Durable Growth, Transportation

Sometimes the best path between two points is a straight line

Arch near Trafalgar Square, London

Arch near Trafalgar Square, London

There can be wonderful uses of curved lines in land use.  The curve of a gently bending street that provides constantly changing vistas to draw pedestrians onward.  The welcoming curve of a ceremonial arch.  Even the curve of an outfield fence.

And there can be curves that are horribly ill-conceived

Twice in the last few weeks, I’ve seen alignments for non-vehicular routes that wandered back and forth like drunken sailors.  One was the proposed alignment of a sidewalk.  The other was the constructed alignment of a bike path.  Both times, I gritted my teeth.

Curved paths for non-vehicular paths send terrible messages.

Cheney Field in Tacoma, Washington

Cheney Field in Tacoma, Washington

Have you ever been heading somewhere on foot in a hurry, only to have to follow some capricious wandering alignment that was designed by someone who was never going to use the path?  How did it make you feel?  I’ve had the experience and it made me feel trivialized.  It sent me the message that my needs as a pedestrian were frivolous.  That my travel was less important that the travel of motorists heading to the same destination.  That my need for timely arrival was secondary to someone else’s subjective judgment of beauty.

And that’s a horrible message to be sending, particularly to the young.  With climate change perhaps the defining challenge of the next generation, we should be encouraging people to get out of their cars.  Instead, with curvy paths that don’t respect a desire of non-motorists to travel efficiently and quickly, we send the message that their non-car transportation is cute and not really all that important.  What a wrong-headed message to be sending.

Imagine you’re a fourteen-year-old soccer player riding your bike to a championship match.  Now imagine that, as you near the pitch, you’re forced to slow on your bike so you can follow some tight curves that were laid out for no reason other than aesthetics.  What’s the message?  To me, the message is that next time you should ask your mother to drive you because the path designer didn’t care about your need for timely arrival via bicycle.

And have your ever looked at the wear pattern on the edge of a heavily traveled curvy sidewalk?   You’ll almost always find worn and bare areas on the inside of the curves as the pedestrians try to follow a straight line on a curvy path.  It’s a message to which we should be listening.

If we want more people to get out of their cars, we need to respect them as pedestrians and as bicyclists.  And respect means allowing them to arrive quickly, not to detour them along some silly wiggly path that only a self-centered landscape architect would love.

And you know the worst part?  The wiggly path doesn’t even look that good on the ground.  It only looks good on paper.  But, of course, paper is where it gets reviewed and approved.  So for ten minutes of a review body’s approval, we disregard fifty years of bicyclists and/or pedestrians.


One of my community roles is a seat on the Petaluma Transit Advisory Committee.  Many of our meetings are awfully dull except to transit geeks.  It’s hard to get excited about the procurement schedules for new buses or contracts to clean bus stops.  But sometimes more interesting stuff comes our way.  And a couple of those topics will be on the agenda for our Thursday, May 7 meeting.  I’ll write more in my next post.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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