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.  

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.