Desire lines: signs of bad design?

Desire lines are where authorities intend for people to go one way, but people (especially pedestrians) quite logically ignore them and go a different way.

Often they indicate poor design.

Here are some quick examples from my neck of the woods.

You have to wonder whose bright idea this was. Try and divert the pedestrians away to a crossing. Why do it? The worn grass indicates not many people follow the recommended path.
Desire lines in Bentleigh

Similar story at this roundabout. It’s a less busy street for pedestrians so the grass looks more intact, but again, why? Puzzling since another roundabout 100 metres away doesn’t have this design.
Desire lines in Bentleigh

Down at Southland, the new station is a roaring success… except for the pathway to the shopping centre, which diverts people via an indirect route – though at least it’s got priority zebra crossings all the way – visible at the left. Still, an awful lot of people come out of the station and instead dodge around the fence and make straight across the car park for the entrance. Are we really that surprised? Hopefully sooner rather than later, Westfield will fix it.
Southland station desire lines

The centre of central Bentleigh: the station. This new pedestrian crossing is very welcome, as it connects the westbound bus stop with the trains. Amazingly, before the grade separation, there was no nearby crossing. With a little thought, they could have made this new crossing wider, stretching towards the bus stop, as when buses arrive, there’s a swarm of people crossing the road.
Bentleigh station pedestrian crossing

And this, around the corner. Having a zebra crossing is good, but it’s clearly in the wrong place. It should be no surprise at all that most people cross at the point aligned with the supermarket entrance. Authorities must have realised this, or there wouldn’t be this signage.
Desire lines in Bentleigh

Often this type of thing appears to be just trying to make life difficult for pedestrians.

I really hope whoever is responsible for these designs is observing how people use these spaces, and isn’t continuing to make these mistakes.

More reading: Desire paths: the illicit trails that defy the urban planners

Here’s an idea: Pedestrian Clearways

For the proposals in City of Melbourne’s discussion papers to be described as “radical” and “ridiculous” just shows how far we haven’t come in transport planning in this state.

Perhaps it’s no surprise given that in the forthcoming election, if choosing a major party, we vote for either the mob who wants to build two massive motorways, or the mob who wants to build three massive motorways — the latter announced on a day of heavy smog, and despite Melbourne already having more motorways than most cities of its size.

Nowhere in the City of Melbourne discussion papers did they suggest outright banning cars in the CBD. And I think that would be a bridge too far; the Hoddle Grid is a far bigger area than any car-free central city areas around the world, and it would cause headaches for vehicles that have to be there, such as for deliveries.

But it’s blindingly obvious that in a central business district where the majority of people arrive and travel around without a car, that it’s time to stop allocating the majority of road space to a diminishing number of motorists.

Another CBD spot in need of a footpath upgrade. Wonder if @DoyleMelbourne is looking at these?

Central cities are, by their nature, space constrained. Inner Melbourne is getting busier, with daily population expected to climb from almost a million now, to 1.5 million in the coming years.

So reducing space for motor vehicles, and discouraging motorists from coming into the CBD isn’t radical or ridiculous – it’s just commonsense.

Although the discussion paper is a long way from being City of Melbourne policy, it’s refreshing to see recognition of the issues.

Making CBD main streets a single lane each way for traffic. By my count, of the 14 streets in the Hoddle Grid, only 6 aren’t one lane each way, so this isn’t actually a big change. (Perhaps 6.5 if you count Flinders Street, a few sections of which have two lanes of traffic.)

Re-allocating a traffic lane and/or parking spaces to pedestrians and cyclists would be a big improvement. More separated cycling lanes and wider footpaths would be a win for the most efficient modes.

Queen Street and Lonsdale Streets should probably have 24/7 bus lanes implemented, given these are major bus corridors.

Optimising traffic lights is an obvious one. King Street’s dominance of light cycles in particular, is absurd, delaying east-west flow for pedestrians heading to/from Southern Cross Station, and trams. But it’s also a problem at other intersections, including William/Bourke. In fact the lights along Bourke Street are all over the place, playing havoc with the trams.

Motorcyclist riding along busy footpath

Motorcycle parking has long been a bugbear of mine. Given almost every person coming into the CBD is a pedestrian at some point during their visit (even those who drive), but journey to work mode share for motorcycles is just 0.7%, it’s ridiculous that these motor vehicles take up so much space on footpaths, with only unenforceable guidelines to stop them completely taking over.

