Transport maps have become too complex for our brains to understand, according to science

The Tokyo subway map. Easy, right? Image: Tokyo Bureau of Transportation.

As you may have heard (from us, approximately weekly), London's Underground map might just need a redesign. Perhaps adding colours to DLR lines would simplify things. What if the Circle and District lines were shaped like a little penguin? Maybe stations in the suburbs could be more evenly spaced?

But a new study suggests that transport maps not only in London, but in other big cities like Paris, Tokyo and New York, could simply be too big and complex for our brains to easily process - which means no amount of mapping and re-mapping would help.

This idea is based on the fact that, just as researchers estimate that we can only maintain between 100 and 200 friendships at once (this is known as Dunbar's number) there might also be a limit on how much information we can handle while figuring out how to get from A to B. 

Researchers from a variety of institutions concluded in their wittily named paper, "Lost in transportation: Information measures and cognitive limits in multilayer navigation", that we can only deal with around 8 "bits" (i.e. binary, yes/no decisions) at once, and are unlikely to read a map with more than 250 connection points with much ease. In doing so, they're treating our brains a little like you'd treat a computer: figuring out how much processing it can do at once without overloading and crashing. Or, you know, tearing up the map and getting a taxi. 

Part of the issue is that most global cities are now multi-modal - they have subways, buses, trams and even cable cars. While subway maps alone may be simple enough to understand, once you include different modes on the same map, "more than 80 per cent of trips" in New York, Paris and Tokyo are above the 8-bit limit. 

This slightly confusing graph shows that the maps featuring only subway systems (the dotted lines) mostly feature trips under the limit, while most trips on multi-modal maps (the solid lines) go over:


As a result, the researchers recommend maps which separate out layers so users can more easily understand them:

...traditional maps that represent all existing bus routes have a very limited utility. This result thus calls for a user-friendly way to present and use bus routes. For example, unwiring some bus-bus connections lowers the information and leads to the idea that a design centred around the metro layer could be efficient. However, further work is needed to reach an efficient, “optimal” design from a user’s perspective.

One example of better map design cited by the researchers are London's "spider bus maps", displayed in bus stops across the capital (you may have squinted at one in the early hours last time you got a night bus with a dead phone). They map out all bus routes proceeding from your current location, so you only see information relevant for your journey, plus they zoom in on the roads around the bus stop. Here's one for Harringay in northwest London:

Click to expand. Image: Transport For London.

This, however, doesn't help you much with longer journeys, or ones involving the Tube. The reality is that most trips in big cities require a combination of modes, especially if you're hoping to use the fastest route possible. As a result, the researchers say that transport in cities has simply become too complicated for our brains to handle on a single map: 

Human cognitive capacity is limited, and cities and their transportation networks have grown to a point that they have reached a level of complexity that is beyond humans’ processing capability to navigate in them. 

Even the attempt to map tangled city networks at all can seem futile, which is why the growth of transport apps and route planning websites is so crucial:

 Indeed, the growth of transportation systems has yielded networks that are so entangled with each other and so complicated that a visual representation on a map becomes too complex and ultimately useless...

The information-technology tools provided by companies and transportation agencies to help people navigate in transportation systems will soon become necessary in all large cities. 

So there you have it: using Citymapper doesn't mean you're lazy. It's just a necessary supplement to your cognitive processing power.  


Podcast: SPQR

Rome celebrates its birthday in 2014. Image: Getty.

It’s just me this week, which is a problem, because there’s no one to stop me from indulging his sillier ideas. For example: an entire podcast about Ancient Rome.

Our guest is Kevin Feeney, a historian of the late Roman Empire based at Yale University, Connecticut. He gives us a whistlestop tour of Imperial Rome, with occasional side trips to other ancient cities. We also discuss other important matters such as the nature of Roman emergency services; whether the Emperor Claudius was all that Robert Graves made him out to be; why ancient Britain sucked; and, inevitably, why the whole enterprise fell apart.

Then we round off with the audience participation bit. This week we’re asking: which cities or places from history would you like to visit and why?

The episode itself is below. You can subscribe to the podcast on AcastiTunes, or RSS. Oh – and if you’d like to give us a nice review on iTunes, we’d really like that very much, thanks. Enjoy.


Skylines is supported by 100 Resilient Cities. Pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation, 100RC is dedicated to helping cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social and economic challenges that are a growing part of the 21st century.

You can find out more at its website.