Shortcuts

Well, we’re here! Now let us never speak of the shortcut again.”Homer,  The Simpsons 

Since my feet are my main source of transportation, I’m a big fan of the shortcut. In movies and TV shows whenever someone takes a shortcut, bad, scary, deadly and/or hilarious things always happen to them. In real life, shortcuts are just a more efficient way to get around a city… most of the time.

Halifax was the best city ever for shortcuts. In my 20-minute walk to and from work, I could go the whole way with only ever having to hit sidewalks for the last couple of minutes.  Halifax has shortcuts bisecting the city in all directions. Some of the shortcuts get so popular that the city paves them and turns them into official walking paths.

Aside from the time-saving aspect of shortcuts, the best thing about them is that you’re away from traffic and get to see some extraordinary parts of the city – the backs of buildings, wooded areas, hidden community gardens, broken-down and abandoned stuff. And, you often meet the most interesting people clambering over railroad ties, under fences, through parks or over and through structures. (Such as Parkour kids [traceurs], which I blogged about in one of my very first blog posts ever, in Halifax, back before I was XUP. I’ve never seen a traceur in Ottawa, though I suppose they must exist — probably downtown where I don’t spend that much time.)

Anyway, Toronto is also a good short-cut (and Parkour) city. Although there’s not a lot of green-space to cut through, there are a lot of good back-streets, city squares, parking lots and other accessible spaces to shorten and enliven your walk.

In fact, the only place I’ve ever lived where shortcuts are few and far between is Ottawa. Ottawa is a very, very car-centered city. Shortcuts are rare. Pedestrians are barely allowed to have sidewalks to walk on. Sometimes a bit of sidewalk gets slapped alongside a road if the road construction guys have some leftover asphalt or something; but the sidewalk never lasts very long and suddenly you find yourself in the middle of traffic with motorists honking and yelling at you.

Ottawa has the much-touted Riverside bicycle paths, which could be considered as sort of city-designated and sanctioned shortcuts. They’re really for bicycles, but pedestrians are tolerated as long as they can figure out which side they’re supposed to walk on – which is not the side facing traffic, interestingly enough. Which means pedestrians that walk on the correct side are constantly being surprised/scared by cyclists whizzing past from behind them. Also, the Riverside paths are actually take longer than just walking on the side of the road, so they’re not much good as shortcuts. They’re probably great for cyclists, but for pedestrians they’re really only good as scenic strolling areas.

Walking through the Experimental Farm is a pretty good shortcut, if you happen to live near it, which I don’t.

I’ve tried a bunch of different routes to work. If there were shortcuts it would only take me about half an hour to walk there. But there are no shortcuts. Ninety percent of the trip is alongside a frantically busy 4-lane street. So it takes 50 minutes at best.  I don’t often walk all the way to work.

 I have found a few parking lots and fields to walk through in the city that cut my walking time. It’s always fun to find and follow a winding footpath through the snow or through a grassy area.

I’ve always wondered why exactly these paths are winding? You’d think if someone was trying to get from point A to point B by the most direct and shortest route, they would forge a straight line. But that’s never the case. Shortcuts always meander. Is there something about humans that disallows them to walk in a straight line?

Maybe they’re walking and then their mind wanders and suddenly they look up and see they’re too far over to the right, so they veer left and lose focus again until they realize they’re too far over to the left, correct themselves again, and so on and so on??? It’s the only thing I can figure.

Anyway, the only time I’ve ever had a zany or hair-raising adventure whilst shortcutting was when I was about 8. I’d gone to town with my mum because she was going to the hairdresser. After a while I got bored and so, while she was under the dryer, I yelled at her that I was going outside. “Do NOT leave this block!” She yelled back.

Being a farm kid, I didn’t know what a block was, so I just wandered through the small town, cutting through shops and playgrounds and back alleys. I was about to turn into one of those alleys when I saw two guys having a knife fight. One was stabbing the other in the arm – not very hard. They were both pretty bloody and there was some blood on the ground, so probably this was not the first stab.

They didn’t notice me, but I decided not to cut through that alley afterall. I just made my way back to the hairdressers. I don’t know if the whole fight thing  didn’t seem real or what, but I forgot all about the knife fight as soon as I left the alley. I didn’t think of it again until later that day when I was home eating supper with the family. “Hey, you guys!” I yelled over the general din, all squirmy with excitement. “Guess what I saw today?”  So I told them my story and, if I know young me (and I think I do), I told it with plenty of gory detail and a with a tad of embellishment. Of course no one believed me.

However! The following Wednesday, when the town’s weekly paper came out, right there on the front page was a story about the very knife fight. “See!” I said, proudly vindicated. 

