Surprising Changes to Google Maps's Cartography
Browsing Google Maps over the past year or so, I've often thought that
there are fewer labels than there used to be. Google's cartography was
revamped three years ago – but surely this didn't include a reduction in
labels? Rather, the sparser maps appear to be a recent development.
A few days ago, I was looking at some screenshots I used for a post in
April 2010. I've posted one of those screenshots below alongside a
screenshot of Google Maps today:
⚠️ NOTE: Tap or click any image in this essay to see an enlarged version.
Pictured above: The same area and zoom in 2010 and 2016. Notice how many
fewer labels are on the 2016 map.
Comparing the screenshots above, the majority of the missing labels are
Just how many fewer cities are labeled on today's map? Let's count:
(Above, I'm counting the number of city point icons on each map.)
2010 - 46 Cities
2016 - 8 Cities — an 83% reduction in city labels.
46 cities in 2010 vs. 8 cities in 2016 — that's pretty significant.
Even more interesting are the kinds of cities that have been dropped. For
instance, the area's second largest city, Newark, is missing from today's
map — even though it was on the 2010 map.
In fact, if you take the area's five largest cities (after New York City),
you'll find that none of them are on today's map — even though four were on
the 2010 map (Newark, Yonkers, Paterson, and Bridgeport):
The map has become so sparse at this zoom that you have to go 35 miles away
from New York to find the next labeled city:
Strange, isn't it? But maybe it's just a New York thing.
Let's check a couple more cities and see if the pattern holds. We'll start
Similar to what we saw in New York, the 2016 map of the Chicago area also
has fewer labels.
Just how many fewer?
Let's count the number of cities between the two:
2010 - 44 Cities
2016 - 12 Cities — a 73% reduction.
And similar to what we saw in New York, the Chicago area's second largest
city (Aurora) is also missing from the 2016 map.
Let's check one more area and see if the pattern continues to hold. This
time, the San Francisco Bay Area:
Similar to New York and Chicago, there's once again fewer labels on the
Oakland and Berkeley's omission from the 2016 map is particularly
surprising. There's ample room for them, if San Francisco's text is
positioned to the left of its icon, as it is on the 2010 map. But that's
yet another peculiarity with the 2016 maps: the text is always centered
directly above or below a city's point icon. Contrast this to the 2010
maps, where a greater variety of label positions was used.
One last time, let's count the cities on each map:
2010 - 44 Cities
2016 - 10 Cities — a 77% reduction.
Three sets of samples, all showing the same thing: the number of cities
shown on the maps has significantly decreased between 2010 and 2016.
While you were looking at the maps, did you notice some of the other
fewer cities... but more ROADS?
If you look closely at the maps, the cities aren't the only thing that've
changed. While the number of cities shown on the maps has decreased, the
number of roads shown 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? You're not alone...
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 (the upgraded roads
are 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 even 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 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
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...
ORPHAN CITIES & ROADS TO NOWHERE
At the zoom-levels we've looked at, the map is primarily about cities and
Just look at how barren the map looks without them:
Left: Google Maps, 2016
Right: Google Maps, 2016 — with all of its cities and roads removed.
Quite a difference, isn't it?
Let's see what the map looks like with just cities and roads:
Surprising. With everything removed, other than cities and roads, the map
still looks like a map.
In many ways, the map above is a simple network map: The cities are the
nodes. And the roads are the paths between the nodes.
If you live in a city, you're likely quite familiar with network maps. You
might even use them pretty regularly.
Here's a good example of one:
And here's an even more famous one:
One thing you'll notice about these maps: they rarely have lines that don't
have any stations. And they rarely show stations that aren't connected to
After all, what would be the point of a line that didn't stop anywhere? Or
a station that didn't get stopped at?
And yet this is exactly what we've seen on Google Maps, both in 2010 and
Let's take another quick look at the Bay Area maps:
Notice the pattern?
2010 - Lots of cities, but very few roads.
2016 - Lots of roads, but very few cities.
...or put another way:
2010 - Lots of stations, but very few lines. (And most stations aren't
connected to any lines.)
2016 - Lots of lines, but very few stations. (And most lines don't have any
If this was a transit map, it wouldn't be very useful.
