Why printed maps are not dead yet

Group looking at map

Ian Munro

Posted December 17, 2017

Internet maps are great for finding the quickest route, but for those who enjoy the journey in its own right, printed maps still lay out the alternatives.

So you think printed maps are finished in the digital age? Try this test: remember your best ever road trip and type the departure point and destination into an internet mapping service such as Google maps. For a favourite journey of mine – Melbourne to Byron Bay – Google Maps offered mainly the Newell and Hume Highways, or a Hume/Pacific combination that was nothing like the route I enjoyed.

It omitted great scenic and motoring experiences such as the Murray Valley Highway, the Alpine Way, Bells Line of Road through the Blue Mountains, the Putty Road and Thunderbolt’s Way.

The internet option was about the most direct route. Mine, derived from several hours poring over a road atlas, was about pleasure.

Neil James, RACV general manager of member service delivery, says I am not alone: “Significant numbers of people are still using printed maps as a planning tool.

“People are still attached to mapping. The tactile experience of handling a map, knowing where they are and what’s around them is something they appreciate that they don’t get from a screen.

“They get to stop at more interesting places. There’s a river nearby, or a particular town that’s interesting, rather than stopping at a service centre on the side of the road where they could be anywhere and nowhere.”

Couple holding up map

Where the internet option does hold clear sway is in navigating metropolitan areas. GPS and mobile phone mapping have diminished sales of street directories markedly.

For 50 years buying your first Melway was a rite of passage equal to fixing P-plates to your car, but not for the most recent generation of drivers.

“We are finding the market is much smaller,” says Melway Publishing director Murray Godfrey. “Our sales climbed until the Global Financial Crisis in 2008. They dropped back then and they certainly have not risen since. And Google has taken off in a big way.”

Today Melway sells mostly to people over 40 and emergency services. It matters to the latter partly because the latest printed Melway is two years ahead of Google maps and holds detailed information about the outer suburbs, Mr Godfrey says. He says that, for example, firefighters need a hard copy "because they found in the bushfires that there was so much material in the air that their GPS units failed”.

Melway has developed its own mobile app as an alternative to the printed format, but Mr Godfrey says teachers complain that those who rely exclusively on phone navigation lack “spatial awareness”, i.e. a sense of their surroundings and their place in it.

Neil James knows this from personal experience. Since moving to Melbourne 12 years ago and relying on a GPS to find his way, he struggles with its geography. “I don’t know where any of the suburbs are. When someone tells me they live in Ashburton I have as much idea as if they said Bullamakanka.”

For touring however, he says motorists understand the value of printed maps for pre-planning and while on the move. RACV has produced maps since 1912. It is “a heritage product” still in demand.

“We have recently seen an uptick in map demand. I don’t want to over-sell it, but people are thinking about more than simply typing in a destination … you’re more involved in the journey. It’s  about where the journey becomes part of the holiday.”