Justin O’Beirne

Justin O’Beirne: Essays, Book, and Contact Information

Is Map Reading Dead? A Cautionary Tale...
MAY 2016

This tweet from Marco Luciano captures several of the responses to 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 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. 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.

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

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

But as I spoke with him, I quickly learned he was a firefighter, a firefighter who built 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 was a new set of colors for the map’s roads. Arterial roads, which were yellow on Google Maps, were now white on Apple’s:

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.

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 still wasn’t clear. It was as if the roads had been erased from the map. That the arterials were 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.)

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 fire would have to be approached from different streets. In these situations, map reading was essential for coordinating and positioning 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 glanced at the map when he needed to.


*   *   *


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

Up until that point, I’d assumed (quite like Marco) that 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.

© 2016 Justin O’Beirne · Contact