Navigation apps are transforming the way we experience urban environments, for better and for worse.

Aaron Reiss for CityLab

Like most New Yorkers, I spend an inordinate amount of time in transit. I have an unlimited Metrocard and a Citi Bike key, two bicycles and a motorcycle, and a dozen pairs of shoes. Proper wayfinding is my lifelong neurosis, as if a personal score could be tallied from the 10,000 rounds of Navigation I've played against the city.

But I've lately undergone a crisis of confidence: I find it hard to hit the road without consulting my phone. And while I'd like to think the recommended route (from Google, Waze, Hopstop, etc.) is just one influence among many—that I have other preferences their algorithms can't perceive—I'm not too proud to confess that I trust the computer more than I trust myself. The habits, hubris, and quirky predilections that once manipulated my movements are being replaced by the judgments of artificial intelligence.

In this I'm not alone. The rise in mobile navigation technology has, in just a few years, transformed the way we get around cities. In 2011, 35 percent of Americans had smartphones; by 2013, that had grown to 61 percent. Three-quarters of those people now use their phones for directions and location-based services. One in five Americans used the Google Maps app in June; one in eight used Apple Maps. Tens of millions more rely on car-based modules hitched to the satellites of the Global Positioning System.

That is dumbfounding progress. The full precision of GPS was made public only 15 years ago, and as recently as the early 2000s, GPS was considered a tool of "sailors, hikers and other outdoors enthusiasts." Today, nearly every mobile app employs it. Radio traffic reports feel as antiquated as floppy disks.

Like any technology, digital maps are changing our brains as well as our behavior. Traditionally, people get around their houses, neighborhoods and cities with the help of an internal "cognitive map." But that system isn't much of a map at all. It's more like a personal library filled with discrete bits of knowledge, landmarks (a bus stop, a church, a friend's house), and routes. When faced with a new wayfinding task, the brain assembles a plan from those elements. It's hard work, and its exact mechanism remains a subject of dispute among neuroscientists.

Digital navigation is in some ways a radical break from the type of planning our parents did. "When people plan a route based on their mental representation, they have to form a sequence of these landmarks, and follow this plan by reaching landmark after landmark," Stephan Winter, a professor of geomatics at the University of Melbourne, tells me. "When people use navigation systems, they don't do this planning any longer."

Experts who study the issue are concerned that spatial thinking might be the next casualty of technological progress, another cognitive ability surpassed and then supplanted by the cerebral annex of the Internet. "Basically, people don't really learn their environments," says Haosheng Huang, who works at the Research Group in Cartography at the Vienna University of Technology. They worry we may become, as a society, what the Japanese call hōkō onchi—deaf to direction.

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Wayfinding is certainly easier than ever before. The advent of self-driving cars, projected to make up a sizable share of the American auto market by 2030, represents the culmination of the cartographer's ancient quest to eliminate human effort and error from navigation. Even the classic dashboard GPS, according to Nick Cohn, a traffic expert at TomTom, induces a state of rest. "The overall effect is that people are more calm when they're using navigation," he says. By extension, they drive safer.

Ed Yourdon / Flickr

Your brain is indeed relaxing. In a handful of studies conducted over the last decade in the United States, England, Germany and Japan, researchers have shown that GPS navigation has a generally pernicious effect on the user's ability to remember an environment and reconstruct a route. Toru Ishikawa, a spatial geographer at the University of Tokyo, quantified the difference in a study published earlier this year. Asked to recall various aspects of their surroundings, participants using GPS navigation performed 20 percent worse than their paper-map peers.

As Ishikawa pointed out to me, these findings raise questions beyond urban anthropology. Spatial thinking helps us structure, integrate, and recall ideas. It's less an independent field of study than a foundational skill; a 2006 report from the National Research Council called spatial literacy the "missing link" in the K-12 curriculum at large.

Navigating is among the greatest incubators of that ability. A sophisticated internal map, as a famous study of London cab drivers showed, is tied to greater development in the hippocampus, the brain region responsible for spatial memory. In another study, participants with stronger hippocampus development tended to navigate with complex cognitive maps, while those with less developed spatial memory memorized turn-by-turn directions.

Isn't it ironic: the easier it is for me to get where I'm going, the less I remember how I got there. As a conscious consumer of geographic information, should I be rationing my access to navigation tools—the mental equivalent of taking the stairs instead of taking the elevator?

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Today’s maps are as distinct from paper maps, in complexity and texture, as film from photography. Yet many of the features that together make Internet-powered wayfinding feel different are not in fact so novel. Active navigation persists in the digital era; passive navigation preceded it.

Automatic orientation and self-centering, for example, are two cartographic elements that define online directioneering. An auto-oriented map has been rotated to match the viewer's perspective; a self-centered map is organized around the viewer’s location. Each one eliminates a sizable share of the mental effort in map reading.

But self-centering is among the most common techniques deployed by maps in situ. "You-are-here" maps can be found on virtually every floor of every office building, in vast interior spaces like malls and museums, and at junctions of the urban environment like bus stops and train stations. The first world map, carved into a clay tablet by the Babylonians around 750 BC, was centered on Babylon in a manner even a Google Maps kid might consider egocentric. The sun itself rotated around the city.

A New York map from 1852 set against Google Earth. (David Rumsey Historical Maps Collection)

Auto-orientation is nearly as common, and becoming more so as cities like London and New York begin to pepper street corners with maps rotated for pedestrians. Tourists need no longer crane their heads, or hold their guidebooks upside-down.

No feature seems to distinguish the GPS map from paper more than its lack of spatial context. With their small screens and egocentric perspectives, mobile navigation systems function like blinders, reducing the landscape to the width of a street. They narrow the world.

