How our brains work when we walk...

General discussions on hiking in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest
Post Reply
User avatar
Splintercat
Posts: 8181
Joined: May 28th, 2008, 10:03 pm
Location: Portland
Contact:

How our brains work when we walk...

Post by Splintercat » September 8th, 2012, 9:43 am

We sort of touched on the issue of "boot paths" in another thread, and it seems like an interesting topic, given that some of our most treasured trails are actually boot paths that were never "designed", nor part of the recognized trail system -- Munra Point and Ruckel Ridge are great examples. So, I thought I'd geek out a bit, and share a little case study I use in my working world to help urban planning students at PSU understand the basics of pedestrian behavior. It has great bearing on trail design, and once you understand the basics, you can see why efforts to "direct" people on the ground are generally futile.

Here's the only rule that applies to pedestrian behavior: people take the shortest path possible. It's that simple. Yes, we factor in terrain, safety, how late we are, traffic, etc., but all of that falls under "possible", and the fact is that human are willing to push their limits in all of those considerations when it comes to taking the very shortest path. There's a whole other anthropological discussion on why this is true, but for urban planners, we just have to understand how people are wired, now why we're wired that way (though it's pretty clear that a lot of survival advantages would come from a "shortest path" wiring in our brains).

The urban planning lesson is to always assume that people will take the shortest route, and plan for it. Sometimes, that's a chalenge when environmental or safety concerns exist, but may not be perceived or understood by pedestrians -- these are the cases where a lot of design goes into making that shortest path a safe one. Major street crossings are a great example, and today we're really paying the price for not understanding this principle in suburban road design, where engineers in years past attempted to force pedestrians out of direction in order to minimize the number of crosswalks on major streets. This has resulted in our major streets being far more dangerous than freeways when it comes to fatal and injury accidents, and we're now only beginning to retrofit the system to make the shortest path a safe one. Lots more to do on that front, unfortunately.

How does this apply to trails? One obvious way is when trail designs loop around in a less-than-obvious way that isn't dictated by terrain, safety or scenery. Our brains tells us that we're meandering for no reason, it the trail becomes frustrating -- but if the meander takes us around a wetland, to a viewpoint or establishes a clearly better grade, then our brains accept it as the most efficient route. In this way, boot paths tell us where the meanders are too far out of direction for hikers. In some cases (switchbacks), it may be true that enough hikers understand the benefits of the out-of-direction design to enforce trail-cutting through signs or education. But when there's a destination (a viewpoint, lakeshore, waterfall), good luck keeping people out, once the boot path is formed.

This is where the case study I use from Oregon State University illustrates the point, perfectly. On the air photos below, you can see the two large quads that front the Memorial Union and Valley Library, respectively. When the Kerr Library was built, the sidewalks in the quad design reflected "modern" 1960s thinking that went along with curvy suburban street systems. In no time, students voted with their feet, and organically created a shortest-path addition to the network that mimicked the much more efficient, traditional Memorial Union Quad - a diagonal route across the entire quad where no reasonable alternative existed. I've highlighted this boot path in yellow. It was eventually paved in the 1980s, as students refused to stay off -- even if it meant walking in slippery mud and walking past "keep off the grass" signs. This is the power of the "shortest path" wiring in our brain.

When the Kerr Library was greatly expanded to become the Valley Library in 1999, it triggered a redo of the Library Quad, and voila! Architects had returned to their traditional roots, and understood the shortest path principle, once again. The new design covers all direct routes efficiently, and even reduced the amount of paving in the process. No surprise that it looks a lot like the Memorial Union Quad design, as these traditional principles are pretty timeless.

Image

In the urban context, I encourage young planners to look around for signs of where people are already walking, and put themselves in the mind of the pedestrian in figuring out how to make an informal path both safe and sustainable. This is no different than trail planning -- and you can see where I'm coming from when I generally advocate to formalize trails that are already well established, albeit in a safe and sustainable way. I also see this basic tenet violated frequently in new trail designs, though I do think we're trending back in the right (and direct!) direction. ;)

Okay, enough geeking out this morning...

Tom :D

User avatar
retired jerry
Posts: 12388
Joined: May 28th, 2008, 10:03 pm

Re: How our brains work when we walk...

Post by retired jerry » September 8th, 2012, 10:34 am

Thus the cutoff between the two legs of the Timberline Trail bypassing Bald Mt. :)

User avatar
vibramhead
Posts: 810
Joined: November 15th, 2009, 10:52 am
Location: SW Portland

Re: How our brains work when we walk...

Post by vibramhead » September 8th, 2012, 4:49 pm

Hats off to you, Tom! I'm delighted to know that people like you are teaching the next generation of urban planners to think intelligently about pedestrians.
Time spent hiking will not be deducted from your life.

GPS tracks on Wikiloc.

User avatar
Splintercat
Posts: 8181
Joined: May 28th, 2008, 10:03 pm
Location: Portland
Contact:

Re: How our brains work when we walk...

Post by Splintercat » September 8th, 2012, 6:18 pm

Vibram, the good news is that young people coming into the profession today are VERY passionate about making our world easier and safer to navigate on foot, bike and on transit. Our future is in good hands! :D

Jerry, that is a great example - I call it Sullivan's Cutoff, since I think he was the first to describe it in a hiking guide. In a TKO meeting with MHNF recreation planners a couple of years ago, there was some interest in making this one official, given the heavy traffic it receives. It makes sense to me, but when I run into Timberline Trail circuit hikers in that area who are unsure of the best route, I ALWAYS encourage them to take the time and extra miles to experience Bald Mountain. The Forest Service planners who designed the Muddy Fork/Bald Mountain route in the 70s (?) did a brilliant job of making it one of the most stunning trail segments on the miuntain. But the cutoff does make for a great way for McNeil Point day hikers to enjoy the Bald Mountain view, en route.

Tom :)

User avatar
Peder
Posts: 3397
Joined: May 28th, 2008, 10:02 pm
Location: Lake Oswego

Re: How our brains work when we walk...

Post by Peder » September 9th, 2012, 9:50 am

Interesting Tom! I have noted too that deer, elk and other wildlife also have brains wired to take the least strenuous and fastest route: When bushwhacking humans and wildlife tend to select identical routes through the terrain!
Some people are really fit at eighty; thankfully I still have many years to get into shape…

User avatar
rick6003
Posts: 330
Joined: March 30th, 2010, 7:00 pm

Re: How our brains work when we walk...

Post by rick6003 » September 22nd, 2012, 7:49 am

Interesting topic, I find that I always will travel uphill whenever I can. Even on a sidehill traverse where I know I need to go lower I tend to go up. I guess I hate to lose elevation that I have gained.

Post Reply