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.  

 
 
 
 

Does it matter that TfL are renaming White Hart Lane station Tottenham Hotspur?

New White Hart Lane. Image: Getty.

Pretend for a moment that you’re travelling in the London of 1932. You’re taking the Piccadilly Line northbound and alight at Gillespie Road station. The name should be obvious: it’s inscribed in bespoke brown tiling on the platform.

But that 31 October, following an intense campaign by the eponymous football club, the London County Council changed the station’s name to Arsenal (Highbury Hill). The area’s growing association with the name “Arsenal” ended in a lengthy negotiation that changed maps, signs and train tickets alike. Football had acquired so much power that it changed the name of not just a Tube station but an entire suburb, even before the era of Wenger or the Emirates.

Now the spectre of name changes is on the horizon once again. As Tottenham Hotspur FC inches closer to completing its new stadium, the club is clamouring for a renamed Overground station. Despite the fact the new stadium is located on almost exactly the same site as the old just off White Hart Lane, and fans have long been calling the scaffolding-laden mess “New White Hart Lane”, the club’s executive director is adamant that the station’s existing name cannot stand. White Hart Lane station, on the Overground line leaving Liverpool Street, is set to be renamed “Tottenham Hotspur”, at a cost to the club of £14.7m.

Little has been made of the fact that this peculiar PR kerfuffle is tied to Spurs’ failure to convince Nike to sponsor the venue. Some sources have even claimed that the sponsorship is yet to be finalised because it is somehow contingent on the renaming of the Overground station; beyond the ridiculous Johnson-era vanity project that was the Emirates Air Line, it seems improbable that TfL will allow any more corporate-flavoured information pollution. There will be no “Nike Stadium” station on the way to Enfield, much as there is no “Emirates” on the way to Cockfosters, especially if public consultation gets a look in.

The scene of the crime. Image: TfL.

But there’s a problem with the new name, all the same. “White Hart Lane” already means “football stadium”, in the same way Loftus Road or Stamford Bridge do. Changing it to “Tottenham Hotspur” risks opening the floodgates to an “O2 North Greenwich” or a “Virgin Euston” at some point in future, names as banal as there are dystopian. The Greater London Authority has promised to spend the £14.7m fee on community programmes in the local area – but that’s not much money to set the precedent that a private company can mess about with the Tube map.


What’s more, as CityMetric has often observed, there are plenty of station names across London that could do with a tidy up. Picking one that’s perfect already and asking for £14.7m to change it is adding insult to injury. How much would it cost a community group if they asked to change the name of Goodge Street to Fitzrovia? Why does a vast corporate entity backed by international sponsors and thousands of season ticket holders get to set the standard?

Back in Arsenal’s day, changing names on the Tube must have been easy; changes could be accommodated gradually without bothering the every day traveller. But in our world of online information, maps and apps, name changes are rather more complicated.

The question is – if TfL can bring itself to balefully accept this particular proposition, why can’t it accept ours? Why sort out a single non-issue on the Tube Map when you can catch lots of real ones in one go? A day’s pandemonium might just be a price worth paying to fix the Bethnal Greens problem once and for all.