Cybbis, that’s interesting. In general I think Itä-Pasila is hideous though 🙂

    I wait for the green light if there are kids around – like a desperate attempt at setting an example. But if only adults are around and there are no cars…

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