A biweekly tour of the ever-expanding cartographic landscape.

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Compass points: order and disorder

Once upon a time, in many a glove compartment around Los Angeles County, you’d find a Thomas Guide: 600-plus pages of street maps of the Southern California metropolis. Issued in annual editions from the late 1940s through the 2000s, the quintessential street atlases made L.A. sprawl navigable for fresh arrivals and lifers alike. Locals would memorize the Thomas Guide page numbers and coordinates of their homes and gave directions that way. Though he rarely needed to open it, my own dad kept a curled-edge copy tucked behind his passenger’s seat, like a talisman against wayward turns.

A detail of a 1938 road atlas of Los Angeles and its vicinity, published by the Thomas Brothers. Their street maps were later simply called “The Thomas Guide.” (Thomas Brothers/Rand McNally/Courtesy of David Rumsey and the David Rumsey Map Collection)

Now, these backseat bibles are rarely spotted outside of libraries. Satellite imagery and digital navigation systems have pushed the Thomas Guide (and its draftsmen) out of relevance. If one map has replaced it as an institution, it’s Waze, the turn-by-turn directions app with a billion-dollar algorithm that updates constantly to highlight the quickest and least trafficky routes. It, too, has opened up L.A. streets for new and experienced drivers. But while Thomas Guides gave drivers a feeling of mastery over confounding urban grids, Waze has toppled a sense of order about which streets are for what, and whom. No one likes to be lost, but not everyone wants to be found.

This month, one L.A. city councilmember threatened to sue Google, Waze’s owner, for failing to address the new heavy commuter traffic in his affluent residential district near the gridlocked I-405, citing “dangerous conditions.” Communities across the U.S. and Israel have tried to throw off the app’s congestion-conjuring chaos, too, including Leonia, New Jersey. The small town adjacent to a Manhattan commuter bridge has taken perhaps the most radical approach: banning non-resident drivers during rush hour. Now, as John Surico reported for CityLab last week, the Waze backlash is having a backlash—this time from small business owners, who argue that the economy needs through-traffic. Undoubtedly, there’s more Waze-crazing to come.

A detail of a 1960 Thomas Guide map of East L.A. You can see why you’d need a map. (Thomas Brothers/Rand McNally/Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)

More on trusting the map: Nine accidents caused by following GPS too closely. Waze keeps getting blamed for directing bike couriers through the Lincoln Tunnel. The rise and fall of the Thomas Guide.

Write me: Send me a snapshot of a trusty paper guide, past or present, with a few lines about why you love it.  


Startographers of the month

So, I was unable to name any of the 15 airports from the last MapLab. But readers Tom Woolorton, Fabian Blache IV, Bryon Thurber, and Justin Guan delivered 100 percent correct identifications of Geraldine Sarmiento’s skeletal outlines of the world’s busiest landing pads. Perhaps there was some collusion between the last two guessers: both are aviation planners at the global engineering firm Arup. “We have worked with several of these airports as clients so my familiarity with half of them was through work,” Guan wrote in an email. As for Woolorton, he guessed several from memory and turned to Google Maps to confirm the rest. “I don't know if we win anything but I spent far too long figuring these out to not send them in,” he wrote. Sorry, Tom, no prize but admiration.


Mappy links

The mango mousse under dispute. (Reuters/Handout)

Dissent will be served: Diplomats at the historic Inter Korean summit on Friday will dine on mango mousse featuring an edible map of an island territory disputed between South Korea and Japan. Japan is displeased. ♦ Attention Wilco fans: an atlas of Chicago’s brutalist gems. ♦ Strong ties to poverty: the geography of health in the United States. ♦ All over the place: where the teacher pay gap is getting wider. ♦ From the department of bathymetry: scientists are on track to map the entire ocean floor by 2030. ♦ Head above water: U.S. Congress is seriously considering modernizing how federal flood maps are created. ♦ Watch this space: The Supreme Court is sharply divided over a partisan gerrymandering case regarding Texas district maps, one of two such cases this term.

Mark your calendars: Brazil will celebrate Dia do Cartógrafo, “a tribute to the professionals responsible for studying and producing geographical maps” on May 6.


I know you’ve got a friend with a vicious Waze complaint. Forward her this email, and sign up for MapLab here.

See you in May!

—Laura

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