Despite boom in GPS, smartphones, paper map nostalgia finds its place

By BARBARA RODRIGUEZ Published: July 4, 2012
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Used to be, Dad would stuff a half-dozen maps in the glove box before setting out with the family on a road trip. 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 expected to travel by car this Fourth of July, a good chunk will probably reach for technology.

Websites like MapQuest and Google Maps simplified trip planning. Affordable GPS devices and built-in navigation on smartphones downright transformed it — and transportation agencies are printing fewer maps to cut department costs or just acknowledging that public demand is down.

The drop in sales began around 2003, when affordable GPS units became the go-to Christmas present, said Pat Carrier, former owner of a travel bookstore in Cambridge, Mass.

“Suddenly, everyone was buying a Garmin or a TomTom,” he said. “That's the year I thought, ‘Oh, it's finally happened.'”

Transportation departments are in the middle of reprioritizing spending, and paper maps could be on the chopping block, said Bob Cullen, spokesman for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

In late June, at the annual exposition of the Road Map Collectors Association in Dublin, Ohio, collector 65-year-old Terry Palmer was selling some of his beloved maps.

“A lot of new cars are coming out with built-in GPS. People are utilizing those, and they don't want a road map,” he said. “A lot of the younger generation, they're used to having their phone, and they don't need a road map to figure out where to go.”

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.