Paper maps for driving not dead yet

Paper map

I was recently contacted by a Toronto Star reporter for an article she was writing about paper maps vs. GPS for navigation (Map publishers facing a rough road, Aug. 19, 2011).  She was asking whether I thought people used or needed paper maps anymore and if they would still be around in five years.  I thought it was an interesting question, and told her how I still have a collection of paper maps in my own car. They almost never get used, as I tend to rely on my iPhone (I quite like GPS Drive by MotionX, as I can pay as I go, one month at a time), but I keep them there (along with a good old-fashioned compass) just in case my phone stops working.  I love technology, but I’m not ready to rely on it 100%, especially when I’m driving into parts unknown, where cellular coverage may be spotty or non-existent.  Yes, the iPhone assisted GPS will work without a cell signal, but the navigation and mapping apps won’t be able to download data, which makes the GPS location pretty much useless.  One way to get around this is to download map data ahead of time, using apps like Avenza’s PDF Maps, which I plan to test the next time I’m travelling outside of Canada and want to use my iPhone’s GPS without incurring exorbitant data roaming charges.

To get back to the reporter’s question, I predicted that paper maps would not go away anytime soon.  Even though we all tend to rely on technology more all the time, and mobile map usage is growing fast (the number of smartphone map users increased 75 percent over the last year in the U.S. according to a recent comScore report) I pointed out that only about one third of Canadians and Americans own a smartphone (32.8% in Canada, 32.2% in the U.S. according to another recent comScore report).  I mentioned that this is a form of digital divide, since smartphones are more costly to buy and use, and that we can’t assume that everyone has one.  We also talked about built-in GPS options on new cars but, again, this is still a relatively premium option.  I imagine the adoption rates will increase over the next few years (for both smartphones and built-in GPS), but I still can’t see a day where I will throw out my trusty paper maps and compass – they don’t get used much anymore, but I’m still glad I have them!





4 responses to “Paper maps for driving not dead yet”

  1. Michael Sanderson Avatar
    Michael Sanderson


    MotionX Drive can cache up to 2GB of maps for offline use. What I do when I land in an airport is connect to the local free Wi-Fi (to avoid international roaming) and have it plot out my route to where I’m going. Then I zoom in and out to download the tiles of interest. That makes sure the maps I need for the trip are in the cache. If I know I’m going to be in a place for a while, then I use the basic Motion X app which allows you to download maps for off-line use at arbitrary zoom levels.

    I, like you, still have some paper maps and charts around, and like the look of the old ones (I have some old maps as art – like the Spanish one showing California as an island!). But in the last decade I can’t really remember a time I’ve used paper maps … of course I’m an early adopter. While I don’t think that paper will ever go away, it will become less and less relevant. After all, it’s pretty hard to augment paper charts with real-time traffic, road closures, points of interest, businesses, etc. etc. etc.

    1. Don Boyes Avatar

      An excellent point, Mike! I have actually used the offline cache in MotionX GPS, but admit I just plain forgot about it, and it hadn’t occurred to me to force a cache by plotting the route in Drive and zooming in and out.. I seem to remember the GPS offline map took a while to download, but that’s an excellent option to remember. Good to hear what works for a seasoned traveler like yourself.

      I’m also an early adopter, and had a hard time at first answering the reporter’s question – I embrace technology and rely on it every day, and can’t remember the last time I actually needed to use a paper map, but I can’t bring myself to take them out of the car! I agree that they will just gradually become less and less relevant to a point where many people will just decide it’s worth the risk to rely on technology completely (because it’s better, or they just come to trust it more). I don’t think we’re quite there yet though.

      Thanks for the comments Mike!

  2. Marcel Fortin Avatar
    Marcel Fortin

    Interestingly, a few years ago the Canada Map Office was closed down by the federal government. This was the storehouse that was used to house all maps created by the federal government for distribution to vendors and depository libraries. Arguments to close the office included the fact that much of the collection was available in both raster and vector format on and But there was actually huge backlash and public outcry to reopen. Eventually the office was reopened and interestingly the Canadian Topos at 1:50,000 that are part of this collection have started being generated again at a pace not seen since the 1970’s. So many maps are being printed in fact that I am sure how to deal with all the new maps appearing in my library. These topo maps have been extremely popular with all sorts of people over the years ranging from academics, students, hikers and developers, etc. That interest has not gone down with the use of GIS. People seem to want more and more digital data, but they also still want to see paper maps as well.

    1. Don Boyes Avatar

      Interesting observation, Marcel! During the course of the interview with the reporter, I mentioned that I thought the general public is becoming more accustomed to using maps because of the popularity of online maps and GPS use, and that this is a good thing. I wonder if that may be playing a role in the increased demand. Paper maps will always have their place (particularly for any type of outdoor activity) but perhaps people are seeing the benefits of maps in general due to the increased use of digital versions. Thanks for the comments. -Don

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