can you find north underground?

Following up on this widely-discussed post about styles of navigation, today's New York Times has an informal survey of ordinary people's ability to identify north.

Of 20 New Yorkers interviewed — some beneath Union Square, some in
the sun in the park itself — 13 pointed to north accurately and
instantly, 4 pointed in the wrong direction, 2 pointed to the sky …

(Perhaps, when New Yorkers say "I'm going up to Albany," some people are taking that literally.)

They also gave a simple test that seems to me to capture the difference between spatial navigation and narrative navigation, as I used the terms here.

As an extra challenge, we asked a few people to try a “homing task.”
Mr. Vinci was one of the participants. Using chalk, we marked Mr.
Vinci’s position on the ground, then asked him to close his eyes, take
two steps forward, three steps to the right, spin 180 degrees, and then
return to his original location.

All the others who were asked to perform this dance reversed their
steps to return back to their starting point. Scientifically, this is
known as a “route-following” approach; anecdotally, it’s a
less-efficient but fail-safe method.

But Mr. Vinci stepped diagonally back into place, using what’s called
a “path-integration strategy.”

The "route-following" approach, I think, corresponds to narrative navigation: understanding location through the steps required to get there.  Narrative navigators have followed a story to get from A to B, so to get back they can only follow the same story backwards.

Only a spatial navigator would be able to step back diagonally to the starting point.  Whereas a narrative navigator can remember a series of steps, and reverse them, the spatial navigator is remembering an actual map, so he can "see" that there is a shorter path back than the one he had taken.

What does this have to do with transit?  I think transit agencies need to be conscious of these different styles of navigation when they design information and directions.  Only a spatial navigator can tell you if a map works well.  Only a narrative navigator can tell you if directions do.

18 Responses to can you find north underground?

  1. Cap'n Transit June 18, 2010 at 5:56 am #

    The article didn’t mention whether people pointed towards the North Pole, magnetic north, or in the north direction on the Manhattan grid, which is angled 28.5 degrees clockwise. I’m guessing that anything vaguely in that direction counted, but it would be interesting to know how many people have a sense of true north.

  2. EngineerScotty June 18, 2010 at 7:41 am #

    To followup to the Cap’n; an obvious follow-up question for Mathattan residents would be “which way is uptown”?

  3. Aaron Priven June 18, 2010 at 8:04 am #

    I was impressed by this:
    New York Region
    Surface Navigation Help for Subway Riders
    Published: October 17, 2007
    The city is experimenting with a new way to help people orient themselves as they emerge from subway stairwells.

  4. MU June 18, 2010 at 8:41 am #

    Just want to take minor exception to your postulate that “Only a spatial navigator can tell you if a map works well. Only a narrative navigator can tell you if directions do.”
    The best test of a system is if a person who is NOT a natural to that system can use it effectively. Good directions should allow a spatial navigator to find their way and a good map will guide narrative type. Systems designed for the “natural” tend to be even more obscure to the person who does not normally think in that way.

  5. Paul C June 18, 2010 at 2:15 pm #

    I tend to be both a spatial and narrative navigator. A good map can help both. The narrative navigator will read the map and think about the process of the route they need to take. Example turn left here turn right there and so on. While the spatial navigator will visualize about how they are into relation to everything else.
    That is why when there is a detour a narrative navigator can become easily lost. Because now their story of directions has been mixed up. While a spatial navigator because they have a sense of their relation to other things. Don’t tend to get lost because even though they are on a different path. They know where they are in relation to their old path.

  6. Chris June 18, 2010 at 3:17 pm #

    I’m a bit confused by the experiement cited. How did Mr Vinci manage to measure the 3.6 steps he’d need to take to get back to his starting point?

  7. Jarrett at June 18, 2010 at 3:21 pm #

    @ Chris.  The Pythagorean theorem?  Or more likely an innate sense of distance that spatial navigators often have.

  8. Joey June 18, 2010 at 3:25 pm #

    +1 Chris. I was thinking the same thing.
    Perhaps if he did the 2 steps + 3 steps forward without spinning again (i.e., completing the rectangle along a different path), that would have illustrated the same point as the diagonal, without requiring the spacial equivalent of perfect pitch.

  9. Chris June 19, 2010 at 1:48 am #

    Jarrett – I was thinking of him walking the hypotenuse (sp?) but blindfolded it just seems too complicated to work out how to measure 0.6 of a step, even for a spatial navigator.
    I’m clearly not one, despite always being very good with maps.

