One Question Quiz
a sign that says 'no exit' and also 'pedestrian route to te ahumairangi' which is very confusing and deceptive
No exit for whom? (Image: Shanti Mathias, design: Tina Tiller)

WellingtonJanuary 29, 2024

The joy and utility of pedestrian shortcuts

a sign that says 'no exit' and also 'pedestrian route to te ahumairangi' which is very confusing and deceptive
No exit for whom? (Image: Shanti Mathias, design: Tina Tiller)

Nestled in nooks and crannies of Aotearoa’s cities are walking shortcuts, beloved by locals. Shanti Mathias talks to people about why they love walking so much.

There are two little words that particularly annoy Tim Jones when he walks around his neighbourhood in Mount Victoria, a suburb in central Wellington. “There are signs that say ‘No Exit,’”, the president of walking advocacy group Living Streets says. “But if you’re a pedestrian, that’s not true.” 

Mount Victoria, like many of Wellington’s hilly suburbs, is filled with pedestrian shortcuts, narrow staircases and ramps cutting between houses, providing a route for walkers but not for vehicles. To Jones, they’re an example of what makes walking so enjoyable. 

a grey haired man with trees in the background
Tim Jones in the bush near his Mt Victoria home (Image credit: Ebony Lamb)

“Shortcuts are fun; discovering them is fun – it’s a way to explore your own neighbourhood,” he says. The sense that a shortcut is a secret, even though they’re widely used, adds to the affection, as if the path was put there just for you. Of course, not everyone can walk, especially on steep and narrow paths, but shortcuts do free up space on roads for people who need public transport or cars.

Wellington is particularly notorious for its shortcuts, especially steps, but they’re found all over Aotearoa’s cities, a reminder that despite the ubiquity of the private vehicle, walking is still an important form of transport – whether it’s a cracked pathway bending between two streets to the dizzying 279 steps of Jacobs Ladder in Dunedin. 

In Wellington, the history of shortcuts is one of colonisation. Gabor Toth, a historian who works for Wellington City Council, explains that shortcuts were a perhaps inevitable consequence of how the city was built by European colonists. Much of the land that now makes up Central Wellington was purchased by The New Zealand Company, with streets laid out in a grid pattern regardless of topography. 

a bald man in a short sleeved shirt in a shady cemetery
Gabor Toth has researched the history of Pōneke Streets for Wellington City Council (Image: Shanti Mathias)

“That’s how you got roads that are ridiculously steep, like Aurora Terrace and Bolton Street,” Toth says, placing his hand at a 45 degree angle to demonstrate. “But you also got planned streets that were so vertical, roads were never able to be built there. There are places that legally exist as a road but in practice are little sets of steps or pathways.” Orangi-Kaupapa Road in Northland – part of which is a very steep staircase – is one example of this. 

Walking routes are much older than cities. The route from Te Aro in Wellington to Porirua Harbour, through the Ngaio Gorge, was initially a trail used by Māori, before settlers widened it and started calling it the Porirua Road, Toth says. In Auckland, Karangahape Road was a key arterial route for Māori living around the Waitematā Harbour. Walking routes made by Māori navigators and traders were used by early colonial settlers across Aotearoa. 

Before becoming a historian, Toth briefly studied urban planning. He still remembers a piece of advice he was given: if you’re trying to figure out where to put paths, first observe where people actually go. “These days, we try to build roads that follow the natural curves of the earth,” he says. “But pedestrians just want to walk straight up the hill.”

stee stairs going down between houses near wellington motorway
A pedestrian shortcut near the Wellington motorway in Thorndon is much more direct than the road (Image: Shanti Mathias)

Called “desire paths”, more informal shortcuts may look like a stretch of trampled grass in a park, or a gap in the bushes between houses where people cut through to the next street. Animals do the same thing: think of deer trails, penguin pathways or the criss-crossing lines left by a herd of sheep. On your own two feet, there’s no need to consider parking or space to turn or track gradient: legs can get you there. “Tracks are often much faster than following the street,” Jones says. 

The convenience of time is one factor that draws people to walking paths, but not being exposed to cars is also a key appeal. In 2022, 34 pedestrians died in vehicle accidents, and a further 245 people were seriously injured.

“I feel much safer on a shortcut,” says Jones, the pedestrian advocate. He accepts that as a man, there could also be a gendered element to being comfortable on small pathways, and he’d like to see more for these pedestrian routes: regular maintenance, lighting at night

Most of all, he’d like to see signage. Not all shortcuts show up on Google Maps (and sometimes paths are tagged incorrectly, meaning confused cyclists find their route is in fact vertical). Walking through the bush section of Mount Victoria, Jones often sees people staring at their phones as they try to navigate. But digital navigation can make exploring less compelling — especially if you don’t know that alternative routes for pedestrians even exist. 

a photo of Mason's lane, on a paved lambton quay in central wellington
Clear signage making one of many pedestrian routes between Lambton Quay and The Terrace (Image: Shanti Mathias)

The question of how and where we can walk is deeply connected to where we can live, says Jade Kake, an architect with a kaupapa Māori design studio based in Whangārei. The expense of housing often compels people to live further away from the places they frequent. Her papakāinga developments in Northland are in some ways not ideal from a Western urban development point of view: they’re greenfield developments on land where there hasn’t been housing before. “I struggle with that balance of ‘good’ urban design – because these are just the pockets of land we have left,” she says. “I like to think of what the stories of the tupuna of that whenua were, how they were connected to their rohe.” 

Of course, that includes walking – the intimate knowledge that comes from being connected to the land every day. “Not living fast,” Kake laughs – she’s calling me from her car, a reality of life in Northland with limited alternative transport options, although she bikes and walks as much as possible when home in Whangārei. “Through walking, you can have a greater relationship to the environment and observe the living things there.” 

She’d like to see more pressure on inner city areas of Auckland to become denser and more walkable, rather than the burden being placed on communities that are already resource-constrained. She’s used to thinking generationally with her projects: not just about what a place will be like in 10 years, but in 50, or 100. The plan with the papakāinga for her whānau will include removing a rail line so there is easier access to the ocean, the kura kaupapa and the marae all within walking and cycling distance. “That’s the dream, of being connected, but we’re not there yet.” 

Jones intuits – although it’s difficult to find the data to back this up – that there are more walking shortcuts in older and hillier suburbs. That makes sense to Toth, too. “Car ownership has really accelerated, especially since they allowed Japanese imports from the early 1990s,” he says; newer developments are often designed with the expectation of parking and car use, not walking. Does this mean that pedestrian shortcuts will start to disappear?

From Toth’s research, and his own community in Ngaio, he’s certain walking routes will stick around. “People really, really love them. They love that feeling of secret knowledge that’s just for locals, and they love getting places fast.”

Keep going!