Assuming we don’t align ourselves to every other state in Australia and ban footpath motorcycle parking outright, they should at least be restricted to designated areas where they won’t impact pedestrian flows and can be manoeuvred on and off the road without conflict.

In fact the whole question of street furniture needs looking at – footpaths are littered with obstacles, as shown in this short video:

Pedestrian Clearways

Walking is probably the most neglected transport mode. Even worse than buses.

It’s the most space-efficient, but increasingly squeezed for capacity as pedestrian numbers grow.

Let me put forward a modest, simple proposal: The busiest parts of the city centre should have Pedestrian Clearways.

Concentrate initially on the spaces around the railway stations, which see the largest pedestrian flows:

  • No motorcycle parking
  • No outdoor dining at peak times
  • Advertising bikes prohibited
  • Fixed rubbish bins, letter boxes, bike hoops, information and sales kiosks, parking signs and other street furniture either removed completely, or minimised — and designed to be as much out of the way as possible
  • Garbage collection from buildings moved to adjoining laneways or side streets, or scheduled so that bins are clear of footpaths during peak hours
  • Careful placement of trees to maximise available space
  • Removal of parking to allow wider footpaths
  • Traffic light programming to prioritise pedestrian flows
  • Rigid enforcement of Rule 128, requiring motorists to keep clear of intersections and crossings

There’s a great opportunity to ease crowding on our CBD streets.

In a constrained space like the city centre, encouraging more people to walk and use public transport can only be a good thing.

But you can’t just wish for improvements. It’s high time authorities acted to prioritise pedestrians.

Walking at night? Be one of the good guys

Lots of people usually alight at my station, even late at night. But as we all exit and walk off in different directions, the streets, especially at night, can get pretty quiet very fast.

The awful murder of Eurydice Dixon has got us as a society once again talking about personal safety issues.

While it’s true the risks are actually greater at home among people we know, there are obviously some dangers out in the world.

One article that caught my eye was this piece in The Age, about walking home in the dark.

I get off the train in the darkness, and see a woman. She is smaller than me. Most are. She strides with purpose – upright, head on a swivel – seemingly alone, with only her “situational awareness” for company.

She would have seen me, too. I’m the big stranger behind her, leaning into the wind, dressed all in black – boots, hat, coat, with a beard.

She moves quickly, but in the same direction I’m headed. In the hurry to get home and see my wife and little boy, I could breeze by her, quickly closing the gap between us until my long strides overtake her short ones. I could fall into lockstep with her brisk pace, following from a short distance away. I could bolt past, if I wanted.

But I don’t. I haven’t done any of those things in a long time. These days I stand and wait a few moments, to create a comfortable buffer. Or I choose an alternate path home. Or I call someone on the phone, hoping my voice engaged in light conversation might dispel any sense of troublesome disquiet that my silence might otherwise stir.

Of course, most people are willing to help if something bad is happening. (The article has specific advice on this; please read it if you feel the need to comment on this specific point.)

But this is an important reminder that also there are things us blokes can do to ensure our presence is not intimidating to others.

I recall many years ago, when I was about twenty, reading a letter in a newspaper on this topic. The female author was thanking an unknown man — she had been waiting at a dark lonely railway station late at night, and he arrived to catch the same train. She noted that where and how he entered the platform to wait nearby, and his body language, appeared to be deliberately non-threatening.

This rubbed-off on me.

When walking at night or in an unfamiliar neighbourhood, your own personal safety means it’s often better to convey a sense of purpose, and that you know where you are going.

But beyond that, there are things you can do to avoid being unnecessarily intimidating to others around you.

Not just women — anybody who might consider themselves vulnerable to others. Kids on their way to school. Anybody walking alone when you’re in a group. Anybody smaller than you.

Everybody’s got a right to be out there on the street. It’s not Might Equals Right.

Jasper Road at night

So what can you do?

Don’t walk directly behind someone. Back off, or overtake quickly — perhaps at a spot where the footpath is wider so you don’t get too close; or cross the street.

Don’t walk in silence. If I’m with others, I talk to them. (Around the streets of Bentleigh in the evenings, you’ll often find my sons and I walking, talking about their favourite topic: movies and TV!)