Then I got big, long heck from both my parents, not only for leaving the block but also for a bunch of other quasi-related stuff.

It wasn’t until I was 12 that I found out what a block was.

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23 responses to “Shortcuts

  1. Winding paths are usually people walking home after an evening at the pub. Probably a problem drinker lives in that area.

  2. You probably wondered what your parents’ fuss was about at the time, but after growing up and having a daughter yourself, you finally got it.

  3. this is timely! how do you feel about cutting through people’s back yards? we were late for brownies last night, (Grace and I had decided to walk there) and i wanted to cut through a back yard to cut about 10 minutes off the trek. Grace would have nothing to do with that. I guess I something I taught her about respecting people’s property blah blah blah must have stuck with her.

  4. I think downtown is more “shortcut-friendly” and pedestrian friendly in general. I take stairs and parking lots and back streets when I walk a fair bit.

  5. I’ve wondered that very thing – why are paths through snow always so meandering? Your answer is the closest I’ve come to finding out…

  6. Our Widget Factory is a huge campus. Depending on where you park, it can be a 1 km walk to your office.

    Of course, the Safety Police have made “Designated Walkways” that they sand and salt, that we’re supposed to use.

    We’re discouraged from using “Cow Paths”, lest we slip and fall and cost the company time and $$$. We’re reminded of this time and time again.

    If fact, if we’re caught crossing a road or using the wrong path, we might get “Coached” by a manager.

    So much for short-cuts, eh?

  7. Cedar – Ah! So they forge the paths in the wee hours for us to follow in the morning?

    Geewits – For sure I don’t wonder what they were angry about anymore. But it was a small town and a long time ago and I was accustomed to being off on my own out in the boonies for hours at a time, so it probably wasn’t as big a deal as it would be now.

    Meanie – I usually try to respect people’s properties. It depends on the layout of the back yard — if it’s a wide open yard with no fence and no stuff (i.e.: BBQ, play structures, lawn furniture, garden to trample) I might cut through it if it means a big time saver. Isn’t it just infuriating when your kid is more conservative and uptight than you are? I get that with mine all the time, too.

    Matt – The big problem with Ottawa is the canal/river. It forces you to do a lot of extra walking. For instance, if you’re at the court house on Elgin and want to go to the Byward Market how would you get there? It’s not far as the crow flies.

    Jazz – That question actually sparked this entire post. I’m following this path in the snow the other day wondering “why do these paths never go in a straight line?” I’m going to do an experiment some time and find a freshly snowed on field and walk through it from a specified point to another specified point at the other side. I will try to take the most direct route, then I will look back and see if I meandered.

    Friar – Your widget factory sounds like a scary, souless place. Does your cafeteria discourage lingering with long tables and flourescent lighting or encourage relaxation with a collection of small tables and subdued lighting? Are your stairwells as ugly as they could possibly be or have they made an effort to make them attractive in order to encourage people to take the stairs? Do you have showers/a gym on the premises? Do you get shares in the company as part of their incentive package?

  8. @XUP

    Our cafeteria has raccoons.

    I shit you not. The Cafeteria Lunch Lady told me….
    The critters break into the building at night, and the staff has to keep all the cupboards locked, lest the food and red licorice gets stolen.

    As for a G-y-m..? What’s that (???)

  9. It doesn’t work very well for an entire city but the smartest thing I ever heard from an architect related to the pathways into Brock’s gym. They had built the main one from the tower over in a straight line but nothing else and in the first year it was open people walking in from the parking lot ended up trudging through snow and then mud. When I asked him why they didn’t make any paths he said they wait to see where the people actually walk and then pave the path there rather than trying to make them walk on a preplanned route.
    As for paths curving anyone in search and rescue can tell you that walking in a straight line over unprepared ground is one of the hardest things there is for a human to do. Without paying almost constant attention to a landmark the least little tilt to the land will send you off course and then you have to correct.
    Of course drunkenness just makes the whole thing more fun and artistic.

  10. In addition to Bandobras’ simple and elegan theory, I’ve got some hypotheses. Perhaps there are many visible obstacles after the first snowfall (when the path is first made), such as puddles or rocks, that are obscured and forgotten when more snow falls.

    Also, if you’re the first person walking through deep snow, your footprints aren’t in a straight line. Maybe your left foot prints are in line with each other and your right foot prints are in line with each other, but generally they zig zag between the two sets. As different people with different strides walk the same path, their left footprint might fall into the first person’s right footprint for some strides, causing a gradual migration of the path.

    I think your knife-fight story is funny because if you hadn’t told the story, your parents would probably have never realized you’d gone so far!

    – RG>

  11. Friar – Raccoons? Fancy! Does the Friday chili taste particularly gamey to you ever?

    Bandobras – Isn’t the entire Highway #8 an original walking path?

