Mental Maps, Subways and Walkability

Mental maps refers to how people perceive urban spaces.  For example, is a place far away or close by?  How easy is it to get from point A to point B to point C?  The concept of mental maps can also include places people frequent.  A person with young children might have a lot of playgrounds in his or her mental map of their city, whereas the child-free music lover might know how to get to every small music venue.

Your mental map of your city or community will differ from other people’s.  Whether you tend to walk, drive, take transit or bike will also affect your sense of distance.

Travelling underground–on submays or metros in particular–can distort people’s sense of  distance and the relationships between places.

In London, it’s apparently quite common for people to take the tube only a few short stops because they don’t realize that their destination is close enough to walk.  Metro maps tend to portray routes as straight lines, and often with all stops equidistant.  Yet, in reality, the tracks often bend and some stops are closer together.  Two places that look far apart on the metro map may only have a few blocks separating them.

In London new maps are being placed around the city helping Londoners (and presumably tourists) understand the spatial relationships differently.  One goal is to get people walking both for their health and to relieve transit congestion.  Apparently there has been a 5% increase in people walking in parts of London with the signs, and the number of people getting lost has dropped by  65%.

Does your city offer maps?   Do they encourage you to walk?

Has seeing one affected your mental map of a city?


  1. Dave Atkins says:

    The concept of a mental map is something I’ve noticed in moving around a lot…even a move of just a few miles changes the way you view the world. Things that were previously far, far away, now become convenient. Even when the distance only represents 10-15 minutes, the perception may be very different.

    I found that upon moving into a Boston neighborhood, the orientation of my map changed too…I look more towards the city and less back towards the suburbs from which we moved. So 5 miles west is “far” but 5 miles east is an easy bike ride. Living in Roslindale, we begin to identify more with the interior neighborhoods like Jamaica Plain–which is what we wanted in moving here. West to Dedham and Westwood is a car ride–and although it is only 15 minutes, it seems mentally farther away now. The city seems much closer…a 10 minute bus ride to the subway and 30 minutes commute to work is light years different from a 5 minute walk to an infrequent commuter rail train.

  2. Isidoros says:

    When in Hong Kong I noticed subway exits were lettered “A, B, C, D, etc…” The lettering made it easy to give a subway rider directions to their destination. Get on this line, exit at that station, and follow the labyrinth of signs to exit X, two streets forward and you’re there.

    A vastly different experience from Toronto where the numerous subway exits are not labelled. It’s always a gamble if the rider knows to get out at the obvious exit. The assumption usually turns into them walking the wrong way for a few blocks. Toronto directions are more like,” get out at this stop and call me.” (and hopefully I’ll answer).

  3. Wendy Waters says:

    Isidoros – That’s a great Wayfinding observation from Hong Kong; In Toronto both the subway and the PATH could use something similar!

    Dave – it is interesting how 15 minutes in a car does seem like a further distance than 30 minutes on the metro. It may actually be further if you’re driving at highway speed, I guess. But I suspect that it’s the stress of driving that magnifies perception.

    I recently stopped driving to work and went back to a 15 minute walk and 6 minute Skytrain (metro) ride. It feels shorter than 10 minutes in the car (although the reason I switched back was commuting at a different time of day had changed the commute time from 10 minutes to 25 in the car, so no reason to use a car).

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