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A Map That Made Los Angeles Make Sense (citylab.com)
74 points by pseudolus 73 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 58 comments



Wow, reading this made me realize how not-unique my experience was. I too learned to read a Thomas Map long before I could drive. I too helped navigate from the back seat (and then the front seat). I too knew what Thomas page my house was on, and my grandparents, and my school, etc. And in fact, I too rode in the back of a Mitsubishi Galant!

I also agree with the author -- people today are losing their spacial sense of the geography around them. With mapping apps they no longer get the greater context. There's nothing like a huge map that's 48 inches in each direction that gives you both granular detail as well as an overall picture.

You can't get that from an app. You either have detail or you zoom way out.

When I bought my first car in 1999, the very first thing I did was buy an SF Bay Area Thomas Guide and study it. I knew that I was going to be driving in the Bay Area I better learn all the major streets and freeways. I don't think new drivers today do that. They just rely on apps.

To be fair, I too usually rely on apps, but it's my extra knowledge that allows me to use the map app as a tool to enhance my driving, instead of as a crutch necessary to get around.


> When I bought my first car in 1999, the very first thing I did was buy an SF Bay Area Thomas Guide and study it. I knew that I was going to be driving in the Bay Area I better learn all the major streets and freeways. I don't think new drivers today do that. They just rely on apps.

I don't think most old drivers did that. I didn't. I got my license in 1997. I don't recall ever looking at a map for where I grew up (Norther Virginia, DC suburbs). I navigated based on memory, landmarks and street signs learned from watching my parents drive.

I didn't start looking at maps until I moved to places I did not intuitively know. Consequently, I had a much better understanding of basic geography in those places than I did where I grew up. Since I imagine more people were like me than like you, I'm willing to bet that with the advent of smarthpones with map apps, more people have better geographic knowledge of the places they are in, not less.


> I don't think most old drivers did that. I didn't.

It may have been regional. In Los Angeles, where I was in high school in he early 1990s, literally every kid I knew with a car had a Thomas Guide.

When standalone GPS units appeared (e.g., TomTom, Garmin), I wondered why there wasn’t a Thomas Guide brand GPS, because Thomas Guide was the dominant brand for the thing that helped you get around LA. If Thomas Guide was only a regional success, that would explain why that never happened.


I think it’s one of those things you learn from your parents by riding in the car with them, and the relative age one starts driving vs moving far from their childhood home.

I did both - learning names of roads, landmarks and routes from the back seat, then later studying their Gregory’s (Sydney street directory), more than my parents ever did, and navigating for them from the back seat.

To this day some of my friends think I’m some crazy human GPS for being able to remember how to get somewhere after traveling there only once, sometimes 10+ years earlier.


Yes, I learned my way around that way as well. The Thomas Guide was for getting to new places I hadn't been, or finding an efficient route home.


To clarify, I got my license in 1993 and never studied the map because I already knew it from navigating my parents and just being in the car. I only studied the map in 1999 because I happen to buy a new car in a new city.


When I learned to drive in the 1990s, the driving instructors just told us to rely on signs most of the time.

That's what I did before sites like Mapquest. The first time I used a map, I was very far away from home.

Now I mostly use a GPS so I can route around unpredictable traffic. Otherwise, I usually know where I'm going.


When I started a real estate startup, it was because I had gotten the wall version of the Thomas Bros. map — of course! — and plotted LA’s median home prices, crime and school stats.

My idea was, wow, wouldn’t it be great to give other people this kind of expansive knowledge about Los Angeles? If they could only understand what I see on this map!

But of course, it’s not necessary to understand the entirety of a map if you have a tool that zeroes in on what you really want. Google doesn’t exist for you to understand the whole web, but to mine it precisely. Finding a home is hard to do the same way, but giving people a zeitgeist is always inferior to giving them a tool that lets them understand the least about something. It’s a hard lesson for an infovore to learn, I’ll say that.

So, of course, now LA drivers know too much, while they themselves know very little. In the 2000s there were “hidden shortcuts” and alternate routes that were risky. Now, the risk is hedged and nothing is hidden. It is a marketplace of nearly perfect information, where saving a minute of someone’s life in traffic is treated with the respect it actually deserves.

Yet now the big problem is that people have locked in their commute route years ago, and it gets slower and slower with no escape. They drive from their far-away apartment, guided by synthesized voices, past the landed aristocracy of Los Angeles with the favor of Prop. 13 whose lawn signs chide land-use refugees to drive like their non-existent kids lived there.

