Back in the old days1 we had to rely on our brains for navigation. Printed maps solved that purpose: they provided the necessary information so you could locate your desired destination and plot an efficient route to get there. The maps were all about representing road hierarchies — the motorways and highways, the major thoroughfares and the arterial networks. The detailed city maps provided the information necessary for short journeys. For long journeys small scale maps enabled you to plan your route to the nearest freeway or motorway and from there the best exit to reach your destination.
In the US in 1996 MapQuest appeared out of nowhere. Now you could type in your starting point and destination into Netscape Navigator on your desktop computer and get MapQuest to generate the directions. With those at hand you printed them out, put them in your briefcase and you were on your way. (But take a wrong turn at your peril — doing so would get you completely lost.)
A few years later the era of personal navigation devices or ‘PNDs’ arrived. One of these gadgets from Garmin, Magellan or TomTom would set you back many hundreds of dollars, but, boy, was it a stress reliever. No longer did you have to worry about missing that turn on your MapQuest print out and you never had the acute embarrassment of having to roll down your window and admit you were lost.
And for almost 16 years we’ve now had the delight of having a navigation device in our pocket. As a result our navigation anxiety has almost completely been eradicated.
For those of us that lived and worked in big cities or chose not to drive the situation was different but similar. Here you relied on public transportation. Your daily commutes were no different from those who drove: you knew where you were going and no map was needed. But if you had to get across town to an unfamiliar location you’d have to study a different kind of map — a map of bus routes, or more likely, the city’s subway map.
Made brilliant by the wisdom of Harry Beck, subway maps have become the ultimate navigation map by providing the minimum required information in its most simplistic and understandable form. Harry’s unique ability was to abstract just the essential essence of what you needed out of a horribly complex real world. He even took out the geography, realizing that it was the topology that mattered most.
But as those navigation apps in our pocket have continued to evolve even subway maps have become less relevant.
I remember visiting Madrid shortly after Apple Maps launched public transport directions in 2018. It was a godsend. No longer did I have to worry about trying to remember directions and train changes — I could just let Apple Maps guide me — even to the best exit from the subway station. My stress level and navigation anxiety was completely dissipated.
So given these apps do all the calculations for you, my question to you is this: how often do you actually peruse a map? And a follow up question: if you do peruse maps, what, exactly, do you use them for?
I put it to you that a ‘consumer’ map’s utility today is far, far less than it was 30 years ago.
But is it dead?
Well to answer that question let’s start by looking at the definition of what a ‘map’ actually is. Perhaps we can agree that the source for a good definition might be the National Geographic Society. This illustrious organization defines a map as being “a symbolic representation of selected characteristics of a place, usually drawn on a flat surface”.
I think the important key words here are “symbolic representation”.
Today’s subway maps are “symbolic representation” in its rawest form. Printed road maps are another good example. They show the important information necessary to help you make the decision on which roads to take. If it’s been a while, as a refresher, take a look at this map from the Rand McNally road atlas below. It’s completely true to National Geographic’s definition of a map: it’s almost entirely symbolic:
But if you look at consumer mapping apps today you’ll notice a new trend. It’s a trend away from symbolic representation and a trend towards recreating reality.
It started with Google’s Street View which launched in 2007. Clearly not a map. It continued in 2012 with the launch of Apple Maps and its Flyover feature. Again, clearly not a map. More recently we’ve seen this trend accelerate. In the last year Apple Maps has been launching detailed street maps that include (some rather delectable) three dimensional renderings of the key buildings in each city:
And earlier this year Google announced something called “Immersive view” which in their blog they characterize as a “A more immersive, intuitive map”.
But, going back to National Geographic’s definition, is Google’s Immersive view a ‘map’? With the greatest respect2, I would say no, absolutely not.
It’s all part of a trend, a downward trend in my opinion, that will result demise of consumer maps. Contrary to Beck’s approach to distill reality into its essential essence we’re moving in the opposite direction.
We are instead on a path to the dreaded metaverse, a virtual world where we should all be thankful and glad to wander around as legless avatars with the aspirational goal of reaching social media nirvana. I don’t know about you, but, ugh.
But surely there must still be a case for a consumer map, a map in the true sense of the word, as defined by National Geographic?
We’ve seen the need for navigation maps decline, which is fine. There’s nothing wrong with that trend. As a result consumer mapping companies are desperately trying to backfill that need by hoping they can help people “explore and discover”. Read Google’s blog and you’ll clearly see this is their ambition. And Apple Maps is no different with their push to re-create reality with detailed and colorful 3D models. But I don’t think either are quite succeeding in their lofty goal.
Google tells us:
“With our new immersive view, you’ll be able to experience what a neighborhood, landmark, restaurant or popular venue is like — and even feel like you’re right there before you ever set foot inside”
Well that may be their desire, but I think they will find that after they’ve spent gazillions of dollars launching Immersive view (and gazillions more maintaining it) the general reaction will be “it looks pretty” and, after a while “meh” — and the young ones will promptly move on to a TikTok video promoting a new donut store.
But what could these organizations do to build a better, more informative map, in a true sense of the word, instead of just focusing on recreating reality?
Well I think Hoodmaps is one site that is showing the way. The serial entrepreneur Pieter Levels created the site back in 2017. Pieter has had a history of creating different and entertaining products3. Hoodmaps was Pieter’s project to crowdsource information about neighborhoods and put it on a map. Pieter built Hoodmaps on his own in just four days.
Looking at Hoodmaps for any city and you quickly get a feel for the land (click on the image to visit the site for that city):
I don’t know about you but I think Hoodmaps has more or less nailed the characteristics of neighborhoods in these two cities. I encourage you to explore your own cities and draw your own conclusion.
Similar to the work of Harry Beck, Hoodmaps successfully distills down valuable and immediately comprehensible information about an area into an easy to understand map. Yes, you can argue about the design and the cartography — but the idea is spot on.
Think what could be done if a mapping organization dedicated a (small!) team to soup up Hoodmaps’ concept and then brought in their huge audiences to make it really resonate.
Well it turns out that Google is attempting this with a new feature they plan to launch in the coming months called ‘neighborhood vibe’. The general goal is to help you understand what’s popular with the locals. As the feature has yet to launch it’s difficult to say if they’ll achieve their objective, but judging from the screenshots it doesn’t look like they’ll be as raw, punchy or informative as Hoodmaps. But we can all hope.
If you’ve been in the mapping business as long as I have I’m guessing that you too will decry the lurch away from maps to this focus on recreating reality. Maps were invented for a reason — they reduce a complex world into something you can easily understand. A virtual reality can be very pretty, but it’s also just a photo on steroids — it doesn’t necessarily extract and present those golden nuggets of information you’re looking for. A map, however, can do that and it can do that extremely well.
So, are consumer maps dead?
For all of our sakes, I sincerely hope not.
1 Before the navigation systems were pioneered by Etak in 1985, before consumer mapping on the web was invented by MapQuest in 1996 and before Google Maps launched in 2004
2 For a British to American translation please see this handy guide
3 Pieter’s latest foray has been to create AvatarAI.me. It allows you to quickly create 100s of AI generated Avatars of yourself. Pieter made US$100,000 from the project in the first 10 days. For more information on Pieter check out Levelsio on Twitter