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Lost in L.A

Informs on research following the Los Angeles earthquake of January
1994 on how the temporary traffic turmoil affected residents' mental maps
and how those maps affect the nature of city life. How we use mental
maps; Researchers David M. Mark and Ann K. Deakin; Their findings.

Ever watch a trail of ants winding their way toward some edible morsel? Thecritters are following a chemical signal laid down by their predecessors. Wipe away the molecular trail with a sponge and the ants will stumble about in confusion, desperately searching for a route that no longer exists.

That's not unlike the hardships faced by Los Angeles residents after the earthquake last January. The quake destroyed parts of the country's busiest highway, the Santa Monica Freeway, forcing hundreds of thousands of commuters to find a new way to get to work.

Enter researchers at the University of Buffalo. Geography professor David M. Mark, Ph.D., and Ph.D. student Ann K. Deakin recognized an earth-shaking opportunity to look at how the temporary traffic turmoil affected residents' mental maps and how those maps affect the nature of city life.

We use mental map--the spatial organization of places and images in our minds--to plan our commute, decide where to shop, and give roadside directions to strangers. But those maps sometimes bear little resemblance to reality. They may become outdated, just like old road maps, and are often clouded by our perceptions.

Before the quake, for example, some Angelenos avoided Beverly Hills and South Central L.A. because they assumed the former was too exclusive, the latter too dangerous. They may even have imagined those neighborhoods to be more distant from their own than they actually are. Commuters forced to drive through those areas after the quarke, says Deakin, "may perceive some of those neighborhoods as more accessible now, and not so frightening."

The researchers don't yet know what the quake's long-term effects will have on residents' mental cartography. But the unexpectedly speedy repair of the Santa Monica Freeway may have minimized any changes. And at least one behavioral aftershock never materialized. Some authorities speculated that commuters might begin patronizing local shops they discovered while taking an alternate route. "None of the people in businesses we talked to reported anything like that," says Mark.

PHOTO: Puppet ants walking down the freeway.