Friday Fun: Moscow metro’s commuter dogs
Dogs ride the Moscow Metro, too! Photo by Adam Baker/Flickr.

Moscow’s canine commuters have become a mystery, and a source of intrigue, for subway users and transport enthusiasts. Photo by Adam Baker/Flickr.

Over the past few years, a number of incredulous stories have surfaced about stray dogs in Moscow – dogs that sleep in the suburbs, take the subway downtown in the morning with other commuters and return home in the evening after a hard day’s work of foraging in the city. Moscow’s commuter dogs have become a bit of a legend because of their ability to navigate the complex underground system- getting out at the same stops and catching the right trains every day. Their remarkable ability to adapt to human systems, might even offer lessons for transport planners on creating public transit that meets a wide variety of needs.

Why do they do it?

Much like human commuters, the travel behavior of Moscow’s dogs is a product of both urban economics and land use. The fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s changed the structure of the Russian economy and brought about a corresponding change in the land-use patterns of the city. Industrial jobs once housed in the city moved into the suburbs, but many industrialists, hoping to cash in on an emerging market economy, also abandoned factories and moved their businesses to city centers. Large abandoned industrial complexes outside the city provided an ideal shelter for stray dogs to sleep. However, it also meant that people (potentially carrying treats and tidbits) and sources of food moved downtown where the jobs, shops and restaurants were located.

So the dogs learned to commute.

How do they do it?

The ability to find one’s way around a subway network is difficult enough for humans even with the aid of maps, mobile applications, and signs. A dog managing to accomplish this feat seems impossible.

Moscow's immense rapid transit network. Map by Moscow Metro.

Moscow’s immense rapid transit network. Map by Moscow Metro.

Biologists and animal behavior scientists like Andrei Neuronov have studied Moscow’s commuter dogs for over 30 years to understand canine urban way-finding and have come up with a couple of theories. They believe that the dogs use a combination of three information sources to find their way – the smells and sounds associated with each station, listening to the way the stations are announced on the train, or keeping track of the time intervals between stops.

The dogs have also learned to use escalators, cope with crowds and noise, and lie under seats without getting in the way of other passengers. The dogs also prefer the first and last cars of the train, as they are the quietest. It would appear that these dogs deal better with their commute than the average harried human commuter.

Other furry commuters

The canines of Moscow are not the only animals to adapt to public transport, but are perhaps among the most sophisticated users. Similar stories of other animals riding transport have been reported in other places. In the United Kingdom, a cat named Macavity boarded a public bus every morning from home to the same stop – near a fish-and-chips shop. A dog named Ratty took the No.10 bus regularly to visit a pub where he was a popular fixture, and a pigeon named Henry is a regular on the Toronto subway. Stories like these show that animals can learn to use transport as a mobility tool rather than just a food source.

Lessons for humans and planners

Moscow’s dogs provide a good example for human riders: they stand in line, they are considerate of other passengers, they don’t hog the seats, and they don’t talk loudly on phones. They might even be model commuters in a sense (not considering fare evasion).

But a more serious note for transport planners is insight into the different ways people – not just dogs – make sense of complex transport networks. Many cities adopt a uniform design at every station. This means that if a user can’t read the signs (or speaks only canine), they can’t tell where they are. Transit way-finding is a small but important field that has the potential to break down complex networks into comprehensible chunks for all commuters – whether they think visually or spatially, those who read maps and the directionally challenged, or even those with different sensory or cognitive abilities.  People depend on a variety of cues to navigate the underground.

If you’re a Washington D.C. metro rider like me, try this out sometime. If you try hard enough to put yourself in the shoes of someone with say, a visual impairment, a lot of things you don’t usually notice begin to appear. You’ll learn a lot of interesting detail that can serve to let you know where you are. For example, you’ll notice the jolts where track switches are located like outside Foggy Bottom and Rosslyn stations. Or if you’re on the Red Line, you’ll notice that the train doors open on the left at all 27 stations except for four: Dupont Circle, Metro Center, Gallery Place and Judiciary Square.

It also makes that long commute a little less doggone tiresome.

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