    Julia – I never said I vaulted fences. Sheesh. I’m not a traceur. However, if it was me you were paying the money to, I’d give it a try.

    Grouchy – That’s a good theory, too. I think we should all do an experiment one day to see.

  12. You have got to come to Edinburgh. We have bucketloads of short cuts and, depending on the shortcuts, a fair quantity of knife fights too.

  13. I think I work with Friar! But we have a gym. The building is so efficient the lights turn out when there isn’t movement, which stinks when you’re in the shower after being at the gym and the stalls don’t line up with the sensor and you get stuck in the dark. Same problem with a really long, uh, time on the toilet.

    I think they gave us the gyms because we got in trouble for exercising during lunch on the campus roads. Roads are for cars, not runners who might get hit by them apparently.

    We also get in trouble if we don’t use the handrail on the stairs, and we can even get in trouble if we see someone not using the handrail but don’t call them out on it! So the stairways all have signs saying to use the handrails. Then people thought the handrails harbored germs now that everyone was using them, so they installed hand sanitizer dispensers at all the stairways. But then the dispensers dripped and created a slip hazard. You can see where this is going.

    They put down so much salt in winter that it kills the grass the whole next year. Last year the landscape company replaced strips of sod along the walkways three times in a row (it kept dying without water, duh), and I asked the facilities people if we could fix the problem. They were so worried about someone slipping and falling that they wouldn’t even listen to reasonable fixes that still allowed all the salt but STOPPED PUTTING GRASS ALONG WALKWAYS. Geez, landscape it with mulch or decorative rocks or something. And the year there was a national shortage on salt when winter was still going strong… wow. I’m surprised they let us come to work.

    I like riding my bike to work so I can take all sorts of shortcuts and act like a pedestrian and a car at the same time. That went well until a car hit me!

    As for walking straight: http://sciencenow.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/2009/820/1

  14. i have lived in the same area for my whole life so i know the shortcuts and i use them well. some are side roads with barely any traffic, some are fields, dead ends with a little wee walking path.

    i love my shortcuts

  15. i love shortcuts and am always on the lookout for them, it’s like a strategic game (much like not paying full price for stuff)….

    i think you walking to work is most cool, there’s some neat stuff in our world and often not seen while driving.

  16. Loth – All righty!! If the invitation to stay in your castle wasn’t enough incentive to come to Edinburgh, ample shortcuts and knife fights certainly clinches the deal. Throw in a haggis and a bevvy of drunken louts and I’ll be on my way to the airport this afternoon.

    Bob – Yes, I do. I have many, many serious legal problems. No, no I don’t. I was just using it as a reference point, but thanks for your concern.

    Amy – You are totally making that stairwell thing up!! That is so ridiculous it can’t possibly be real??? Also, I would be interested in your link, but it just takes me to a place where I’m asked to subscribe to the site.

    Jobthingy – Maybe that’s my problem with Ottawa — I haven’t been here long enough to know all the tricks. Also, I live in a stupid area where I can barely find my way home most of the time by following the actual roads.

    Leah – There really is! And there’s also the blistering cold to enjoy; the driving rain; the relentless heat — you don’t get that full-on when you’re in a car!

  17. Today we got an email telling us to wipe our feet more because there is a snowstorm and everyone is tracking in melty snow which is pooling on the stairs. I’m surprised we aren’t forced to use the elevator! Except that would contradict the healthy living posters that tell us to use the stairs for exercise.

    Sorry about the link; it just goes to the article for me. The same study is discussed here but doesn’t have the neat little map picture: http://www.usnews.com/science/articles/2009/08/21/how-to-walk-in-circles-without-really-trying.html

  18. I live and work downtown and almost never walk along the grid (sidewalks/streets) to get to work. I cut through one building and several sketchy parking lots. It’s quieter and nicer and I feel like PacMan when I get to work.

    one of my coworkers also names ‘warm cuts’ where he cuts through buildings to get to places.

  19. Amy – Thanks for the link – That’s very cool. So, in a way my speculation was correct — as long as we have a frame of reference we can manage to walk in a straight line but when we stop paying attention to that reference we start walking in circles. Also, you’ll have to send me an email and let me know where you work. I won’t tell, I promise, but I want to secretly laugh at the place. (urbanpedestrian@gmail.com) Please??

    Fuzz – PacMan – I know!! I’ve said that exact thing to myself on several occasions. I figured downtown had it’s shortcuts. There’s still the canal problem though — how to you shortcut that? Also when you get out of the actual city core things get less shortcut friendly. I like warmcuts, too. And in summer they’re coolcuts.

    BetsyMae – Why is it interesting? Do you know someone from there???