Justin O'Beirne

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

Surprising Changes to Google’s Cartography

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If you look closely at the maps, the cities aren't the only thing that've changed. While the number of cities has decreased, the number of roads has actually increased.

Take another look at the New York maps:

This is the first set of maps we viewed. Doesn't it appear as if there are more roads on the 2016 map than on the 2010 map?

Focusing on Connecticut, there are many more roads on the map today:

And while many roads were added, others that were already on the map appear to have been upgraded. Take these roads on Long Island, for instance:

Many of the Long Island roads were already on the map in 2010, but their appearance is different today: they've been upgraded in importance.

Across the map, in fact, a number of roads are now more prominent than they were in 2010—about 40, in all.

Below, I've highlighted the roads that were upgraded in black:

Interestingly, many of the upgraded roads are shorter segments—and they're generally not as important as the roads that were already prominent in 2010, such as Interstate 95 and Interstate 80.


So many roads have been added and so many others have been upgraded, that the 2016 map is cluttered compared to the 2010 map.

Take the area just north of New York City, near Yonkers, for example:

In 2010, there were plenty of roads in the area, but you could at least follow each one individually. In 2016, however, the area has become a mess. With so many roads so close, they all bleed together, and it's difficult to trace the path of any single road with your eyes.

And look once more at Long Island:

The primary route across Long Island—Interstate 495—is clearly shown as such on the 2010 map. But on the 2016 map, it's suddenly unclear: the newly upgraded roads muddle the map and 495 is lost amongst them. Worse, you can't tell which road the “Interstate 495” icon belongs to.

One of my favorite Edward Tufte quotes is: “Clutter is not an attribute of information, clutter is a failure of design... fix the design rather than stripping all the detail out of the map.”

Regarding the Long Island road network, it's as though the reversal of Tufte's suggestion was implemented between 2010 and 2016. The roads that are dark orange today were all on the 2010 map—but their design has since been changed, causing the map to appear unnecessarily complex. The coherence and clarity shown in 2010 has been lost in 2016.

And consider that none of the upgraded roads are labeled:

If these roads were important enough to be upgraded in appearance, why weren't they also given labels or shield icons? After all, an unlabeled road is only half as useful as a labeled one.


Looking at the maps, there are more roads than there once were—and fewer cities.

I wonder what drove these changes?

One thing's for sure: today's maps look unbalanced. There's too many roads and not enough cities.

What can we do to fix it?

Let's dive deeper...


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