Perfect weather for a bike ride . . .

December 12, 2015

The Paths of Least Resistance

It's all over the internet, and I don't know if it's urban legend or just a good architectural parable; but when I first heard it recounted by my lifelong friend, the Crowbar, it stuck firmly in my head ... especially when visiting a locale which has clearly never heard of it.

I've enjoyed this analogy in the past when trying to relate design philosophy to folks at work, especially:
  I can't recall the name of the college campus, but, the story goes that the buildings were all originally built with NO pathways between them; just open grass between the parking lots and each dorm and/or classroom or lecture hall.  Over the first year of operation, the students and teachers would do what anyone would do in an undefined space:  they walked to and from each building along the shortest route, or the routes that made the most sense - diagonals, curving around terrain, etc.  After this first year, the trodden pathways across each of the grass areas took shape.  Only then did the design team return to lay down the paved walkways, using the exact routes that had been worn into the grass.  Those who newly attended in the years afterwards would consistently comment on the genius and efficiency the layout of the campus provided, and how fast and easy navigation became compared to the usual array of 90° angles and grid-style walkways-to-nowhere.

  I always look for this echoed in ride behavior; if riders are always hitting a control and then rapidly leaving for "whatever" on the other side of town, it's a chance to consider a positive change.  When designing routes, try to keep this in mind.  Not only will it likely prevent you from worrying about shortcuts, it will provide the sort of natural flow which riders will naturally be drawn to follow; which presents fewer opportunities for anyone to become lost.  At least, that's the hope... and, ultimately it's just my opinion, and definitely not a criticism of others.

Here in the KC area, the grid system reigns... other cities once visited, while initially conveying to a "grid veteran" a sense of confusion and poor design, they ultimately reveal the same patterns one would naturally take if no roads had been in place:  the roads go almost directly to wherever it is they are headed, instead of drawing squares around them and boxing everything in.  Dallas and its surroundings, for example - an area I've bashed in the past, yet has one of the most active and successful randonneuring scenes in the world - if you're in Waco and you want to head to Tyler, the roads to get there create a straight-shot, almost the same route one would take in an airplane.  Two similarly spaced towns in KC, one follows roads along a strict staircase of 90° turns; one has to get creative and make their own diagonal path.  Now, in neither area would one put a good rando route on the exact roads most cars would be using, but many of the old farm roads follow the same rules as the main roads in each respective area, too.  It's interesting, traveling from place to place, discovering how a region has been navigated over time.  I'm not saying KC is somehow doomed because of the old farm section road plan, but only that one need venture farther afield to get to the good stuff.

True, this doesn't work everywhere.  Near rivers, mountains and railroad lines, however, the natural flow and sense of destination the direct, curvy roads often invoke also make for some of the best bicycling experiences.  The low resistance of the old country road, county highway, or original U.S. route system are all great examples.  The way original railroad alignments arc gently across huge expanses of prairie - no wonder rail trails, or highways alongside them, are so popular!   No wonder the Flint Hills 225km route creates such a strong mental picture once one has ridden it.  Powerful stuff.

While I'd often sought out routes beginning close to home for my own convenience, now I've begun to look outward to the places still small enough to evidence the long, open stretches of long distance cycling perfection.  I can't wait to spread out and ride some new territory next spring, and explore that flow.  It's sorta like lightning during a thunderstorm:  the path of least resistance doesn't seem to have a pattern or purpose at all ... but, it's undeniably beautiful, powerful, and intriguing.  Those are the roads for me.  As I take pen to map once again this winter looking for the next great route, all of this flurries around in my head - and then I look out the window, and dream of these faraway roads traced only as thin gray and blue lines.  I slowly drag the pencil across the page from one town to the next and see the long, flowing printed lines underneath... There.  That one.
Let's ride that one...
And it begins.

Stay rando, my friends.

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