But in fact, mapmakers have sought this effect for years. As far back as the 18th century, English cartographers printed books of "strip maps," which charted particular routes mile by mile, excluding everything out of sight of the main road. The heavy styling of maps designed for popular distribution and practical use, like trail maps at ski resorts, further submits context to the demands of navigation. Perhaps the most famous example is Harry Beck's 1931 London Underground diagram, which reduced all the city's geography to a thin blue line representing the Thames.

Beck's map has untied the tangle of the London Underground for hundreds of millions of straphangers. But how many Londoners could trace the Circle Line's path through the city?

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Just as these features have antecedents in paper, so the current revolution in mapping has a parallel in the technological changes of the mid-19th century. At that time, the rise of lithography and other printing techniques helped convert the map from a luxury item to a consumer good. This democratization gave rise to hopes and concerns that echo our own.

David Tan / Flickr

Then, as now, aesthetes forecasted the death of cartography as art and mourned the homogenization of style. "New maps were jammed with information," says Susan Schulten, a professor of history at the University of Denver and author of Mapping the Nation. "They were primarily designed as reference and wayfinding aides to aid a country exploding through the railroads, rather than as culturally refined works of pleasure or education."

And then, as now, social scientists harnessed cartography to groundbreaking ends. John Snow mapped cholera cases in London, tracing the outbreak to a single well. Cities were extensively mapped for the first time, revealing trends in population distribution, crime, health, and wealth. The American West was quantified in survey maps displaying watersheds and patterns in rainfall and temperature.

Contemporaries feared that maps were vulnerable to the machinations of businesses and other controlling interests. "Rather famously, railroad companies would distort geography, especially when competing for markets in the Great Plains," says Jim Akerman, the curator of maps of the Newberry Library in Chicago. "They would distort geography to have their railroad look well-situated in comparison to other railroads." The mapping powerhouse Rand McNally started selling maps in order to boost their main business, which was printing tickets for railroads. Maps didn't just fulfill needs; they created them.

As printing expanded the industry, cartographers deployed their talents in hundreds of new ways. Of equal importance, however, was the revolution in access. Before 1800, few people would have seen a map of their city or town. By the middle of the century, such objects were commonplace. By the early 20th century, they were distributed for free at gas stations. That development changed the way our ancestors thought about space. It certainly enhanced their understanding of the world.

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Something similar may be happening today. While cartophiles are alternately entranced and worried by the technological progress within maps, the more significant change may be in our collective exposure to geographic information. We no longer have to "read" maps as we once did. But it seems nearly certain that we spend more time looking at them. For every cognitive scientist watching connectivity diminish our talents of perception, cognition, and problem-solving, there are many more kids exploring the earth from their laptops.

"I think the parallel with the 19th century actually says the addition of the digital dynamic is going to expand context, make people more geographically literate," says David Rumsey, whose extensive map collection testifies to the cartographic trends of past generations. "I don't think it leads to a loss of spatial consciousness—I think it's exactly the opposite."

Google Maps, for example, may untangle the knots of an urban transit system for the benefit of travelers. But it also incorporates transit into the street map, bridging the gap between two mental pictures of the city. Furtive, curious glances at maps may not constitute navigation, per se. But this habit offers cerebral enrichment of its own. Secondary sources create memories, too.

Ed Yourdon / Flickr

"If you read a novel with a place description, you can engage with the story and form a mental representation of that fictive environment," says Winter. The same is true of maps. "It's the same mechanism for a spatial representation that would be used for a real physical environment that you explore."

The result might be that when you need to find your way across town, you summon not the log of personal experience but a third-party image, a literal mental map. This "secondary" spatial sense is somewhat different from that furnished by experience. "Maps foster accurate knowledge about straight-line (or Euclidean) distances between places, while direct experience helps people estimate directions between imagined places," Ishikawa wrote to me. A shift is underway towards a more universal view of the city, one determined less by individual perception than by exposure to a common cartography, and whatever details it shows.

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It's too early to toll the bell for human navigation. GPS remains a clumsy accessory for a pedestrian, frustrating on a bicycle, and impossible on a motorcycle. There are indications that regular car commuters, too, may be impervious to the commands of the dashboard gods. "In general, the reason there's traffic is that people take the same way even if there's a different route," says Julie Mossler, head of global communications and creative strategy at Waze. Old highways die hard.

It seems that digital maps haven't rid wayfinding of its personal touch; rather, they are just beginning to properly incorporate it. New products in consumer mapping respond to the hegemonic efficiency of tools from Garmin, TomTom, and others. A handful of services cater solely to joggers. Yahoo Labs is attempting to quantify a nice walk based on crowd-sourced impressions of the city. A Dutch cartographer aims to chart the streets you have or haven't traveled. Every few months, it seems, some entrepreneur is embroiled in controversy over a map service showing neighborhoods that the user should avoid. The worldwide map, like the sprawling territory of the Internet itself, is balkanizing into a set of increasingly specialized "maplications."  

The casualty of this gradual fine-tuning, I think, is chance. Routes were once conceived in a febrile mix of logic, accident, and instinct. Today's data-driven apps have mastered logic. They have registered road traffic, train delays, and the other accidents of travel. They have also, by explicitly catering to each of our effable desires, rendered human navigational impulse an eccentricity.

It's still possible, of course, to take a walk or go for a drive; to open your mind and let the city deliver, in Walter Benjamin's phrase, its "hints and instructions." The reverie of wandering, on foot or on wheels, can't be calculated by an algorithm or prescribed by an app.

But technology doesn't go away when you don't use it. From now on, an aimless jaunt is marked not only by openness to the stimuli of the physical world, but by the strain of blocking out their virtual counterparts. Contingent on technophobic self-control, wandering has lost its essential ease.

This article is part of 'The Future of Transportation,' a CityLab series made possible with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

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