How Your Mode of Travel Shapes Your Mental Map

Active travelers like walkers have a more complete sense of space than passive ones.

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We all build mental maps of the places we call home. This "image of the city," as planner Kevin Lynch called it in his 1960 book by that name, helps us interpret our surroundings and guide our actions. Unlike the static and exact lines in an atlas, though, the city images in our minds are fragmentary and flexible — a collage of streets, landmarks, and routes mediated by on our own unique movements and memories.

In other words, the way we interact with the city shapes our perception of it. That's especially true when it comes to how we travel. Studies have shown that spatial knowledge gets stronger in experienced cab drivers, for instance, just as it gets weaker in pedestrians who rely on Google Maps. The very concept of home in a city is defined, in part, by how one gets there: a transit rider lives near this station, a driver lives just after that turn.

A couple years ago, UCLA transportation scholars led by Andrew Mondschein conducted a test to understand more about how preferred travel modes shape our cognitive maps. They stood outside the Kenneth Hahn Shopping Center near the Rosa Parks Transit Center in South Los Angeles and asked people how they typically got around. Then they asked a series of questions designed to test general spatial knowledge, and by extension the quality of a person's mental map.

Mondschein and collaborators found the most advanced mental maps belonged to "cognitively-active" travelers — people who walked or drove (or, probably, rode bikes) and therefore had to focus on their surroundings. The weaker mental maps belonged to "cognitively-passive" travelers — primarily car passengers who could engage or disengage with the environment as they pleased. Transit riders, who need a great deal of attention at the start and end of their trips but much less in the middle, represented a mixed bag.

(Mondschein and collaborators describe their work in the latest issue of Access magazine, published by the University of California Transportation Center, though previous versions oappeared elsewhere in 2007 and 2010.)

In one test, for instance, the researchers asked the Angelinos how far they were from City Hall. The actual distance from the shopping center was about 9 miles by car or 10.5 by transit. Active travelers were much more accurate in their responses than passive travelers. In the initial test sample, presented in 2007, active travelers estimated that City Hall was 11 miles away, transit riders said 17 miles, and car passengers said 26 miles, on average.

Other location tests revealed a similar pattern. When asked which of two locations was closer, active travelers responded correctly more often than mixed or passive travelers did. Simply choosing to roam the city in a certain way had improved or degraded its image in their minds.

To get a sense of how these mental images differed, Mondschein and collaborators also asked test participants to describe the location of their homes and workplaces. Active travelers tended to use street names in these descriptions, a sign of relatively robust or precise mental maps. Passive travelers, meanwhile, tended to rely on landmarks, especially when describing their home. Their mental maps seemed to be more basic.

Here are the overall findings in one table, via Access:

So the way a person travels the city clearly changes how that person envisions it. In Access, the researchers worry that passive travelers might miss out on opportunities as a result of their incomplete mental maps, but the advantages to passive travel (getting work done, for instance, or refreshing one's attention) must be considered, too. The good-bad framework doesn't apply here: this isn't a tale of two cities so much as the story of yours.

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