  10. Paul C June 19, 2010 at 1:55 am #

    Mr Vinci didn’t manage to measure the 3.6 steps. What he did know was that from where he was standing home was at an angle to where he presently stood. That is what spatial orientation is all about. The idea that someone knows where they are in relation to everything else.
    I guess one way to describe is a narrative navigator when following a GPS. Would just follow the directions. So long as the GPS is correct everything is fine. But if the GPS messes up they get messed up.
    Now a spatial navigator would follow the same directions. At the same time though in their head they are thinking about where they are in relative terms to other things. Now if the GPS starts to mess up. They can then use their internal map to fix things.
    I’m a spatial navigator by far and in all my years. I’ve only ever had it once mess up on me. It happened in a mall. I went out the wrong door thinking it was a different door. Although as soon as I was outside I realized what I had done and just walked around to the side I really wanted.

  11. Ed O June 19, 2010 at 6:11 am #

    The spatial navigator wouldn’t be able to step diagonally back to the start if there was a brick wall in the way. He’d then have to switch to the ‘route-following’/narrative strategy. It’s normal for everyone to get lost sometimes and most people are capable of changing their strategies to cope with this – or they can ask for help. Jarrett, is your frustration with Sydney’s complex non-grid road network based on an expectation that the ‘path-integration strategy’ is (or should be) naturally applicable to all environments?

  12. Jarrett at June 19, 2010 at 6:22 am #

    @Ed O.  Not at all.  Sydney has been a fun challenge for me as a spatial navigator, but that's because I enjoy thinking about navigation.  I do think that legibility is an underrated value in urbanism, so I think that the ease with which anyone can memorise the entire map of Midtown Manhattan's grid is worth something.  But Sydney is what it is.  If I comment on the barriers it presents to transit, that's just an observation, not a judgment. 
    Sometimes I may comment on a city grid from a purely aesthetic standpoint.  I think I once said that the street network of Paddington looks like expressionist art by someone with a really bad headache.  But even that isn't a claim that anything "should be" different.

  13. Peter S. June 19, 2010 at 6:46 am #

    In the not-so-distant, trans-humanist future, we’ll all have unerring direction (and a whole lot else):

  14. Paul C June 19, 2010 at 8:23 am #

    @Ed O
    In regards to the brick wall being in the way. While a spatial navigator may decide to back track their steps to get around the wall. They don’t have to and may decide to go a different route to get around the wall. Of course this all depends on whether or not the spatial navigator knows how big this wall is. The higher the chance of not knowing the size of the wall the better the chance of back tracking.

  15. Chris June 20, 2010 at 3:46 am #

    @ Paul C
    Ah, that makes a lot more sense.
    I’d probably have a good idea where I was relative to my starting point, but I’d probably follow my steps back as I’d think that was the most reliable way of getting there.

  16. david vartanoff June 21, 2010 at 9:36 am #

    For direction humor. In the SF Bay Area Interstate 80 East and 580 West share an alignment running north south. In NYC the Transit Authority arbitrarily defines trains as either NB or SB. Thus E,F,V Trains from Queens Blvd to Manhattan are SB. Also the current M from Ridgewood Queens to Lower Manhattan is SB. However, when the V is abolished and the M takes over the V “North” of B’way Laf, it will be NB from Ridgewood and SB from Queens Blvd. In earlier times, the Pennsylvania RR designated trains from DC to NY and Boston as Eastbound, and the Southern Pacific designated all trains as either Westbound if headed to San Francisco or EB if away. Thus a train From LA to Portland changed “direction” and number while passing through Oakland.

  17. Pedestrianist June 24, 2010 at 5:22 pm #

    @David Vartanoff
    That brings to mind the ridiculous convention of pretending Market Street (and therefore the whole SoMa grid) in SF runs East-West. It’s not so hard to describe heading Northeast on a street, and the confusion it generates for people unfamiliar with the convention wastes any savings, IMO. Plus it’s silly, when describing the corner a building might be on, to say it’s the Southwest corner when it’s dead South. [/grumble]

  18. Chris July 2, 2010 at 12:27 am #

    After reconsidering I’m definitely a spatial navigator. I can follow directions, but I sure can’t give them. Yesterday I was confronted by a foreign visitor to Manchester University who wanted to get from the north campus to the south on foot. After looking at the map she had my advice basically amounted to “follow this red line on the map, it’s simple”. She was obviously bemused, but too polite to tell me so.