How Toronto Gently Nudges Bikers and Runners to the Right

HowLast weekend I was in Toronto for a family wedding. I’ve been there before–it was a relatively quick 5 hour drive when I was in grad school and home to one of my best friends–but not in several years, and I never stayed downtown before this particular wedding. A big change is that since my last visit to Toronto, I’ve become a runner.

So, I set off to run along Toronto’s Waterfront Trail, where I had noticed from the car there are miles of designated bike and pedestrian pathways. It seemed like a great way to see the city on foot while getting in my mileage. I didn’t expect that I’d also find a fantastic example in the wild of how to create behavioral guardrails that emphasize a desired behavior.

As the path approaches intersections with cross streets, the pavement is smattered with maple leaves on the right:

The intersection is blue, there are leaves leading up to it, and the intersecting street's name is clearly labeled.
The intersection is blue, there are leaves leading up to it, and the intersecting street’s name is clearly labeled.

The first few times I saw the design, I thought something like “What a nice show of Canadian patriotism.” But by the third or fourth time, I realized that the design was both influencing my behavior and communicating about the expected use of the path.

The leaves serve as a warning to bikers and runners to be on alert at the intersection, while the labels keep people oriented to their location:

20150822_095336Their placement on the right lets everyone know that’s the side that they should be riding/running on (and while I would like to think I’m good about this anyway, the leaves caused me to double-check that I was not in anyone’s way):

Some well done "keeping to the right"!
Some well done “keeping to the right”!

What I loved about this design was that although it did not make explicit expectations about staying to the right or being alert at intersections, it nonetheless alerted people to behave in those ways. In fact, during my run I noticed very few examples of bikers or runners behaving badly (in stark contrast to any given run in Boston). At the same time, it was aesthetically pleasing and reflected back some of the local character.

I’d love to see more of this kind of design thinking sneak into urban planning!