Ultimately, the era of broad knowledge was also an era of choice. Both are leaving us at the same velocity. There is little need for a giant book of colleges when you can’t get into or afford the ones you’re interested in. Who cares about a directory of reviewed doctors when your crummy insurance will not let you see any of the ones you would choose? The time of the Thomas Bros. map was before the closing of the urban frontier. Now, you just take the only thing on the shelf.


I hadn’t heard that NIMBY’s are also NOMS (not on my streets) but it doesn’t surprise me they’re trying to keep cars from driving down the public streets they live on. Is there anything the affluent won’t do to try to exclude themselves from society at large?

I recently started motorcycling and don’t want a phone mount to distract myself while driving. This has turned Maps apps into a “Thomas guide” for me. I examine the maps and chart the route of my ride the night before, memorizing which turns I want to take and surrounding streets in case I miss a turn. Of course, if I do get lost I can open my digital “Thomas guide” back up and figure out where I am. It has given me a different level of confidence in my ability to navigate that simply relying on GPS routing for the past 15 years has. But it’s hard to get lost in the West LA area, there’s so many major streets that are memorable and as long as you know what cardinal directions they run in, it’s not really a big deal. If you just drive in one direction long enough you’re bound to find something that orients you in space.


I'm quite happy to bash the rich, but I think they have a legitimate concern here. Freeways are for long-distance travel past areas. Surface streets are for local travel in the area. When Google Maps tries to throw me onto surface streets, I mostly don't let it do it, because I think a bunch of people zooming through somebody's neighborhood is rude and often dangerous.


The article does expand on this in an interesting sentence.

> And I’m not aware of any maps that, for example, trace the safest sidewalks for neighborhoods in South L.A. or the northeast Valley—communities that have long lived with the kind of dangerous traffic that affluent neighborhoods, like the one where my family lives, now find unbearable.

While the author and I both agree that having safe neighbourhood traffic is good for local residents, it's an unfortunate property that only the rich have resources to do something about it.


Its more efficient overall to use the available roads. As an LA native, taking the surface streets is a way of life.


More efficient for drivers. But it results in much less efficient land use overall, because more space is now taken up by cars.


Then they should be interested in making the overuse of cars "less of a problem" instead of "not my problem".


I mean, on HN the solution to badly considered comments is to grumpily reply to them, not to work to solve the societal problem of poor education in critical thinking. So I don't think we can really expect much more of others.


Sure, we can't all think big picture all the time. That's part of what discussion is for. And even if it's okay to be narrow minded or flat out wrong on occasion, we are well within our rights to try to adjust people's mindset if we are so inclined. Even if somewhat grumpily.


There are the shortcuts that people in a neighborhood use. This is OK if 10 people a day use it. If 5,000 try, not so good.

I believe that's one of the complaints about the Waze app.

Also there are neighborhood surface streets and then there are high capacity surface streets. If I'd rather take 6 lane boulevards than stop and go on the freeway, why not?

And a grid pattern makes navigating a lot simpler. You head down a street till you hit a major street you know and then you know where you are. Getting lost in a twisty maze of local streets, all alike, is another deal entirely.


Ok then go the speed limit, drive you like you live there and your kids are on the roads.


This is not a NOMs problem but a complete breakdown in planning to provide adequate transportation. The apps only exacerbated the problem.

The problem is that California stopped building freeways in 1975 and we don't have much in the way of public transportation. Therefore people end up driving at freeway speeds in neighborhoods with children and pets.

An interesting example is highway 17 which is the only freeway between silicon valley and the beach. On a hot summer day the entire freeway is gridlocked. Beach goers believe they can get there faster if they drive through the streets of Los Gatos. This shuts down an entire town.

There are plenty of stories about how we dismantled public transportation after WW2. I am not sure how true they are so I won't repeat them. One thing that is true is that eminent domain has become much more costly in California making it difficult to rebuild public transportation after we dismantled it.

Here is an article on why we stopped building freeways: https://www.accessmagazine.org/fall-1993/why-california-stop...


> Beach goers believe they can get there faster if they drive through the streets of Los Gatos.

Google Maps directs them there -- I doubt any human judgement would really find those residential cut-troughs plausible in the slightest.

I'm sure that absent the mapping apps a few antsy drivers would try diverting through the neighborhoods just to keep moving, but it takes mechanized stupidity to direct enough traffic there to congest the neighborhoods.


  Google Maps directs them there
Waze, specifically


Maps does this too, I've experienced it first hand (and in another post I gave a link to maps driving directions doing it which you can reproduce for yourself most saturday mornings).

