What Trails Have in Common with Amsterdam Airport Flies



We know that we have to guide mountain bikers and other recreationists in nature a bit in order to achieve a nice coexistence. We also know that bans are usually the worst possible way to achieve this. That's why we use methods of behavioral psychology in trail design to guide people.

People often like to be guided unconsciously. We adopt standard settings on our smartphones, even though there are many things we can customize. The majority of us follow suggestions regarding retirement planning and insurance. And once we have made a decision on how to invest our savings, we rarely change it.

People don't always make the decisions that are best for them in the long run.

from: Nudge, Thaler/Sunstein

I imply that we humans are too lazy to set every single setting on our smartphones, to regularly check our retirement savings, and to adjust our stock funds. That’s human. But sometimes it takes a little nudge to make us choose the option that’s best for us or for society. At the same time, we don’t want to be patronized. Experts call this way of thinking “libertarian paternalism” – directing people without taking away their freedom of choice. (For more, see the book Thaler & Sunstein, 2009; Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness).

Flies at Amsterdam Schiphol

A few years ago, Amsterdam Schiphol Airport was expanded. Everywhere, attempts were made to save on construction and maintenance costs. Nudges were also applied in the process. For example, the accuracy of “stand-up urinators” is apparently very low. This leads to a large expense in cleaning men’s toilets. If the hit rate can be increased, then (with over 70 million visitors annually) the cleaning effort can be significantly reduced. The idea was to stick a picture of a fly in every urinal – and thus motivate the gentlemen of the world to improve their accuracy. And it worked and the cleaning effort was reduced – without any regulations or specifications.

What does this have to do with mountain bike trails?

On good mountain bike trails, such flies, so called nudges, are also present. And in heaps. We have found that mountain bikers can be steered much better by such nudges than by specifications and prohibitions. The most obvious nudges are information boards and the “coexistence signs”: “Attention, hikers and mountain bikers use this trail together”. This works, but is much more effective when combined with other measures.

Imagine a clear trail without curves and a steady slope of around 8%: What do mountain bikers do? Of course, almost all will release the brakes and thunder down. You see everything, expect no surprises and forget the coexistence sign. Then, just before the bend, the brakes are pulled, the path erodes and the hikers behind the bend get scared. How do we get around this? In which we install artificial small curves and path narrowing, but which look completely natural and randomly present. Large stones, piles of wood and the like offer themselves.

At the entrances to trails, we often plan so-called “filter features”. The idea is to design an element at the very beginning that corresponds to the most difficult elements on the entire trail. This way, novices realize right at the beginning that such a trail is not (yet) for them and not only in the middle, when they might not be able to go any further.


If we want to prevent mountain bikes from riding on the trail, we plan elements especially at the beginning of the trail that clearly hinder riding fun – stones that look in the wrong direction, for example. Provided there are alternatives, many mountain bikers then voluntarily refrain from riding such routes.


With such small measures, we manage to make coexistence work better and drastically reduce maintenance costs on the trails. In addition, many of these nudges also mean more riding fun for mountain bikers. This way you optimize the recreational value of your region not only for hikers, but also for everyone on a mountain bike. At the same time, you also optimize the economic side through less effort in trail maintenance as well as the ecological side because the trail erodes less.

There are many other examples of how to better direct different trail users via so-called nudges. We are happy to help you optimize the trails in your region through such nudges instead of bans.

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