Dying Maps and Their Successors 07 Apr 2008

I am a lover of maps. I have books about maps, my walls have been covered in maps (even a 5ft x 5ft MTA map at one point), and I’ve even written about maps. Which makes it not surprising that this past Christmas I received more than one gift which was a map.

In preparation for my move west to San Francisco my mother gave me a Streetwise waterproof folded map of San Francisco. Something to toss in my bag to always have. Yet, the more I look at the map, or rather don’t look at the map, I realize the obsolescing of this map form factor–and likely a chunk of Streetwise’s and other map makers’ business.

Forgoing Paper for Digital

I have all but abandoned paper maps in favor of web based maps and mobile phone maps. The last bastion of paper maps, of which I carry, are small wallet sized versions of New York’s MTA map and a San Francisco transit map. As in many underground trips, getting wireless connectivity can be a challenge if not impossible–hence these wallet maps can come in handy but their days are probably numbered (BART surprisingly has a decent bit of underground wireless coverage).

Software such as Google’s Maps for mobile, with the My Location feature which repositions the map to your current location, have made orienting yourself utterly simple with no additional hardware needed. Also, interacting with the map via search has made finding any address or business all the more easy.

Even many of the traditional niche maps such as those for transit or bikes, which most people would carry in their pocket, have been converted to mobile device ready versions–iSubway Maps or Khoi Vinh’s MTA map for iPhone. We now have more than just “a thousand songs in our pockets.”

Adding a More Physical Connection to Maps


iPhone Map showing a user’s contact near them

It won’t be long before the mobile versions of maps take on a more social component as well, such as being able to see which of your friends may be in the neighborhood or at a particular restaurant or bar near where you are.

And in terms of wayfinding, people often utilize landmarks to get around. Surely, we’ll be seeing Google add their StreetView feature to their mobile edition of maps. Thus allowing users to get an actual visual of the location they’re seeking.

These are all features which no paper map could ever provide. But there are still a few paper alternatives which deserve a mention.

Hangers On

While I find the wallet maps still somewhat useful, SUCK UK’s Tubemap Wallet takes it one step further by turning the actual wallet into the map–clever. There is also Moleskin’s efforts to throw in a few handy maps with their pint size notebooks.