Your Brain on Streets: The Secret Revealed, How Car-centric Development Keeps You Off Your Feet!

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Quick, which suburban street catches your eye? Where do you think you’ll likely find people walking on a street? The subdivision at left, or the one at right, with houses close-in?

If you said, the street with denser residences – at right, you’re right!

A quick analysis with 3M’s VAS (Visual Attention Software), prepared with Justin B. Hollander at Tufts, predicts how your brain subliminally takes in a scene, and suggests why.

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Here we see the visual sequence the brain likely follows as it takes in the scene at a glance, within 3-to-5 seconds, that’s before conscious thinking comes online. Note how the street at left, a typical U.S-car-centric subdivision, directs viewers to look straight ahead and then skyward towards the trees. It all makes sense when you think about it; this is the optimal view for a car driver, pre-occupied with getting somewhere fast, wanting to focus straight out ahead.

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The housing, at right, however, makes the viewer focus along the street and broadly at edge conditions. The regions of interest (ROIs) diagrams, outlined in red above, shows where viewers are likely to look (79-85% of them) and how the nearby houses with porches and columns grab the eye. This is distinctly different than the typical suburb where the view down the road – not the sides – gets attention.

And that’s the secret – revealed! – on how car-centric design so successfully keeps people off their feet – even on streets with sidewalks! The typical American subdivision, prioritizes the driver’s view, keeps them focused straight in front and does not provide the diverse, close-in, edge conditions the walker needs to find pre-attentively, or unconsciously, to most easily move forward. Walking on two feet, turns out to be hugely complicated for a mammal, and is most easily done with automaticity, or without having to put much conscious thought into it. And so, streets that provide requisite, at-grade visual sequencing, promote walking, while car-centric subdivisions, featuring the distant view, simply can’t. Your brain, not seeing a consistent close-in edge on the typical suburban street, won’t consider walking, and doesn’t let you imagine it either. And, people don’t!

And, why should this matter? Because, we need to walk. It’s what we’re built to do. For health and well-being, walking’s actually ‘a superpower‘, according to this recent article in the Guardian; it makes us “healthier, happier and brainier.” Something, sitting in a car, no matter how much it may move us, can never do. So, let’s get going, keep putting one foot in front of the other, and build places that naturally make that happen! Future generations will thank us.


Animated sequence of a human male walking by EadweardMuybridge, Plate 2, 1887, Animation by Jjkutch2013-07-08.

Research referenced above from the 2018-2019 study, Seeing the ‘Unseen’ at Emerson Green, Devens, MA and Beyondsupported by the Devens Enterprise Commission with Justin B. Hollander, Tufts University.

Thanks to CNU Public Square for sharing this post.

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