Perhaps Waze does more of it but maps is by no means innocent of it.

Years ago the people running maps seemed to care. When I found maps specifically directing drivers to break the law (route through dulles airport in order to bypass the tolls on 267) a report to maps was almost instantly acted on to correct the behavior.

Today maps makes innumerable mistakes and creates enormous externalized costs including tremendous amounts of pollution, disruption of people's quiet enjoyment of their properties, and even occasional loss of life (see article on maps directing drivers onto railroad tracks) and google cannot even be bothered to respond.


> it doesn’t surprise me they’re trying to keep cars from driving down the public streets they live on. Is there anything the affluent won’t do to try to exclude themselves from society at large?

There are very legitimate planning and engineering issues with the traffic changes caused by app-based navigation. Streets are designed differently depending on the expected vehicle-per-hour loads. For instance, viewing distances might be shorter, intersections might be unsignalized leading to unexpected backups, pedestrian crossing would be less well marked leading to increased danger to pedestrians, schools are usually located on quiet side streets - an extra few hundred vehicles per hour greatly affects the safety of kids walking to school... the issues go on and on.

It is true that people don't usually get interested or motivated on an issue until it affects them personally.


Heh, as a child of LA, my personal gripe against Waze is more that it has taken away my secret routes. I earned those secret shortcuts, by suffering through traffic to learn them!

Also, I totally just bought a copy of the 2015 edition of the Thomas Guide out of pure nostalgia.


this really is the issue. I just asked someone who just moved here how they got to work and they described my secret shortcut that I discovered by bike when I was a child. People step off the plane and now able to drive the streets like they have lived here there whole life.


They are not trying to keep cars from driving down on public streets. What they are trying to do is prevent navigation apps as treating these roads as main thoroughfares.


> I hadn’t heard that NIMBY’s are also NOMS (not on my streets) but it doesn’t surprise me they’re trying to keep cars from driving down the public streets they live on. Is there anything the affluent won’t do to try to exclude themselves from society at large?

What does this have to do with affluence? As far as I know, this affects people who live near a congested major road but do not themselves live on a congested road. I’ve seen it in rich and poor neighborhoods.

It actually seems like it may affect less wealthy people more. Wealthy kids seem less likely in general to play in the streets. “I want to live on a street that isn’t full of cars” is an entirely reasonable sentiment and has little or nothing to do with wanting to exclude outsiders from one’s street.


Well, historically NIMBY's are only successful when they are affluent.. basically, you have to be rich to have political sway.

If NOMS becomes a thing, it's pretty easy to assume it's only the people with political leverage who are going to get special treatment.


> I hadn’t heard that NIMBY’s are also NOMS (not on my streets)

Maybe because you've been motorcycling lately you haven't noticed how extremely antisocially Google maps directs drivers to behave in some circumstances.

When a highway is congested maps will direct large flows of traffic off of the highway through dense child-lined neighborhoods and then back onto the same highway a few exits ahead, jumping the redirected cars a little bit in line with no net increase in flow at a cost of making the surrounding neighborhood significantly less safe and pleasant for its residents.

With this kind of mechanized sociopathy directing such a large amount of traffic it is surprising to me that we're not seeing more barriers and gates being erected around neighborhoods.

Edit: It only took me a couple minutes to find an example of Maps doing this right now: Routing from Santa Clara to Santa Cruz, CA takes HWY 17 over the mountains which is congested on the weekend. https://www.google.com/maps/dir/Santa+Clara,+CA/Santa+Cruz,+... At the moment google maps directs drivers to get off 17, drive through some Los Gatos neighborhoods then get back on 17 three miles down-- still behind the bottleneck (which is the mountains...).

Edit2: Sunnyvale to Santa Cruz directs traffic through a different set of residential streets in Los Gatos to perform the same zero sum line cutting, but perhaps makes a better illustration at the moment because the residential streets it selects are now all showing as dark red congested-- almost certainly due to its own routing.

Ah, I see another comment pointed out the exact same location: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20662510


A big problem I have with things like Google Maps is how it turns me into a peripheral of the system. As the author points out, it not only doesn't expect me to know anything, it avoids educating me on anything.

Now if I'm going anywhere I don't know well, I try to take some time and at least look around the map as I would with a paper map, so that I can contextualize things. And if possible, I'll use Google Earth to get a non-map sense for position and visibility of landmarks. But I'd love to see Google Maps work toward educating me as part of what it does.


Google Maps isn't preventing you from using it or Earth to spend your own time educating yourself. But sometimes you don't have time and you just need to get from point A to B, or you'd just prefer to spend your limited time educating yourself on other things rather than geography.

