Justin O'Beirne

Justin O'Beirne of San Francisco, California. Essays, projects, and contact information.



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Which Place Category is Shown Most on Each Map?

We’ll start by adding up all of the place labels in each city, across all zooms:

Ok. Now, let’s average all of the place labels across our three cities:

More than anything else, Google Maps is labeling transit stations, while Apple is labeling landmarks. And Apple, on average, also shows twice as many restaurants and stores than Google. Interesting, isn’t it? The maps are very different!

Everything said, the number of transit stations labeled is clearly the largest difference between the two—and Google labels far more than Apple. And that’s actually quite intriguing, given that Google also offers a dedicated transit map.

But that’s an interesting question, isn’t it? If there’s already a dedicated transit map, why not use the main map as an opportunity to show different, non-transit places?

Then again, transit stations are important visual cues for way-finding — even if you’re not actually “taking” transit. And when transit stations are labeled with text, they actually double as area labels (e.g., Leicester Square, Charing Cross, Piccadilly Circus), adding even more detail to the map:

So there’s definitely value in labeling transit stations on the main map.

But is that value still there if all of the stations aren’t shown?

For example, take another look at our San Francisco maps from earlier — the ones where Google prioritized transit and Apple prioritized landmarks and hospitals:

If you’re familiar with San Francisco, you might notice that even though Google is prioritizing transit, half of the BART stations are actually missing: 

And the same is true with the New York maps we looked at.

Remember these from earlier?

A handful of stations are missing here too:

The missing stations provoke an interesting design question: if you can’t label all of a system’s stations, should any be labeled? In other words, is it deceptive to only label some stations? (Some people using the map—tourists, especially—may not realize that some of the system’s stations aren’t labeled.)

We saw earlier in San Francisco that Google seemed to be prioritizing road labels over place labels:

Perhaps this is what’s actually causing the missing BART stations? Notice below that road labels cover two of the missing BART stations, while the third missing station is clipped by the label for Downtown San Francisco (i.e., the “Financial District” label):

There are so many things to label at this zoom (roads, places, districts, etc.), in such limited space—and only a handful of things can fit. Perhaps this is why Apple doesn’t even seem to try to label transit stations? (Perhaps it knows that, with everything else that has to be labeled, it can’t fit all of the stations?)

Similar to Google, Apple also offers a dedicated transit map. And you get the sense that because Apple offers one, it instead uses its default map as an opportunity show different, non-transit places.

Is that what’s really going on? We don’t know—but it’s certainly interesting to observe such different approaches!

And it goes to show just how difficult cartography really is: seemingly small decisions, such as prioritizing road labels over place labels, can impact the larger map in unexpected ways (such as preventing all of a city’s transit stations from appearing together at the same zoom).

It’s all really fascinating.


*   *   *


We’ve covered a lot of ground, but we’re just getting started.

Now that we’ve looked at three important parts of the map (Cities, Roads, and Places), we’ll turn our attention to what’s on each map, as a whole.

For example, which map has more labels? And which map is more detailed overall? And does one map show things that the other map doesn’t?

It’s only going to get more interesting...


Introduction · 📍 · Part 2 · Interlude · Part 3


Thank you to Faisal Yaqub and David Castor for contributing original photography.