The Incredible Gravitational Pull of Shortcuts

It was a beautiful day in Wellington on Friday, so I took a stroll along the waterfront at lunchtime.  As I was returning to town I noticed something interesting between Cable St and Jervois Qy…

I doubt the goat track is much shorter than the paved alternative, yet there must be some perceived directness about it for a good number of people.  Perhaps it was first formed by those running to catch a green pedestrian light, like the guys in the first shot.  Whatever the case the path now seems to have a life of its own.  Enough pedestrians have taken the dirt route just to get to the waiting point that the entire area next to it has been completely stripped of grass.

Indeed, I must admit I found the dirt path choice quite compelling even though I wasn’t in a rush and could see the other pedestrian light was already orange.  It was probably the social proof of the well-worn track (“others seem to think it would be quicker, so it probably is”) along with the direct line-of-site to the other crossing that provided the appeal. And the fact that the path was already bare meant there would be no guilt in walking on the grass.

What’s bizzare is that we’ll choose that route even though it doesn’t really save us any material time.  In fact, even if it did save time, in most cases it would mean we just get to a waiting point quicker!

This ‘gravitational pull’ of shortcuts is frequently exploited.  Just look at the ads for 30-day weight-loss programs and get-rich quick schemes.  Even when there is little for us to gain we’ll take the short route so as to not miss out on just the potential for a mental, physical, or financial bargain.  It is unfortunate that the designers of this particular pedestrian crossing didn’t take it into account.  It might have made for a little less mud in winter.

Still, it gave me something to write about!

Here’s the area in Google Street View if you want to talk a stroll around it yourself…


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3 thoughts on “The Incredible Gravitational Pull of Shortcuts

  1. People will generally do what is right for them at the immediate time. In this case, when crossing in the direction of the two guys in the bottom of your photo. The first crossing is aligned with the exit of the second as you mentioned. As such they continue walking to what they perceive is the correct crossing path for them. It’s not till they get under the cover that they realise that the crossing has been put at a different angle and the timings are not aligned as a single pedestrian crossing. As such, they deviate their path to ensure that the crossing buzzer has been activated. I think you’ll find the deviation is a road safety matter. Not sure it’s the social proof you think it is as it would be quicker had the intersection not been designed to make it not so. Surely it’s a social proof that council walking paths are always the slowest(safest)?

  2. Hey Scott.

    I guess we’d have to ask them if they were just looking for a quicker route or whether they actually thought the ped crossing continued over the grass. At least in the beginning (before the grass was destroyed) it should have been clear to people that the ‘official’ route to the next ped crossing was the paved one, and I imagine most people would see that the paved path leads to a ped crossing once they get to the edge of the one they have just finished and look over to the road.

    I’ve also taken to watching people cross from the nearby overbridge every now and then (they don’t let me out much) and people do use the dirt path in both directions. This suggests that at least the folks coming from the cable street side are using what they perceive is a quicker route, since they would take the paved path if they mistakenly thought the ped crossing continued straight ahead (i.e., if they made the same error that you suggest the running guys are making, but in the opposite direction).

    Whatever the case, the original path design has probably led to a less safe environment; the makeshift (‘faster’) grass path is currently attracting people toward the outside edge of the crossing, where they are closer to oncoming/stopped traffic. It’s speculation, but I suspect that if the grass path was properly paved it would direct people to the middle of the crossing more effectively. All the compacting work has even been done already!

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