Urban transport maps could be too complex for the human mind

New research has shown that urban transport networks are becoming too complex for the human mind.

A team of mathematicians and physicists from Oxford and Paris has shown that even a journey with just two changes comes close to exceeding the brain’s cognitive limits. After analysing 15 of the world’s largest transport networks researches found that 250 connecting stops on a map appeared to be the upper limit of what the brain can process. With the addition of multiple modes of transport like those in New York it is comes as little surprise that everyone from tourists to seasoned commuters can struggle.

Mason Porter, a professor of nonlinear and complex systems at the University of Oxford affirmed that: “Cities and their transportation networks have grown to the point where they have reached a level of complexity that is beyond human processing capability to navigate around them”.

He added: “In particular, the search for a simplest path becomes inefficient when multiple modes of transport are involved and when a transportation system has too many interconnections”.

Although most neuroscientists calculate the human brain’s vast capability for storing information, anything between 10 terabytes and 2,500 terabytes, visual memory is a different matter. In a study published in the journal Science Advances Professor Porter and his colleagues found that calculating trips with two connections could be done with relative ease. But as he added: ““We know that there is empirical evidence for some cognitive limit – how many digits people can memorise from phone numbers, or how many moving objects.”. Consequently in more complex systems like New Your with multiple forms of public transport they found 80 per cent of trips in these cities exceed the eight-bit limit of visual memory. They even found from their research that the New York transport system was the most complex in the world.

The team hopes that their findings will lead to more empirical experiments on standard map reading.  As Porter concludes: “Ultimately, we need a different type of map”.