A biweekly tour of the ever-expanding cartographic landscape.

When Google Maps launched its directions platform in 2005, it primarily served motorists seeking accurate driving routes. Public transit routes were available in a handful of cities, but a lack of clear walking paths to bus stops made them less than useful. Pedestrian and cycling routes were added years later.

So for those of us who rely on Google Maps to get around by bike, foot, and mass transportation, this summer has been big. To help folks ambulate more easily, the canonical digital map of the world rolled out a new tool earlier this month: a virtually augmented view of the streets before you, with gigantic blue arrows pointing which way to turn.

A screengrab of the new “Live View” function for pedestrian users of Google Maps. (Laura Bliss/CityLab)

Most smartphones that support augmented-reality software should be able to run the new function through the Google Maps app. Once you’ve cued up a walking route, hit the white button that says “Live View” next to the blue “Start” button. You’ll orient the app by capturing a photograph of the buildings in front of you, which gets matched to Google’s existing Street View image catalog and is then immediately discarded, according to the company. Then you’re off to the (strolling at your own pace) races.

I tried it out in downtown San Francisco, where dense high-rise towers create a lot of gaps in GPS accuracy. I found it to be a handy way to overcome the mental challenge of matching map to reality.

But that’s not all in the Google Maps gift bag. This week, the app announced its first truly multi-modal trip-planning platform, which links transit directions with biking, ride-hailing, and walking routes so users can more seamlessly complete car-free journeys. That follows the release in June of another feature that predicts how crowded your bus or train is likely to be.

Multi-modal, car-free directions are now available on the world’s most popular mapping app. (Google Maps)

Why is Google suddenly so friendly to the car-free commuters of the world? The company says that it has observed transit journeys becoming more complex in recent years, and the new tool is a way to help link bus and train rides with other forms of transportation.

Also bear in mind the fact that Google has long been keen on integrating certain urbanist ideals into its technology and business strategies. Just look at its sister company Sidewalk Labs’ “smart city” project in Toronto, the $1 billion housing pledge it recently made in the Bay Area, and the densified downtown campus it’s planning for San Jose. And with more people relying on its maps, the data behind the Google Maps platform becomes richer and more powerful.

A roadmap out of depression

The Maps That Make Us, CityLab’s ongoing series of personal essays about the power of maps, continues apace. In the latest installment, former CityLab editorial fellow Nicole Javorsky writes about how rediscovering a fantasy map inside the classic children’s book The Phantom Tollbooth helped her through a dark period in college. She writes:

There it was, the map of the Lands Beyond. Inked in blue, the illustrations … are utterly fanciful, and would never work for a to-scale map of the real world. But that isn’t its point. The Lands Beyond represent the twists and turns of the labyrinths of one’s mind, on a search for wisdom.

A map of the Lands Beyond, from The Phantom Tollbooth. Illustration © 1961 by Jules Feiffer, renewed 1989 by Jules Feiffer. Courtesy of Random House.

Read the full essay here, complete with beautiful illustrations by Madison McVeigh, and watch for a new map story this Friday.

Meanwhile, we’re still open to essay pitches, as well as reader’s personal tales about the maps that shaped their public and private lives. You can submit those stories here.  

Mappy links

A Sanborn fire insurance map of Cleveland, Ohio, circa 1920-1935. (Library of Congress)

Satellite maps shed light on how devastating fires in the Amazon start and spread. (New York Times) ♦ Ever-changing city of rock and roll fame: A new book chronicles Cleveland, Ohio, in maps. (Cleveland.com) ♦ The Chinese tech giant Huawei may be launching mapping platforms to rival Google’s. (The Verge) ♦ Video games as art: an Italian artist turns virtual landscapes into hand-drawn maps. (Kotaku) ♦ The joy of little Easter eggs: why creating fake locations on Google Maps is so satisfying. (Slate)

Share MapLab with a friend. They can always sign up for this newsletter here. Happy mapping!

Laura Bliss

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. a photo of a full parking lot with a double rainbow over it

    Parking Reform Will Save the City

    Cities that require builders to provide off-street parking trigger more traffic, sprawl, and housing unaffordability. But we can break the vicious cycle.   

  2. a map comparing the sizes of several cities

    The Commuting Principle That Shaped Urban History

    From ancient Rome to modern Atlanta, the shape of cities has been defined by the technologies that allow commuters to get to work in about 30 minutes.

  3. A woman looks straight at camera with others people and trees in background.

    Why Pittsburgh Is the Worst City for Black Women, in 6 Charts

    Pittsburgh is the worst place for black women to live in for just about every indicator of livability, says the city’s Gender Equity Commission.

  4. Groups of people look at their phones while sitting in Washington Square Park in Manhattan.

    How Socially Integrated Is Your City? Ask Twitter.

    Using geotagged tweets, researchers found four types of social connectedness in big U.S. cities, exemplified by New York, San Francisco, Detroit, and Miami.

  5. a photo of a man at a bus stop in Miami

    Very Bad Bus Signs and How to Make Them Better

    Clear wayfinding displays can help bus riders feel more confident, and give a whole city’s public transportation system an air of greater authority.