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.  

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.