'Desire Lines' and the Fundamental Failure of Traffic Engineering

Mikael Colville-Andersen makes the cases for designing cities with people in mind.

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Mikael Colville-Andersen

What if we designed cities for pedestrians and people on bicycles rather than engineering them for people in cars? What if a bike lane were as easy and intuitive to use as a chair, for instance, or a toothbrush, or a smartphone?

Those are the questions raised by Mikael Colville-Andersen, the Danish “urban mobility expert” and founder of the Copenhagenize blog.

Colville-Andersen has been one of the most visible and vocal members of what is sometimes called the “livable streets” movement, which has its roots in the last decades of the 20th century but has really gained ground in the 21st. In a recent TEDx talk in Zurich, he framed the problem we face on our city’s streets as a failure of engineering, which has dominated the planning process for generations. The result, he says, has been the rise of an autocentric model – “the greatest paradigm shift in the history of our cities” -- that kills millions of people around the globe every year and degrades the quality of life for everyone.

He argues that urban streets need to be refashioned with a humanistic, design-oriented sensibility, not traffic-engineering standards fueled by algorithms that fail to account for human preference and habit. By observing human behavior, following the “desire lines” that people trace in their cities, we can build places that truly serve human needs.

Urbanization is on the rise now more than ever before. We need new solutions and we need them in a hurry. Should we really be engineering something as human and organic as streets? It’s the people who define the city. Shouldn’t we be studying their behavior, their patterns, their desires and needs, in order to figure out how to further develop our cities? If you think about it, it worked for about 7,000 years.

Unlike an engineer, says Colville-Andersen, a designer’s first concern is “the end user of the project” – the human being who will be interacting with it. Good design, he says, is seductive. It also encourages good citizenship. In Copenhagen, people wait for the light to turn green because the network of lanes they ride on is thoughtfully designed for them and their specific needs.

There was a time in the 20th century, says Colville-Andersen, when resistance to automobile culture was considered to be old-fashioned. That attitude persists in much of the world. He is pushing back.

I’ll tell you what is old-fashioned and standing in the way of progress. That is engineering human streets instead of designing them.

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.