Richard Florida
by Richard Florida
Sun Jul 12th 2009 at 1:57pm UTC

Why Do I Always Get Lost?

I may be an urbanist with a love for cities, but I am one of those people who get lost a lot. I have trouble reading maps and depend on my GPS. It takes me a few years in any city (or in my own neighborhood for that matter) to intuitively grasp how to get around.

Now this new book,You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall, by Waterloo University psychologist and behavioral neuroscientist Collin Ellard, explains why. Centuries of development of locational aids have sapped our instinctive ability as a species to find our way around.

Check out Ellard’s website and his page which has these and other great factoids.

  • According to a survey of 12,500 people in 13 countries conducted by Nokia, 93 percent of people reported becoming lost on a regular basis. 30 percent blamed their partners. Almost half of respondents admitted to giving wrong directions on purpose.
  • One out of 10 people have missed a job interview, an important business meeting, or a flight because they lost their way.
  • Men may not ask for directions because they have greater difficulty following them. Women navigate using routes and men navigate using compass orientation.
  • A poorly designed you-are-here map can actually make it more difficult for you to find your way than no map at all.
  • The top five cities in which residents report becoming lost are (in order) London, Paris, Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Beijing.

Here’s a snippet from Johan Lehrer’s review in the New York Times Book Review.

One of Ellard’s best chapters focuses on urban planning. He starts by picking on an easy target: the massive, concrete public housing projects that were, once upon a time, championed by visionaries like Le Corbusier. (The architect wanted to replace much of central Paris with residential skyscrapers and highways.) Sadly, the modernist dream quickly turned into a grim dystopia, as the inhuman scale and “poor arrangement of space served to break down social networks.” The end result was isolation, litter and crime.

Ellard’s hero is the activist and author Jane Jacobs, who championed wide sidewalks, short city blocks and mixed-use zoning. According to Ellard, the advantage of such a setup is that it creates vibrant streets that reflect the needs of human beings, and not just their cars. Furthermore, because life attracts life — people want public places that are filled with other people — these organic neighborhoods create a positive feedback loop of livable density. We don’t need to print out directions because most of what we need is nearby.

The larger lesson is that the form of an urban space is often more important than its supposed function. Odd as it seems, Ellard writes, “I can predict exactly where you will go based on how the streets are connected together without needing to know that you have set out to, for instance, buy a pair of shoes.” Because our spatial instincts follow a few simple rules, scientists who use “space syntax analyses” are able to envision how a place will be used before it exists.

9 Responses to “Why Do I Always Get Lost?”

  1. Wendy Waters Says:

    As long as I’m outside, I have no trouble finding my way around in most places. But put me in a Mall or any indoor space and I could get lost for days.

  2. sm2 Says:

    Fascinating information. I found the “Almost half admit to giving wrong directions on purpose” to be particularly remarkable. Why on earth would someone do this? Maybe they all work for Mapquest?

  3. Wendy Says:

    On “giving wrong directions on purpose” I recall the Mexico City (and Latin American) experience. To many people it’s considered impolite or worse not to help, so when you ask for directions, most people give you an answer, but it’s not always accurate. Thus, the best way to get somewhere is to keep asking different people the same question as you go along, triangulating your way to your destination using the democratic principal that if most people tell you “it’s that way” it probably is.

    Oddly enough when I lived in Mexico City, many Mexicans would come up and ask me directions. This puzzled me at first as I don’t look Mexican. But then it occurred to me, a foreigner who doesn’t know where something is will probably say “no se” (I don’t know) rather than give imperfect directions so if I did give directions they’d more likely be accurate.

  4. secretivek Says:

    How in the world can you get lost in Beijing? Or Paris for that matter?

  5. Richard Green Says:

    I have had the good fortune to enjoy reading maps since I was a little boy. This has allowed me to (1) know my way around a lot of cities and (2) not be intimidated by new maps (although my aging eyes make it increasingly difficult to read street names–we need maps with bigger fonts!

    Maps are beautiful things. We just need to figure out how to lead more people to enjoy them.

  6. GaryD Says:

    Gee, I wonder if the fact that Nokia, a company that makes cell phones with integrated maps and directions, sponsored the study has anything to do with the results. How about this factoid: 100% of all consumer surveys sponsored by mega-corporations are completely full of crap. Remember the good old days when people had critical reasoning skills? Ahhhh forget all that, let’s just believe whatever these snake-oil salesmen and their sycophantic academic colleagues plunk down in front of us! That should turn out just great for us.

  7. Facts and factoids, I « Beats and Pieces Says:

    [...] 14, 2009 · Leave a Comment Remarkable: According to a survey of 12,500 people in 13 countries conducted by Nokia, 93 percent of people [...]

  8. NIkolai Kondratieff Says:

    I never get lost and always seem to navigate my way through cities, even upon my first visit. I must have ferro-filings in my head that automatically align me to the Earth’s magnetic field.

  9. Anxieties re: Life in China « orientation Says:

    [...] 7] Getting lost. No joke! I can read a map, but even map-equipped traveler-navigators have found themselves stranded in a remote quarter of Beijing. Don’t believe me? [...]