The Frontal Cortex

Urban Driving

You’d never know it from my recent article on the urban brain (and the cognitive benefits of nature) but I love walking in cities. In fact, a leisurely stroll in a metropolis is one of my favorite things to do. Sure, it might tire my prefrontal cortex a bit – there’s just so much to see – but it’s the pleasurable sort of tired, like the feeling you get after an hour in an art museum.

That said, I despise driving in cities. Whenever I’m forced to navigate rush hour traffic, I always return home in a dour mood. I feel stressed and vaguely tense, as if I’ve just survived some harrowing encounter that I have no memory of. I couldn’t manage to squeeze any research on driving into my article, but I totally related to a Danish study done in the 1980’s that found that it took drivers significantly longer to solve a simple arithmetic problem when driving in the city than when driving on a suburban highway. The researchers argue that this difference is explained by the increased “cognitive load” required by urban driving.

Why is driving in a city so much more taxing, at least from the perspective of the brain? Because there’s so much to look at. There are pedestrians, stores, billboards, taxis, street lights, stop and go traffic, sirens, etc. In order to not get into an accident, we have to exercise self-control, and ignore everything but the street signs and the brake lights in front of us. Such acts of directed attention take up brainpower, which is why it takes so much longer to perform those arithmetic calculations. (In this sense, the mind is like a computer that’s slowed down because it’s trying to run too many software programs at the same time.) Because we’re forced to think about the city traffic, we’re less able to think about everything else.

I learned about this Danish paper in Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic, which was one of the best books I read last year.


  1. #1 Mark P
    January 8, 2009

    Why is driving in a city so much more taxing … ? It seems pretty clear, almost self-answering: because it’s harder. It’s not just extraneous things that must be filtered, it’s the process itself. There is more traffic everywhere around you and more traffic hazards. More decisions must be made in a shorter time. Various car controls must be operated more often. It’s like asking why it makes you more tired to climb stairs than to walk down a hall.

  2. #2 Josie
    January 8, 2009

    I’m in total agreement! For a moment, right before I have to brave the rush hour drive, I die a little bit inside. But what are my options in Los Angeles, right? The public bus system scares me too much and the subway system is sadly limited;( If I didn’t drive, then I’d be forced to live in tedium, boredom, and loneliness. So, I guess you can say I drive to alleviate the boredom I would otherwise feel;)


  3. #3 Donna B.
    January 9, 2009

    As a rural/small city girl, I have to “psych” myself up for driving through a city. It’s not that I’m not capable, but even in cities I know fairly well (Dallas, Houston) I am exhausted by driving in them.

    I don’t trust the other drivers, I don’t trust the signs. And, I’ve noticed a huge difference since I’m older. I know my reflexes and response times are much slower. That’s the biggest distraction of all!

    However, all these years of driving have given me a better insight into what the other driver is doing, going to do, even needs to do. This is the information I’ve tried to pass on to my children by thinking out loud to them in the car as they neared the age to begin driving.

    There’s nothing I like better than driving fast. It’s fun, darnit! I now limit that fun to isolated west Texas interstates where the speed limit is 80.

  4. #4 Cannonball Jones
    January 9, 2009

    Sounds about right, it’s mostly more difficult because there are so many damn cars! You tend to be constantly bumper to bumper unlike on the motorway or A-roads (obviously talking from a UK perspective) so you have to navigate as well as anticipating and reacting to the movements of the drivers behind, in front and to the sides of you. Also, unlike the motorway, there are junctions, roundabouts, traffic lights, etc that demand your attention.

    “I don’t trust the other drivers” – another very good point Donna! They could be maniacs, drunk, blind, anything. Chances are they’re not but that doesn’t stop me thinking about it…

    It’s one of the many reasons I haven’t owned a car since moving to Edinburgh 14 years ago. Don’t need the hassle or the corresponding rise in blood pressure! I still love to hire a car when I’m driving anywhere up north though.

  5. #5 Eric Lund
    January 9, 2009

    I don’t trust the other drivers, I don’t trust the signs.

    As someone who has adopted New Hampshire as home, I definitely second this. One of my all time favorite bumper stickers was one that said, “Watch out for the idiot behind me.” (Placed, of course, on the rear bumper.) And the New England states generally are notorious for obscure signage. To make matters worse, every now and then some poobah decides to change the traffic pattern somewhere.

    One thing I have noticed is that the less familiar I am with the area, the greater the stress from driving there. In Boston, I’m less stressed out driving in the Back Bay and Cambridge (areas of the city I visit semi-regularly; I used to live in Cambridge years ago) than in the Financial District (which I rarely visited even when I lived in Cambridge, and seldom need to go there now). In the Bay Area, Berkeley (again a place I visit semi-regularly) doesn’t bother me nearly as much as San Francisco proper (I often visit there, too, but I almost never need to drive there). This even goes for freeway driving: I know what to expect around Boston and parts of the Bay Area, but driving on an LA freeway (something I have seldom done) is stressful for me.

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