Paper maps: Amid GPS boom, nostalgia finds a placeUsed to be, Dad would stuff a half-dozen maps in the glove box before setting out with the family on a road trip to see the waterfalls at Yosemite or the granite faces of Mount Rushmore.
By: Barbara Rodriguez, Associated Press
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Used to be, Dad would stuff a half-dozen maps in the glove box before setting out with the family on a road trip to see the waterfalls at Yosemite or the granite faces of Mount Rushmore. Colorful maps bearing the logos of the oil companies that printed them — names like Texaco, Gulf, Esso — once brimmed from displays at filling stations, free for the taking.
But of the more than 35 million Americans that were expected to travel by car this Fourth of July, a good chunk probably reached for technology before they’re tempted to unfold — and in a tradition that used to bind Americans as tightly as a highway cloverleaf, try to refold — a paper road map.
Websites like MapQuest and Google Maps simplified trip planning. Affordable GPS devices and built-in navigation on smartphones downright transformed it — and transportation agencies around the country are noticing, printing fewer maps to cut department costs or just acknowledging that public demand is down.
“Just based on the current climate, there have been some cuts,” said Bob Cullen, spokesman for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. “I would expect map printing to be one area that’s been targeted.”
In Georgia, officials are printing about 1.6 million maps to cover a two-year period — less than half of what they were printing a decade ago. In Pennsylvania, where officials say public demand has gone down, about 750,000 maps are being printed — way down from more than 3 million in 2000. And Washington state discontinued them altogether in 2009 because of budget shortfalls.
Not just North Dakota
But in North Dakota, as visitors pass through the state en route to other destinations, travel maps have maintained their position as the main navigational tool.
According to Heather LeMoine, marketing manager for the state tourism division, the state prints roadmaps every two years, with the plan to print 1.2 million for 2013 and 2014.
A number, she says, has been consistent since 2005.
“It shouldn’t be surprising, North Dakota has been in the forefront of a lot of people’s minds,” LeMoine said. “People want to learn more about it so we’ve seen the use go up both in calls requesting maps and from people picking them up who are travelling through.”
Maps are distributed to high visitation areas around the state like airports, Canadian ports of entry, hotels, visitor centers and rest areas, LeMoine said, with many bordering states and provinces calling for large quantities of maps to distribute throughout their state.
Maps have even become a hot commodity in Grand Forks.
According to Sandy Dobmeier, visitor’s services manager for the Greater Grand Forks Convention and Visitors Bureau, 23,000 people walk into the visitor’s center on Gateway Drive every year, many of which continue to ask for a map.
She said most visitors that stop are specifically looking for more information about the area. A detailed street and site map of the town offers a rare and new look along a trip that enhances the overall experience and gives a glimpse into the small towns and areas that make up each state.
“A lot of times people don’t know what else is in route from point A to point B,” Dobmeier said. “If you print out directions it has the miles to the location and you don’t always catch anything special about a town or see how large a town is you are going through.”
Brandi Christie, manager of the Grand Forks Travel Center off I-29, said around $2,500 worth of maps are purchased every month — maps from bordering states, Canada and Grand Forks and Fargo city maps.
“I think technology has dominated the map industry, but we still have people who want to visualize the whole picture and not just parts of it like from a GPS,” Christie said.
She said many atlases are purchased as well as semi drivers take a break at the truck stop.
North Dakota is not the only state where maps remain popular. In Missouri, officials say they’re printing about 1.5 million maps for a two- to three-year period, consistent with printing from a decade ago. Officials in Connecticut, Mississippi and Nebraska also say printing has remained the same.
It’s unclear why some states are affected more than others. Some speculate certain regions affect how people travel there.
North Dakota officials cite visitor’s urge to explore unknown terrain as a large reason why.
“People touring the state are seeing multiple locations and sites,” said LeMoine. “Sometimes they want to know what’s near here and what may be easily accessible.”
There’s a universal theme to paper road maps, especially for baby boomers traveling after retirement, said Kevin Nursick, spokesman for Connecticut’s transportation department. Paper maps, he said, offer an experience that dead batteries and unreliable service connections cannot.
“Simpler times are something everyone yearns for. And maybe looking at a map takes you back,” he said. “The technology is neat, but on a personal level, there’s a sense of nostalgia when you look at the paper map. A lot of people are yearning for simpler times.”
At the annual Road Map Collectors’ Association exposition held in June, a carpeted ballroom at an Embassy Suites hotel outside Columbus, Ohio, featured old road maps for sale, and gave collectors a glimpse into an era of romanticized advertising — brightly colored paper maps promising the sunny beaches of Florida, the mountains of Montana and Chicago’s famous skyline.
Free roadside maps boomed between the 1920s and 1970s, when oil companies worked with a handful of publishers. As major highways were being built, those maps became synonymous with the possibilities of the open road.
“The paper map was all you had back then,” said Dick Bloom, 74, from Danville, Ky. “It was the only way to get around. It was a lot more of an adventure back then. Life was much more of an adventure.”
Companies like AAA and Rand McNally have been in the map business for decades and are synonymous with trip planning.
Members of AAA, whose services are fully integrated online and include a TripTik mobile app, requested more than 14 million paper guides in 2010, spokeswoman Heather Hunter said. The number of paper maps AAA prints has declined, but she wouldn’t go into detail.
Rand McNally is known for its road atlases but also offers an interactive travel website and GPS devices; it declined to comment on how many maps it’s printing these days.
Carrier, now a consultant in the mapping and travel publishing industry, said the additional services from traditional mapping companies show the incredible potential in the industry.
“There’s no question in the U.S. that traditional road maps are diminished,” he said. “But there are other areas of the map industry that are thriving and even growing.”
Charlie Regan, who runs the maps division for National Geographic, said the company has sold more paper map products in the past three years than it has ever sold since launching the division in 1915. He attributed it to customers learning to appreciate good map data — and also noted that sales of international maps have remained consistent, and that sales of recreational hiking maps are on the rise.
“It’s almost like a golden age in mapping. More people than ever before in history are using maps every day,” he said. “For me, that’s fantastic, and it’s an opportunity.”
What most people agree on is that paper road maps will not go away quietly, like pay phones and phone books. Chris Turner, a collector from Jeffersonville, Ind., shook his head at the notion of paper maps becoming obsolete.
“With a GPS or other mapping system that you might use, you feel like you’re beholden to the GPS lady. You know? ‘Turn left here. Recalculating.’ Well, with a map, you can trace your route and you can decide for yourself still where you want to go.
“And if you want to vary from the GPS lady, so be it,” he said. “But you’re armed with that knowledge from that map to do that.”
Herald reporter TJ Jerke also contributed to this story.