But I'm genuinely curious: what would Maps look like, for you, if it "educated" you? You can already look at the route and pan/zoom around it to understand it however much you want, and different zoom levels make it clear what are major vs minor roads.

I'm struggling to imagine what automated "education" that comes along with directions would look like in some way that could be scalable/automated and interesting to the general public? Is it a brief description of the endpoints of each road, or tourist attractions or cities passed along the way, or population levels, or the name of the mayor, or what?


As to the first bit, I don't think I said it's preventing anything. This is about good defaults that maximize benefit for the general user.

I struggle to imagine it too, but I think that's fine with something new. If I wanted to figure out what it would do, I'd start with having humans do it and look for patterns. (Which is how I suspect they built automated direction-giving systems in the first place.)

E.g., I'd put an out-of-town friend in the driver's seat, sit in the passenger seat, and then give them directions to somewhere, trying to educate them as I go. (I've certainly done this plenty before, especially with someone new to town.) Once I had a basic feel, I'd do the same thing but with other people while I sat in the back.

Up front, I imagine including 2 things for sure. Before we go, a short up-front summary ("we'll take Van Ness across the city, Lombard to the Golden Gate Bridge, 101 around half of Richardson Bay, and then surface streets down the Tiburon Peninsula"). Then along the way I point out key landmarks, major changes in direction, and other useful information. That reinforces and anchors the initial structure.

And yes, I think it could include the things you describe as well.


For instance: “First, we need to take the I-10W”. “Ok I know this part”. <stops giving directions>


But what if the route you normally take to I-10W has an accident and traffic is backed up for miles? in my experience, it's always valuable to keep Google maps running all the time so you're aware of slow downs long before you hit them.


Well, in that case, Google Maps would wake up and suggest an alternative route.

The point I'm trying to make is that Google Maps (actually, all navigators) is biased towards shutting the brain down and just focusing on next turn. It could do much better in describing the overall route, and even letting you drive by yourselves parts of the route you already know -- it can still tell you to do alternates routes if there's traffic though.

Obviously the workaround is to skim the overall route and decide by yourself what to do, whether to follow directions or not on certain parts. This is what I always do -- just because I want to make sure that I still know my way without a navigator and it's also a good way to learn new parts of the city (or new cities) that you don't know. At the same time, Google Maps isn't really helping on this.


Yes, exactly. The problem is the brain-shutting-down part. It treats you as a dumb peripheral. But we know that learning doesn't happen best that way. [1] I would love to see it be more helpful in the ways you suggest.

[1] E.g., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spaced_repetition


>I don’t know of any equivalent street atlas that exists for the half-million L.A. households that use buses, trains, and bikes to get around instead of cars.

Google Maps already does this; there are 'public transit', 'walking', and 'biking' directions. The public transit option gives you a few different options, including transfers and how late the buses are if the city provides that data. There's a dedicated 'transit' overlay which traces major routes and adds bus stops to the map.

It's great if you weren't aware of nearby express routes or need to get somewhere at odd hours, but I guess it does also increase bus congestion by funneling more people into the bus routes. It stinks not always getting a seat, maybe I should sue Google.


I believe the author was talking about her not knowing of any atlases for non-driving LA residents from the days before ubiquitous smartphones with GPS.

I didn’t drive during the decade I lived in LA, and I still had a Thomas Guide. Supplemented with bus route maps and the county’s route planning website, but the Guide was definitely still earning the space it took up in my backpack.


Ah, yes. The old "I have more right to this road than you" argument.

The apps don't increase congestion, piss-poor infrastructure does. Apps spread it out.


> The old "I have more right to this road than you" argument.

The argument that motorists have used for decades to claim that they have sole right to use the asphalt to drive fast and park their cars, and everyone else (cyclists, pedestrians, "sunday drivers", etc...) have to get out of their way.


A big key to driving in LA is recognizing and knowing where the mountains/buildings are. With that GPS and compass aren't required to have a very good feel for where you are and are headed. You still need to know streets (and which go through, have lights, traffic), but it's very reasonable to know which way to get to a major street/highway even from an "unknown" location.


Kevin Lynch notes as much in "The Image of the City", his book about urban form:

> Paths proved to be the dominant element [of orientation] in terms of quantity [...] The single exception was the shift in attention from paths and edges to landmarks, which was noted in Los Angeles. This was an striking change for an automobile-oriented city, but it may perhaps have been due to the lack of differentiation in the gridiron streets.


