All the livelong day
April 3, 2010 11:32 AM   Subscribe

Does the will of the people always make a shortcut across the tracks?

I live in Montreal, which like many cities has railway tracks dividing neighbourhoods. But everyone who lives near the tracks knows where the shortcuts are, places where someone has cut through the chain-link fence to allow pedestrians to get across the tracks quickly rather than taking a longer way around.

Sometimes the authorities will replace the fence or mend the holes, but it's never long before the mysterious wire cutter people make another opening for pedestrians to pass through.

Is this universal? Does it happen where you live?
posted by zadcat to Society & Culture (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Well, I don't think you can really reduce this phenomenon to 'given the opportunity, people will universally cut holes in chain link fences to make shortcuts,' but in my experience, they generally do. And not that, you know, I'd have anyway of knowing this, but it's usually teenagers...
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:37 AM on April 3, 2010

Best answer: Why wouldn't it be? People like to walk in straight lines, across obstacles if they can. I'm reminded of the experiment where you run a stream of water down an inclined glass pane, and then put obstacles in the way. The water courses straight downhill, hits an obstacle, goes around it, and then goes straight downhill again.

I seem to remember having heard about an Ivy League campus where they planted grass across the entire quad one year -- and the next year, paved sidewalks across all the places where the grass had died from being walked on too much.

(Full disclosure: I read the MCW post this morning. Which is why the question jumped out at me.)
posted by cinoyter at 11:50 AM on April 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I was a kid and wanted to do something that required permission, I'd seek out the parent that was least emotionally involved/knowledgeable or busy. This would inevitably lead to "Go ask your father/mother." To which I'd quip, "They told me to ask you." 90% of the time, the response would be a shrug accompanied by, "Alright, go ahead."

We are all fence cutters, in one way or another.
posted by Christ, what an asshole at 11:51 AM on April 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

It's happened everywhere I've lived.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:14 PM on April 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

In my small town the various train tracks aren't fenced off, so there's no real barrier to crossing wherever you want, but there are well-worn footpaths in the dirt and gravel in specific places, indicating where it's easiest/safest to cross. I suppose it's the human equivalent of "the shortest distance between two points is a straight line."
posted by amyms at 12:35 PM on April 3, 2010

Yeah, just like what cinoyter said.

I was doing some work for a local, non-Ivy League college photographing the head of buildings and grounds, and they were putting in a new sidewalk nearby.

I asked him how they decided exactly where to put the sidewalks, and he told me that it was always a no-brainer since they tried to pave the paths where no grass was growing due to heavy foot traffic.
posted by imjustsaying at 1:09 PM on April 3, 2010

per cinoyter, where I went to college, that was also the method for deciding sidewalk placement: where the grass had been trampled to death. But one step more: If they really needed a particular area grassy or unpaved, they'd plant a tree, put in a decorative plinth, or plant flowerbeds. People will take the straight cut across grass, but will walk around LANDSCAPING.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:26 PM on April 3, 2010

The term I've seen for this phenomenon is "desire paths" - if you Google/Bing/Topeka that you'll get some articles on the subject.
posted by Gortuk at 1:35 PM on April 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I seem to remember having heard about an Ivy League campus where they planted grass across the entire quad one year -- and the next year, paved sidewalks across all the places where the grass had died from being walked on too much.

Usually told about an engineering school, but probably simply urban myth regardless.

MeFi's own peterme had a blog post about a counterexample or two at Berkeley a while back, that tracks with Eyebrows McGee.

In general, in my experience, pre-WWII campuses tended toward more formal sidewalk arrangements, while postwar design tends more toward fluid, winding pathways that follow reasonable traffic patterns. But since most campuses are undergoing some level of constant change, traffic will similarly constantly adapt to the new conditions.
posted by dhartung at 1:39 PM on April 3, 2010

Response by poster: I knew about desire paths making their way through parks, etc., but there's a little more planning involved in bringing heavy wire cutters with the intention of snipping holes in fences.
posted by zadcat at 4:36 PM on April 3, 2010

I realize that this also doesn't really answer your question but here you can see the dirt paths (versus the marked paved paths) across the drill field at Virginia Tech which the administration stubbornly refuses to pave over.

In my experience living in apartment buildings with chain link fences, people always cut out holes in the rear for an easier exit.
posted by cyphill at 6:40 PM on April 3, 2010

I think it would be more accurate to say "persons" than "people." It's probably a small group that does all the cutting, smaller even than the group of people who own bolt cutters. There was someone who for years used a cutting torch to remove no-parking signs on my street. Then he stopped. Moved away or something.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:29 PM on April 3, 2010

« Older How useful is a degree in Persian?   |   +1 Diesel Repair: Level grinding my handyman... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.