Urban designers ignore ordinary people’s preferences. The evidence is the well-worn pedestrian path through vegetation.
This shows how people actually want to use an urban space. There’s a term for “foot worn dirt paths scuffed across pristine grass” as noted in a recent Financial Times article entitled “World’s most impractical buildings?”
These are called “desire lines” and “clearly show where the designer of a public space has failed to account for how people would wish to use it.”
Governments are guilty of creating “desire lines” when deliv ering programs and services online. There are digital desire lines, or intuitive ways of navigating a website. But in the case of the disastrous rollout of Healthcare.gov in the United States, millions flooded the website to register for Obamacare, only to discover this new service was inaccessible.
The US government recognized the problem and called in a who’s who from Silicon Valley. They came to the rescue to ensure citizens could register online.
A secondary benefit? The United States Digital Service (USDS) was formed, and is mandated to improve digital service delivery for Americans. Their work is ongoing, and they are making prog ress on many fronts, including employment, veterans affairs, and immigration. One of their most recent projects included the launch of login.gov, an identity service that allows people to use a single username and service to access government services securely on line. This approach ensures all resources are put into securing the one online identity service, rather than having to maintain multiple sites which may use different means of authentication or storage.
Worse though is the passing reference in a recent Financial Times article about an influential psychology paper about why we get lost in buildings.
Confusing buildings and signage will kill people, and probably has. Take Toronto’s underground PATH system, supposedly de signed to connect subway stops and buildings. This connection is mostly via underground shopping centres, including the only one Arthitect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed under his Toronto Dominion Bank complex. The PATH system does have signs, but they direct pedestrians to buildings not streets. You have to re member (and few do) what street which iconic bank tower is on if you want to pick the right exit for that street. The colours used are those of the corporation that is the anchor tenant of the iconic building — not a colour that draws attention or makes reading easier.
The King Street subway stop in Toronto has no exit sign (in a flag position perpendicular to the wall), but only one which is parallel to the wall. When I look down the subway platform all I can see is “Melinda Street.” But I want to go to King Street. Even when built decades ago, this narrow platform with one exit and poor signage nearly killed people, and they had to put in an extra exit. No extra signs though.
Torontonians who live downtown, and need to renew a health card or driver’s license, can go to 777 Bay Street. After parking underground, there’s no indication of how to get anywhere. The only walkway seems to be straight up a ramp into oncoming cars. I pressed the button to speak to security and I was first asked where I was. If I knew I wouldn’t be asking for directions. You’d think the guard would know each emergency button location. Then I was instructed to go to a certain set of doors along the red walk
way with the handrail. Neither can be found. It turns out this red
walkway is up the ramp, around to the right, with signage at the end. You have to get to where you’re going before you can know where you are going.
I received a second set of directions. I was told to proceed to the coloured doors. After walking around for a bit, it turns out there are no such coloured doors. I called back and the man on the intercom said (straight faced), “Oh, yeah, they’ve been painted.”
The property management company and the Ontario Fire Marshall’s office didn’t seem concerned or take any action. This will kill people. Imagine an evacuation in which the se curity guard gets on the intercom to tell all in the underground parking lot to go to the wrong coloured doors, which don’t exist. How about intercom instructions to find a red walkway that is nowhere in sight? How about stampeding people up the ramp into on-coming cars?