Is it useful as a road map?
Let's take a closer look at a couple of areas within the Bay Area.
First, the Pittsburg / Antioch area:
2010 - Cities, but No Roads. Pittsburg and Antioch are shown — but how to
get there? No roads are shown that go to Pittsburg and Antioch.
2016 - Roads, but No Cities. Roads leading to Pittsburg and Antioch are
shown — but Pittsburg and Antioch aren’t labeled. Why travel on those
roads? Where do they go?
On the 2010 map, Pittsburg and Antioch are what cartographers call "Orphan
Cities". That is, they're cities that lack connections to the rest of the
A similar situation exists with Santa Cruz:
2010 - Santa Cruz, but No Roads. Santa Cruz is shown, but it's orphaned
(i.e., there are no roads going to it).
2016 - Roads, but No Santa Cruz. Four different roads leading into Santa
Cruz are shown — but Santa Cruz isn’t.
On either map, it's not immediately clear how to travel between San
Francisco (or any other Bay Area city) and Santa Cruz.
See the problem?
Both maps, the one from 2010 and the one from 2016, have a similar issue: a
lack of balance.
Here's a good way to think about it:
Google Maps of 2010 had plenty of cities — but not enough roads. It was
Google Maps of 2016 has a surplus of roads — but not enough cities. It's
also out of balance.
So what is the ideal?
* * *
Years ago when I was living in Chicago, I once saw an incredible map in a
stationery store. Someone had taken the map and turned it into a cover for
a photo album, the kind of thing you'd typically find on Etsy and other
online craft sites.
I snapped a few pictures of it because it's one of the best examples of
this concept I've ever seen. (The photos were taken with an iPhone 4 on a
dark, winter day — so please forgive the quality.)
Now compare the map in that photo to a comparable zoom on Google Maps
Even though it's from the early 1960s, the old map is more balanced than
the Google map.
Notice that there are no orphan cities on the old map. Every city is
connected to the road network:
And not only are there no orphan cities, but there are no unnecessary
roads. Nearly every road is labeled — and nearly every road has a city
along it. We don't have the cluttered nest of unlabeled roads that's on the
Google map. Instead, every road serves a purpose.
The balance is spot on.
And the map is incredibly efficient.
I took that picture more than five years ago, but I've always wondered what
a digital version of that old map would look like. Would it be better than
Google Maps today?
Let's try a quick experiment.
First, we'll take Google Maps as it is today:
Now, let's add all of the cities from the 1960s road map:
The added cities certainly improve the map's balance.
Next, let's discard all of the roads that weren't on the 1960s map. We'll
keep the freeways, since many of them weren't built yet — but let's get rid
of everything else:
It doesn't feel as though we're missing much with all those unlabeled roads
gone. And the individual roads are now so much easier to follow, especially
above Chicago. You can actually trace each one with your eyes.
Put another way: every line now has a station. And every station has a
There's one problem, though: we still don't have labels on most of the
Let's rectify that by adding most of the shield icons from the 1960s map
and see what we get:
Nearly every road is now labeled, and the map is more useful.
Let's take one last look at the map we started with and compare it to the
map we ended up with:
If I were lost in this area, I know which map I would want to use.
* * *
All things considered, I suspect that Google Maps's city reduction was an
optimization for reading the maps on mobile devices, and that the new roads
were added to make the maps look less empty (once the cities were removed).
After all, a map with fewer labels is a map that's faster to read.
Consider that during the period between April 2010 and April 2016 (when all
the screenshots were taken), sales of mobile devices exploded. This chart
from Benedict Evans captures it well:
(Source: Benedict Evans / Andreessen Horowitz)
Also consider that during the same period, mobile usage of Google Maps
surpassed desktop usage.
Given these trends, it's likely that Google Maps was optimized for mobile —
and this explains some of the changes we observed earlier.
Unfortunately, these "optimizations" only served to exacerbate the
longstanding imbalances already in the maps. As is often the case with
cartography: less isn't more. Less is just less. And that's certainly the
Google should add some of the cities back to its maps, and the maps would
be better and more balanced.
As someone who's admired the product for many years, I hope that they do.
Justin O'Beirne | April 2016