I've long joked, in LA if you're lost, find your way to a major street and drive until you run into a freeway, if you run into a mountain or the ocean, you've gone the wrong way, turn around and drive back the other way until you find the freeway


I owned a Thomas Guide before I owned a car, it honestly greatly expanded my spacial awareness, even now, I can drive thru the LA basin and not get lost, even though I've not lived there in almost 15 years.

The issue with GPS is you dont internalize the routings and learn the ability to generate your own routings over time.


I disagree. If you pay attention to where you’re being routed you can totally learn special awareness and routing in your city. Some people don’t, but those are the same type of people that were always lost in the age of paper maps.


I have noticed that younger uber drivers trust their apps even to do incredibly stupid things like: make a massive loop over a bridge to turn around and go back to where they came when they were already parked on a two-way street with no traffic in front of my apartment building. Older people will actually listen to me when I tell them they should ignore the app. Younger people get upset at the very suggestion, like not following the app is dangerous or against the law or something.


I think the apps don't help themselves; if it said something along the lines of "You need to turn around - you can do so safely by <making a massive loop over a bridge>" this would inform people of the need to turn around and tell them how to do so in the event that they cannot do so safely simply by throwing a handbrake turn at speed this very second.

As it is, they sometimes even obscure the fact that they're guiding the user to turn around. I've definitely found myself guided to turn around via an awkward route in the past and found myself surprised when I realised that's what the game was.


This, so much! I'm continually shocked by how bad the UX is in GPS apps in 2019.


Part of it is that pax telling drivers to ignore the app can be a scam. They tell the driver to take a "better way", which turns out to be a worse way, and then they complain to Uber and ask to get a refund. So a lot of drivers prefer to simply listen to the app even when suboptimal as that way only the app can be blamed.


Because MOST people that have suggestions that are different from the app DON'T know what they're talking about, or are ignorant to real-time conditions like traffic and accidents that the app would take into account.

Obviously in your example it should be trivial to just do what you said, but ignoring the human and following the app is a safe rule of thumb 99% of the time, and not increase one's cognitive decision load.

Also a u-turn in a two-way street is always safe, until the one time it isn't, and you get a ticket from a cop you don't notice somewhere on the horizon (happened to me once)


I can't edit my comment anymore, but I'd like to point out that I'm not commenting on what people's behavior should be, but that there's a generational difference between people who always trust the app and do what it says versus people who are willing to consider the actual conditions. People over 40 don't treat directions the same anymore. Maybe they're wrong to question the app. That wasn't really the point. The point was, like the OP article, that "the app" has changed our relationship to spatial orientation and navigation.


I enjoy setting the GPS navigation destination to somewhere in the opposite direction of where I am actually driving, and stubbornly disobeying it while listening to its growing frustration as it relentlessly tries to desperately negotiate with me to stop driving in the wrong direction and turn around.

I think it builds character, stamina, self determination, and will power, and it's healthy to practice resisting the subservient temptation of mindlessly obeying commands from computers and robots.


In the Bay Area, there was an even more detailed, local binder-style map producer -- Barclay Maps, perhaps? They were the best for ongoing local navigation, popular with salesfolk and Realtors alike.

Later, when I did voter data and precinct boundaries for some campaigns; they provided detail others did not.

I just tossed out what may have been my last set of Thomas Bros maps a couple of months ago. I couldn't envision a legitimate need, but it hurt to just toss them.


Maybe this is what progress looks like...

I think the reason people learned much more about the geography before was because it was a byproduct of doing the work needed to get around. Those Thomas guides weren't easy. Of course, I like that kind of thing. Not everyone wants to spend mental energy on this.

I have thought about, without success, how to make a mapping app that would be good for someone who liked to think about where they were going.


I always assumed every metro area would have something like this. In Minneapolis it was the Hudson's map book: http://hudsonmap.com/hudsons-twin-cities-steet-atlas.html

I too lament the lack of the big picture that comes with Google maps.


My wife and I were chuckling the other day about using the Thomas Bros map of old, while plugging our destination into the car's GPS nav system. Something else my kids will never know about.


I get really stressed out driving without knowing the area/route ahead of time. With so much poor city planning out there, whenever I wing it I tend to end up in dead ends or winding cul-de-sac heavy areas where you can see where you need to be across a few feet of someone's yard. I've never really adapted to using phone/gps nav either for some reason as it feels so distracting and myopic. I still only use GMaps etc for preplanning. Give me a paper map and orientation to major streets any day.


Thomas Brothers Guide, San Diego 1986. Otherwise I was doomed.




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