Shutterstock

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

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.

Top image: Zffoto/Shutterstock.com

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. An aerial photo of downtown Miami.
    Life

    The Fastest-Growing U.S. Cities Aren’t What You Think

    Looking at the population and job growth of large cities proper, rather than their metro areas, uncovers some surprises.

  2. Smoke from the fires hangs over Brazil.
    Environment

    Why the Amazon Is on Fire

    The rash of wildfires now consuming the Amazon rainforest can be blamed on a host of human factors, from climate change to deforestation to Brazilian politics.

  3. Transportation

    When a Transit Agency Becomes a Suburban Developer

    The largest transit agency in the U.S. is building a mixed-use development next to a commuter rail station north of Manhattan.

  4. a map of London Uber driver James Farrar's trip data.
    Transportation

    For Ride-Hailing Drivers, Data Is Power

    Uber drivers in Europe and the U.S. are fighting for access to their personal data. Whoever wins the lawsuit could get to reframe the terms of the gig economy.

  5. a photo of a BYD-built electric bus.
    Transportation

    A Car-Centric City Makes a Bid for a Better Bus System

    Indianapolis is set to unveil a potentially transformative all-electric bus rapid transit line, along with a host of major public transportation upgrades.

×