Justin O'Beirne

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

Is Map Reading Dead? A Cautionary Tale...

This tweet from Marco Luciano captures some of the responses I received regarding What Happened to Google Maps?:

In this age of Search and Turn-by-Turn Navigation, many have been quick to write the obituary on map reading. “No one actually reads the map anymore”, they say.

But is map reading really dead?

Marco’s words reminded me of a conversation I had a few years ago…


*   *   *


“Someone wants to talk with you.”

One of my colleagues was tapping me on the shoulder, trying to get my attention.

We were at WWDC 2012, hanging out with the hordes of developers that had flown in from all over the world. And Apple Maps had just been announced the day before.

My colleague led me over to a man waiting in the corner of one of Moscone’s enormous exhibition halls. As we approached, the man seemed nervous; he was pacing the floor.

“You took away the fire roads”, he said. “You have to add them back!”

Fire roads? What the hell is he talking about?, I thought to myself.

But as I spoke with him, I quickly learned he was a firefighter, a firefighter who loved building apps on the side.

“We use those roads to get to the fire”, he said.


Google Maps had just been replaced with Apple Maps, and with it came a new cartographic style for the iPhone’s Maps app.

One of the most noticeable changes to the cartography was a new set of colors for the map’s roads. Arterial roads, which were yellow on Google Maps, were now white on Apple Maps:

Pictured above: Google Maps & Apple Maps at the time of Apple Maps’s announcement in June 2012. Note the yellow arterial roads on Google’s map vs the white arterials on Apple’s.


“You took away the fire roads.”

I was surprised—taken aback, even—by the firefighter’s comments.

Couldn’t he see what I saw? The arterials were still there—they were just white, instead of yellow.

I tried pointing it out—but to the firefighter, it wasn’t clear. It was as if the roads had been erased from the map. That the arterials were drawn wider than the other roads wasn’t enough. He just couldn’t see it.

“Why don’t you use turn-by-turn directions to get to the fire?”, I asked.

He told me about how fire trucks are larger than most vehicles and how the firefighters look for bigger roads to drive down. The wider the road, the easier it is to pass other vehicles and reach the fire quicker.

(When the firefighters had used navigation in the past, it didn’t always take them down the widest roads—so they opted to speed across Google Maps’s “fire roads”, which were often the widest in the area.)

Interestingly enough, Google’s “fire roads” were also the roads most likely to have traffic lights. Many cities (including the firefighter’s) have special sensors mounted on traffic lights that detect approaching emergency vehicles. Upon sensing an emergency vehicle, the traffic light will change, allowing the vehicle to pass.

Pictured above: The sensors that are mounted on traffic lights in some areas. (Image credits: U.S. Dept. of Transportation / Federal Highway AdministrationSteve Rowe / CLIU.)


For really big fires, there’d often be a number of emergency vehicles responding—so many that the scene would have to be approached from different streets. In these situations, “reading” the map’s street names was essential for coordinating and positioning all the trucks around the fire.

Pictured above: Los Angeles, December 2014. Some fires are so large that there’s no specific address — and no single approach. (Image credit: Nancy Yuille / AP Photo.)


But easily the biggest reason why the firefighters preferred reading the map over turn-by-turn navigation was that they couldn’t hear the instructions for when to turn. It can be incredibly loud on a firetruck: the sirens, the horn, even the truck itself. It was impossible to hear any of the spoken instructions; instead, the firefighter just glanced at the map when he needed to.


*   *   *


My conversation with the firefighter was a conversation I’ll never forget, and it taught me a valuable lesson.

Up until that point, I’d assumed (quite like Marco) that nearly everyone used maps the same way—i.e., that everyone used search and turn-by-turn directions in order to navigate, never really “reading” the maps.

But as the firefighter showed me, this isn’t always the case. And over the next several years, I’d encounter more and more stories similar to the firefighter’s.


Not everyone uses maps the same way—especially when those maps have a billion users. And for every person that says “no one reads maps anymore”, there’s someone else depending on that map—someone like our firefighter.



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