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Cartographers unite! Paper road maps still serve a purpose

The use of Global Positioning System devices to provide turn by turn directions to motorists has grown far beyond what anyone could have imagined a generation ago. That technology has trickled down into smartphones, leading some skeptics to pronounce the paper map as dead on arrival.

Well, not yet.

The distinct advantage a paper map still has over its electronic counterpart is the ability to see - at a glance – the big picture. Paper maps have a three-dimensional quality far superior to the flat chart visible on a screen no bigger than the palm of one’s hand.

The GPS can talk to you and provide a driver’s view of the terrain immediately ahead. Yet zooming out to see the surrounding area makes the details so small that they disappear faster than you can say Scajaquada.

Paper maps can also be written upon, allowing your personal notes to be forever part of the landscape. The words “Waffle House” and “scary bridge” are notations that come to mind.

Or you can follow the lead of the old-fashioned AAA travel advisers who would prepare a timely “TripTik” for members.

The chosen route was highlighted in vibrant yellow (perhaps this is why highlighters were invented). A rubber stamp was employed to mark areas subject to construction delays. The customized, folded map was made complete by a red spiral binding that allowed the pages to be flipped.

No scrolling required. Or even necessary.

“New technology has been killing off older technology since the dawn of mankind,” wrote a columnist for “Remember this scenario? You’re lost on the highway, so you pull a paper road map from the glove compartment. After a few minutes of unfolding, you discover that the map is bigger than the car itself, which obscures your vision, causing you to drive your car over a cliff.”

The Asbury Park Press recently chimed in as well, yet managed to overstate the obvious.

“Websites such as 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 printing fewer maps to cut costs or just acknowledging that public demand is down.”

I am not alone in my affection for printed maps, as the following from travel writer Sean McLachlan recently noted before taking a trip to Ethiopia.

“Foldout maps give you a deeper understanding of the country and are things of beauty. They also have the advantage that they still work if the power goes out or if you lose the signal, a common occurrence in some of the places I go, and they’re far less likely to get stolen,” he wrote.

“GPS, Mapquest, and Google Maps are efficient ways to get you from Point A

to Point B, but real travel isn’t about getting from Point A to Point B. And that’s a fact no amount of technology will ever change.”

Clearly, paper maps are becoming scarcer. What once could be acquired at the corner service station is now relegated to a corner of the travel shelves at trendy bookstores.

I don’t remember if the Texaco service station attendant charged for maps, but they retained that rich gasoline aroma well after summer vacation drew to a close.

There will always be drawbacks to a print version of anything that is subject to updates or significant changes. New roads will be built, streets renamed and buildings constructed. However, paper maps and GPS devices can coexist in peace.

I like the fact that our GPS unit tells us the speed limit of the road we are on and simulates the change from daylight to darkness. While it reminds me of an old Atari video game, it is an important part of our modern motoring.

While we’re at it, who stashes away gloves in those skinny dashboard compartments anymore?


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