It seems to me that even little gestures of body language might help put the other person at ease. If walking in the opposite direction, by all means acknowledge, but don’t stare. Even bow your head slightly to stare instead at the pavement is likely to give off the signal that you’re not a threat.

I’ve never even thought to ask anybody if this makes sense to others, but apparently it’s seen as a positive:

Some of the reactions to the Age article have been interesting. One (female) letter-writer suggested men should call out offering help, even if everything seems fine. I’m inclined to think that’s just going to be perceived as creepy.

Some responses have just been grumpy, and selfish: What should men do? Are you kidding me? Nothing is the answer. Why? You are in charge of your own safety, not men.

Why? Because we live together in a society, that’s why.

It’s not Every Man For Himself. We can work together to help each other; to make our spaces safer and more enjoyable.

One of the joys of living in a city is random helpful interactions with strangers.

Open a door for someone; give a lost person directions; pick up and pass back something someone has dropped or left behind; volunteer some water for someone who needs it; even just standing on the left of the escalator.

I just watched Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette“, just released on Netflix. It’s excellent, compelling viewing. I won’t give away the ending, but there’s a marked change of tone towards the end, and one thing she discusses is people’s humanity.

Having consideration for others, helping (and being helped by) strangers — it’s not just the right thing to do. If you don’t have these random happy moments in your life, you’re missing out.

Be one of the good guys.

Bushes and trees blocking footpaths

We all like some greenery in our neighbourhoods.

But as I noted in this rant blog post, one bane of pedestrians is bushes and trees overhanging footpaths.

They’re not really obvious unless you’re walking, but bushes and trees like this are everywhere.

I’m sick of having to duck out of their way. This is especially difficult when it’s dark. You can easily not spot the hazard as you approach.

Bushes blocking footpath

Local councils have regulations about this. In my area, City of Glen Eira local law says:

Trees must be trimmed to a height of three metres above the ground and, at least, vertically in line with the property boundary. Shrubs must not protrude beyond the fence line or encroach onto the footpath.

If a Council notice is sent requesting that trees or shrubs be trimmed, the work must be completed within 14 days.

Property owners who do not comply with a notice within 14 days will be issued with an official warning notice. This provides a further 10 days to complete the work. If action is still not taken within the required timeframe, a penalty notice of $200 may be issued and a contractor will be engaged by us to undertake the necessary work. The property owner is responsible for the contractor’s fees.

When I checked with the council, they said they don’t do proactive inspections. It’s up to people to report problems.

But how many people know what the rules are, and that you can report them? No wonder it’s such a widespread problem.

Bushes overhanging footpath

What the council does do is when looking at a reported site, they will look at the immediate surrounding area.

They also said that for overhanging branches from trees on the nature strip, the council is ultimately responsible — though it sounds like they’d prefer if property owners kept them under control.

One weekend I went for a walk along some main roads near home, and noted down some particularly problematic locations to report.

I used a stricter criteria than the council. The council standard is 3 metres of clearance. I decided I’d only report it where I had to duck to walk under it (I’m about 1.8 metres tall), or if it was blocking enough of the footpath that a parent with a large pram, or someone with a mobility aid/wheelchair would have to detour onto the grass to avoid it.

On a 6km walk, I found about two dozen problematic locations. About 90% of them were bushes and trees growing from private property. A small number were on the nature strip. And I reported a bunch of them.

On a subsequent walk, I found one far worse:

Tree branch across footpath

With most trees and bushes that overhang the footpath, you can brush past. Not this one.

The main branches are so thick that you’d do yourself an injury if you collided with it. It’s right at head height.

Someone had put a bit of hazard tape on it, but one wonders how it was ever allowed it to block the footpath like this.

Duly reported.

We’ll see what happens next.

Update 15/5/2018: Sometime in the last 72 hours, the tree in question has been pruned back markedly, such that it is now clear of the footpath.

Brussels has zebra crossings. Lots and lots of zebra crossings. Could we have more too?

One of the things I found fascinating about Brussels on our recent holiday was – in contrast to Cardiff – how they’ve gone out of their way to make life easy for pedestrians.

Most striking was that there were zebra crossings. Lots and lots of zebra crossings.

Zebra crossings in Brussels

When I first spotted how many there were, I wasn’t totally sure what I was seeing, and actually warned my fellow travellers to watch and observe the locals, just in case the road markings didn’t mean what they mean in Australia. Did vehicles really have to stop for pedestrians at all these locations?

