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What Rats Can Teach Us About City Planning

If you leave it up to the rats, New York City beats New Orleans any day, at least in terms of trying to get around the city that is.

This surprising finding comes from new research by Tel Aviv University zoologists and geographers, who are working together to invent a novel way to test urban designers’ city plans. Instead of using humans as guinea pigs, the scientists went to their nearby zoo and enlisted lab rats to determine the functionality of theoretical and existing plans.

You may be wondering why they used rats, instead of cheaper students. Well, they tried human subjects, but in an odd way . They blindfolded human biology students to confirm that human orientation strategies and instincts are similar to those of their fellow four-legged city dwellers. As it turns out that tiny mammal brain has a suprising similarity to our own when it comes to direction.

"We've found that routes taken by rats and other members of the animal kingdom tend to converge at attractive landmarks, the same way people are attracted, for example, to the Arc de Triumph in Paris," says Prof. David Eilam from TAU’s Department of Zoology. “Our research takes the art used by humans to create their towns and cities and turns it back to the animal world for testing. We can look at how rats will react to a city’s geography to come up with an optimal urban plan.” Yes, that means that you may end up seeing more rats at the Empire State Building then anywhere else in the city. Another suprising fact from this study, and I always though that it was because visitors dropped a lot of food there. 

A Rat Race on a Straight Track

By building mini-models of city layouts researchers found that grid-like city layouts  are much more rat and people-friendly than cities with unstructured and winding streets, like those in New Orleans. Thats right, rats like having an organized enviroment, and apparently so do most of us. 

“We’ve built an environment to test city plans, so that ‘soul-less’ and ineffective new neighborhoods won’t be built,” Prof. Eilam says. “Using our model of rat behavior, it takes just a few minutes for city planners to test whether a new plan will work. It’s a way to avoid disasters and massive expense.” He expects that the choices the rats make will eventually be optimized and plugged into a computer tool.

How much of a difference did the planning really make?

“We put rats in relatively large areas with objects and routes resembling those in Manhattan,” explains Prof. Eilam. The rats, he found, do the same things humans do: They establish a grid system to orient themselves. Using the grid, the rats covered a vast amount of territory, “seeing the sights” quickly.  In contrast, rats in an irregular plan resembling New Orleans’ failed to move far from where they started and didn’t cover much territory, despite travelling the same distances as the "Manhattan rats." Of course if the rats want to visit the big easy, we could just give them some tiny cheese scented maps. (kidding)