What is an elephant path?

While walking or cycling through a city or neighbourhood it is not unlikely that you have come to a point where you actually strayed from the hardened path and continued on the grass to arrive at your destination more efficiently. It is even possible that you have been ‘guided’ by the stroke of absent grass; a path created by many people finding this a more efficient way to their destination than the urban planners ever have thought of.

The world is full of the so called ‘elephant paths’. Googling the term brings you to “desired paths”. It can be seen as the erosion caused by the travel patterns of humans. Looking back to the origin of the elephant paths, we know that elephants literally create new routes through thickened bushes. This phenomenon could have been quite practical in ancient times. However, in modern times it can be said that urban planning has made elephant paths unnecessary. This is quite often not the case.

In times where cities are planned more and more to the convenience of cyclists and pedestrians, could elephant paths actually help planners to use them in their plans? This idea is certainly not new and is already implemented in cities, such as Wiesbaden in Germany.

Students as elephants

Looking at the cycling students in the urban area, similar patterns can be found around cycling paths within city centres. People will always try to find the fastest and easiest route to get from point A to B. Sometimes this can be in the form of ignoring certain traffic rules such as cycling into the wrong direction or cycling along a bus lane. More visible forms are paths through grass areas or thickened soil in more sandy areas. These are signs of people deviating from their planned surroundings and this sometimes results in interesting scenes. A beautiful example can be found at the Zernike Route in Selwerd where students have created a more adventurous short cut (see top photo).

Example from Wiesbaden, Germany

Instead of dreading the view of ignored walking and cycling paths, planners could use the natural pathways to create new and more efficient paths. However when looking at surroundings while making your way to Zernike by bike, you can see certain measures to actually try to prevent creating new elephant paths.

A German town close to Frankfurt, similar to Groningen in The Netherlands, has begun a research to new cycling paths within the city centre. The city stands out by being voted for being the worst cycling city of Germany. A local creative agency decided to help improve the cycling infrastructure for cyclists. They designed an app to follow the exact movement of cyclists. The data can be visualised in the form of a new map of the city. By collecting GPS data from cyclists in the city, the city creates new bike paths right where they are needed.

Implementation in Groningen

Could the latter be implemented in Groningen as well? At the moment there is no exact plan, but it actually happens sometimes in a natural way. For the past couple of years cyclists have discovered a shortcut that actually saves one minute of their time, like the path depicted in figure 2. This resulted in destruction of the grass in that area. Despite numerous attempts of the inhabitants to obstruct the new path by putting objects or tape across the path, cyclists kept on using it. This continued until the municipality finally put gravel on the grass to make the crossing easier and thus stimulated the elephant path; a legitimate path was born out of an elephant path.


Figure 2: Legimated elephant path in Groningen. Source: Author.

This article was published in the Northern Netherlands edition, May 2018.

Top photo: by Author, 2018.