Yes. The stripes mean the same thing (except if there are traffic lights). There are just lots of zebra crossings.

Walking to the Metro in the rain, Brussels

Zebra crossings on main streets, zebra crossings on minor streets, zebra crossings on divided roads with trams in the middle, zebra crossings at intersections and mid-block.

Lots and lots of zebra crossings, and drivers observed them – perhaps because they’re so used to them.

Roundabouts? Not a problem. In Australia, these are virtually the only locations where vehicles in any direction don’t have to give way. Exceptions are rare. The Belgian roundabouts I saw had zebra crossings on all sides:

Brussels street

Two T-junctions so close together that putting zebra crossings on every side would mean three in row? Sure, go ahead. The motorists will survive:

Zebra crossings in Brussels

Generally, motor vehicles had to give way to pedestrians, but pedestrians had to give way to trams.

Zebra and tram crossing in Brussels

How much does having lots of zebra crossings affect traffic? It’s hard to say, but the cars driving around didn’t seem to be unduly held up. When I saw peak hour traffic set in, it was clear that – as anywhere else – the main thing delaying cars was other cars.

Some wider streets had traffic lights with pedestrian crossings. At many of these, you didn’t have to press a “beg” button – there was no button. The green man triggered automatically:

Pedestrian crossing in Brussels

This not only tells pedestrians approaching that they don’t have to press a button to cross. It also indicates the authorities have no intention of changing it (and necessitating having a button) any time soon.

This of course is how it should be. If you’re giving the green to vehicles, why wouldn’t you also give the green to pedestrians? (More about this in another rant post soon.)

Note the signalised crossings have the same on-road markings as zebra crossings. I wonder if that helps with compliance? They’re much more obvious than the Australian dashed line markings.

Pedestrian crossing in Brussels

At a few spots I saw, buttons were necessary to trigger the green man. These seemed to be reasonably responsive, not making you wait too long:

Pedestrian crossing button in Brussels

In some locations, presumably those that get very busy at times, the crossings were very wide.

Pedestrian crossing in Brussels

Along with mostly wide footpaths (at least, wide enough to cope with pedestrian traffic), the design of the crossings left one with the impression that Belgian authorities would prefer you walked than drive.

It’s the sort of thing that some might not even notice, but it left an impression on me. If only Australian authorities were so inspired.

Could we do this in Australia?

Sure. But while some new zebra crossings have popped up over the last few years, they don’t seem to be routinely installed.

This spot outside Gardiner Station clearly should have been a zebra crossing:

This was almost a zebra crossing, but someone messed up. (I shouldn’t have opened my big mouth. It’s now entirely a signalised crossing… which thanks to the beg button, many people ignore):

This is the newish tram stop on Collins Street at William Street. It could have had zebra crossings at the non-intersection end. But someone decided a signalised crossing was a better idea. It’s maddeningly slow to wait for if you’re crossing, and many people just cross whenever there’s a gap in the traffic:

Collins St near William St

I would think there’s also scope to place zebra crossings on side streets at intersections, particularly in suburban shopping centres.

Main road/side street intersection, Bentleigh

The law says a vehicle turning into the street gives way, but convention is often the opposite, with vehicles exiting the street often giving way instead.

And pedestrians sometimes wave stopped motorists on, when the motorist is doing the right thing and giving way. (Do me a favour: if you’re crossing and other people are too, don’t wave the car on. You might not be in any great hurry to get where you’re going, but you don’t speak for everybody else.)

Painting zebra crossings right across the side street would not just encourage walking, it would also help reduce the confusion over who’s meant to give way to whom, in what are typically high traffic (pedestrian and vehicle) areas.

Ditto car park entrances, where motorists entering and exiting are meant to give way to pedestrians.

More zebra crossings are perfectly possible. Here’s what they’ve done in Footscray. It was quiet when I took this photo, but often there are lots of pedestrians around. Somehow, the traffic still gets through:

Zebra crossings in Footscray

Potentially two-lane main roads like Centre Road and McKinnon Road could have zebra crossings too. That would be bringing it up to Belgian standards, and would be in line with the Vicroads Smartroads strategy which says it’s meant to prioritise pedestrians and buses. What would be the effect on traffic? It would be interesting to see it modelled.

Ultimately, if we prefer people walk where possible, more needs to be done to encourage it.