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Why Transit Riders Give Terrible Directions

Who really knows where we're going, anyway?
December 6, 2013, 9:30pm

Image via Flickr/CC

If I asked you how far you live from work, and you replied, "It’s only about 25 minutes by train," then you're not really supplying a distance. It's relative, excusably typical, and more likely part of an ongoing sales pitch about your neighborhood's distance from my reality. It's "not that far," you add. But your crappy direction-giving might just be the result of your passive passengerhood.

According to new research, drivers, walkers, and bicyclists will generally provide us with more useful directions than transit riders. Published in Urban Planning, "Going Mental" shows that cognitively active travelers, regardless of commute by foot or car, tend to trump cognitively passive travelers, (those who frequent public buses and trains) in perceiving distance. Questioning cognitively active, passive, and mixed travelers about distances from a survey site to LA's city hall, the research demonstrated that the passive bus and subway riders have less of a grip on distance. Actively cognitive travelers, according to the results, were more likely to integrate street names in their directions, and also exhibited a sharper understanding of distances.

The mixed users of both cognitively passive and active forms of transportation, as you might expect, expressed an understanding that fell between the two cohorts. It seems obvious that a traveler operating a vehicle, or a pair of legs, would have a heightened sense of distance, and would thus be more prepared to describe how they get to and from points A and B. Right?

While our terms of engaging in the spatial realm rely on various elements—landmarks, roadsigns, nodes, intersections, people we see along the way—to inform our memory, transit riders will obviously have more opportunities to actively engage with other things—reading the newspaper versus listening to Morning Edition—along the daily commute.

In the modern world of maps 2.0, neogeography, and 'everyone loves maps,' could an increased use of navigation systems, digital heads-up-displays, cell phones, and augmented realities become detrimental to a driver's superior ability to describe a route? As the authors theorize:

...there may be tradeoffs between short-term benefits of smartphone navigation and long-term deficits of spatial knowledge. Regardless, cognitive mapping and spatial knowledge have been missing from our analysis of travel behavior and from transportation planning for accessibility.

In their summary, they offer an example of London cab drivers’ enlarged hippocampi, which is owed to an intimate knowledge of one of the most counterintuitive and zigzagged roadways in a city of its size.

It seems it might be hard to know which parts of individuals' brains react and construct a memory of routes. And the elements employed to memorize directions obviously vary greatly from driver to driver, evident in the most basic spats of road rage.

Is cognitive passivity during travel wearing on city travelers' abilities to create mental maps? It seems this is so. Could this be why circular city mapmaking and circular transit mapmaking have seen a recent renaissance, and have become all the rage? Or are people just naturally attracted to circles? Thankfully, such research will help us understand our cities of the future, and will help us foresee congestion, act as pre-cogs to potential road rage, and engineer the future of navigation that's only about "25 minutes" away.