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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Accessibility and Cognition: The Effect of Transportation Mode on Spatial Knowledge


Cognitive mapping is central to spatial behavior and decision making. The cumulative process of spatial learning, during which cognitive maps develop primarily through wayfinding and travel experience, affects accessibility by determining whether and how destinations are encoded into one’s cognitive map. In this paper, we examine whether differences in cognitive maps can be explained, in part, by variations in travel mode. To test our hypothesis, we surveyed adults in a low-income Los Angeles neighborhood with relatively low auto use and high transit use. Our data show that variations in cognitive mapping and spatial knowledge do indeed vary between individuals and among groups in systematic ways. Some of these differences are related directly to previous travel experience, including experience with travel modes. We conclude that variations in spatial knowledge can result in radically different levels of “functional accessibility,” despite similar locations, demographics, and other factors commonly thought to influence travel behavior. A better understanding of the complex relationships among spatial cognition and travel can help guide policymakers, planners, and transportation analysts in improving accessibility to employment, services, recreation, and other important destinations.

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