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21 July 2014updated 27 Sep 2015 5:59am

Should mapping apps take us the scenic route?

Walk this way. 

By Barbara Speed

Walking in cities can be a grim experience. Pavements along what are, essentially, motorways; grey concrete buildings looming over ominous back alleys – it’s fair to say many of us would sacrifice another five minutes to take a more aesthetically appealing route.

Yet mapping apps – which are, let’s face it, the only way any of us manage to put one foot in front of the other these days – are programmed to get us places via the quickest and most efficient route. Even if that’s down a darkened alley, or along the hard shoulder of a smog-enfolded dual carriageway.

Helpfully, though, researchers from Yahoo! and Italy’s University of Torino have taken the first step towards developing an alternative: apps which can take you via routes which, in their words, are “not only short, but also emotionally pleasant”.

For a paper released earlier this month, adorably entitled “The Shortest Path to Happiness”, they asked over 3,000 online users of their site Urbangems.org to decide which of two street scenes from Google Earth was the most beautiful. The researchers then used this data to put together four different routes between London’s Tate Modern and Euston station, and asked 30 people to test and rate them. Each route was chosen by the researchers to display a different quality: one was “beautiful”, another “happy”, a third “quiet”, and the last was “short”. The researchers also used “metadata” from Flickr – looking at which photos had positive captions or tags, counting how many likes they had, and so forth – to generate pleasant routes in London and Boston.

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In each of these experiments, the team found that the shortest route was often ranked the lowest by users: the quickest path between their two destinations in London, for example, took walkers down busy, car-clogged roads, and crossed Blackfriars Bridge. Much better, many felt, to take a quieter and more scenic path across the pedestrianised Millennium Bridge. If a route is attractive, walkers often don’t even notice that it’s longer.

Both online and in the London experiment, participants generally favoured green spaces and historical buildings. This confirmed the findings of previous urban research which, the paper notes, has shown that “green spaces and Victorian houses are mostly associated with beauty, while trash and broken windows with ugliness”. Shocking, that.

The plan is to turn all these findings into an app for cities in the US and Europe. It wouldn’t be the first app to take users off the beaten path – Dérive gets you “lost in the city”, while Serendipitor uses the philosophy of, among others, Yoko Ono to “introduce small slippages and minor displacements within an otherwise optimized and efficient route” (oooohkay). But this would be the first app to generate routes based on “quiet, happiness and beauty”.

Of course, at least two of these qualities aren’t objective. Some of the study’s respondents commented that they liked routes associated with “personal stories”; others preferred busy areas to quiet ones. As a result, the researchers suggested that the app could also use personalisation, so routes were based on a user’s previous preferences. It could also, they say, “record [walkers’] memories associated with specific places and show these memories back to them when physically revisiting this place”. Proust eat your heart out. 

This is a preview of our new sister publication, CityMetric. We’ll be launching its website soon – in the meantime, you can follow it on Twitter and Facebook.