Seeing the City: Measuring Engagement with the Public and Private Realms during Travel

Business in Society; Civil Engineering; Social and Behavioral Sciences; Urban Studies and Planning

Urban environments are comprised of arrays of stimuli that people sense, process, and react to. Using mobile eye tracking, this study investigates how people engage with visual stimuli during travel.

Research Interests
  • Marketing and consumer research
  • Behavioral Decision Making
  • Transportation Applications
  • Urban Planning
  • Bicycle Transportation
  • eye tracking
  • transportation engineering

Eye tracking technology represents a cutting-edgemethodological approach in several disciplines, from urban planning tomarketing. Take, for example, urban planning. When people move through cities, theyare exposed to a vast array of stimuli, often visual: people, vehicles,buildings, trees, advertisements, and more. Auditory stimuli as well, like ayell or a car horn, often elicit a directional visual response, like a quickjerk of the head towards noise. This sea of stimuli is the product of plannedactions and unplanned interactions by public actors like urban planners and transportationengineers, as well as private actors such as businesses and advertisers.Whether perceived as harmonious or chaotic, the resulting urban environment remainsa critical component of public and private efforts to facilitate fundamentalsocietal functions including access to destinations, interpersonalinteractions, and economic activity in a safe manner. Similarly, in marketing,eye tracking allows researchers to identify which items capture someone'sinterest and attention, understand how customers perceive the urban environmentsurrounding themselves, and discern what drives their decision to buy or interact.

Both urban planning, transportation engineering, andmarketing still know little about the way that environments and the myriadstimuli within them gain our attentions, and how those stimuli are associatedwith responses ranging from instantaneous choices to long-run attitudes andwell-being. At the same time, the way that people interact with theirenvironments is changing rapidly, as information and communication technologiesreduce the need for active engagement with our surroundings, and automatedmobility portends an even more radical reduction in the need to interact with theenvironment.

Our first goal is to establish a multi-departmental eyetracking lab that can support many researchers at UVA. Our second goal is to utilizemobile eye tracking technology to develop methods and baseline measurement ofurban stimulus responses. Mobile eye tracking is an evolution of lab-based eyetracking that allows researchers to measure how focus and other eye movementschange in real-world settings, while a person is travelling. This represents asignificant advancement from simulated screen-based or virtual realityapproaches that have been primarily deployed in the past. Still a relativelynovel method, we will develop methodologies to reliably obtain valid data on eyemovements during travel in real-world settings. We will pair eye tracking physiologicaldata with pre- and post-testing of stated behaviors and preferences. Responseswill be evaluated withing a conceptual framework that links public and private action- right-of-way design, land use patterns, commercial design and marketing - toenvironmental features. During this one-year project, we will develop themethodology and pilot it with a small sample of respondents engaging in threetypes of everyday travel: walking, being a passenger in a vehicle, and drivinga vehicle.

Desired outcomes

This project will enable our team to develop a new approachto understanding how individuals interact with complex systems of stimuli inthe urban environment. We will develop and evaluate the effectiveness of thesemethods for subsequent application to multiple research questions that dependon measurement of human responses to the urban environment during travel. In particular,this project will enable us to investigate how information, communication, andautomation technologies are modifying the effect public and private elements ofthe built environment on a range of decision-making processes including travelbehavior and consumer choices. This one-year study will facilitate thepublication of at least one peer-reviewed journal article on the protocols andinitial findings, and we position us to apply for further external funding toaddress broader research questions.