Going Mental: Everyday Travel and the Cognitive Map

by Andrew Mondschein, Evelyn Blumenberg, and Brian D. Taylor

How do you get to work? Do you have a preferred route to your favorite restaurant? To the nearest hospital? To Disneyland? If you know—or think you know—the answers to any of these questions, then your cognitive map is at work. Humans rely on mental maps to store knowledge of places and routes in order to engage in travel and activities. People use their cognitive maps to decide where to go and how to get there. But accessibility research has largely ignored this essential aspect of travel behavior, despite the fact that a trip won’t happen without prior knowledge of a destination and potential routes to it. As cities become larger and more dispersed, good information about opportunities and travel systems is more important than ever.

In our recent study, we found that cognitive maps and travel modes are linked in important ways that shape people’s access to the many opportunities cities afford. We surveyed a diverse group of people in South Los Angeles and found significant differences between those who engaged in cognitively-active modes of travel, such as walking or driving, and those who engaged in cognitively-passive modes of travel, such as being a passenger in a car or on public transit. Those who engaged in cognitively-active modes of travel more accurately described the location of common destinations than did those who typically traveled by less cognitively demanding modes. Our results highlight the importance of providing meaningful wayfinding information to all travelers, especially those who rely on others for mobility. Our findings also highlight the critical role physical movement plays in cognitive development, and how travel experiences over the long-term can contribute to a better understanding of cities and access to their diverse destinations.

via ACCESS: the Magazine of UCTC.

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