Colin Ellard Ph.D.

Mind Wandering

Finding Your Way to the London Olympics

Good urban design is based on good neuroscience

Posted Aug 03, 2012


London Tube Map
The streets of London became the stuff of neuroscience legend following Elizabeth’s Maguire’s groundbreaking studies of the brains of London’s cabbies. Maguire and her colleagues showed that London taxi drivers had considerably chubbier hippocampi than those of a matched control group. This finding was a good fit with many experiments with both animals and human beings suggesting that the hippocampus was one of the main players in the brain symphony that orchestrates good spatial navigation. 

But why London? One good reason is that London’s street layout provides some formidable challenges to the wayfinder. Over the centuries, the city has grown organically, and not always with central oversight or planning, to become a dense, richly rewarding but endlessly confounding urban streetscape for visitors and residents alike. The streets are winding and often intersect at tortuous angles that are difficult to encode in memory. A traveler in the city is seldom granted a long view down a straight avenue of the kind that one might find easily in Paris or Manhattan. Buildings are piled together with such density that one is often unable to see one’s destination until one is literally standing in front of it. For all of these reasons, becoming a skilful taxi-driver in London not only requires a great deal of cerebral effort, but the fruits of this work are easily visible in an MRI scan, as Maguire was able to show.

Today the city of London is in the spotlight because it is the host city for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. No doubt this means that many rookie visitors to London are wandering the streets looking for food, amusement, and some of London’s celebrated tourist landmarks. It’s also a pretty safe bet that, for better or for worse, many of these visitors are becoming lost along the way.

It was partly in anticipation of a swell of visitors to London for the Olympics but more generally in recognition of some of the wayfinding difficulties that plague even long-time residents of the city, that a visionary group of environmental graphic designers, the Applied Information Group (now simply named Applied), put in motion the ambitious Legible London initiative, which was designed to rationalize how wayfinding aids were used to orient and guide pedestrians through the streets of the city.

In a study designed to lay the groundwork for the Legible London project, Applied discovered that almost half of the London travelers they surveyed relied on the well-known London Tube Map for their mental map of the city. Although this might seem like a reasonable strategy, the problem is that the Tube Map does not represent distances or angles with anything close to geographic accuracy, nor is this what it was designed to do. Rather, the Tube Map provides an accurate topological map, meaning that it tells users how to travel by train from one station to another. And that’s all. So while this kind of a spatial map might have a rough resemblance to physical reality, it’s not a very accurate guide for the walker. One piece of evidence for this was Applied’s finding that a surprising number of London pedestrians were taking very short rides on the Tube when the real distance between their origin and destination was only about 800 meters. In other words, simply walking from point A to point B would not only have been free but it would have been faster! And when survey respondents were asked to draw maps of areas they thought they knew well, the maps were filled with strange distortions of geometry and prominent blank spots.

To build a better wayfinding system for London, Applied took to heart some important lessons from the psychology and neuroscience of navigation. Brains build representations of places and spaces using a variety of different types of cells, including place cells, grid cells, head direction cells, and border cells. As their names suggest, each different type of cell encodes a particular aspect of the space around an observer, and it is thought that the development of functional connections between such cells—a process that unfolds over time and experience—is a key component of the construction of a well-formed cognitive map—the neural construct that allows us to understand where we are and to find our way from place to place. Applied developed a set of wayfinding aids that were designed explicitly to support the development of such cognitive maps. One key component, the so-called “mini-lith” includes a few arrows that provide a basic orientation (like a head direction cell), a simple map showing the geographic relationships of regions immediately surrounding one’s current location (like a place cell), and some scale markers cleverly calibrated in terms of average walking times rather than distances (like a grid cell). Such wayfinding aids, placed generously throughout Central London with consistent format and style provide tremendous support to London pedestrians whether they are seasoned pros or first-time visitors.

Early feedback on the Legible London project has been unreservedly positive. Pedestrians find their destinations with greater ease and speed, feel more confident about exploring new areas of the city, and feel that the new wayfinding system will encourage them to walk more.

The Legible London project is a great example of a powerful application of psychological principles to an interesting and important problem in urban design. 

More Posts