Think about the last time you hopped in the car with your best friend, bumping sweet road tunes, headed over to a trend new restaurant, hiking spot, or underground comedy club. What is the last thing you do before you pull off? For most people its to lookup that address or comedy club name on a smartphone map like Apple Maps, Google Maps, Waze or others. Even when traveling places people are relatively familiar with, Millennials and Gen Z alike lean on the crutch that are digital maps. So how did our parents drive or walk places thirty years ago? And how did we evolve from walking our neighborhoods to driving without limits?
Before you could pull up a digital map online like the once dominant mapquest.com people had to use physical maps. Crazy, right! A person who was planning a trip to a new destination near or far needed to pull up a physical map and read it themselves to determine the best route. If you were lucky enough to have a shotgun road trip companion it was their job to be head navigator reading the map and coordinating with those big green squares above the highway that people used to look at for sign directions. This led to plenty of time spent lost, and the blame game argument that ensued about who missed the turn or picked the wrong one altogether. On long road trips people stopped off at gas stations to purchase local maps that showed places to eat and hotels nearby. In the years before 2005 physical maps were big money, both for those who produces them and those who sold them. That all changed in the early 2000s as the world became enamored with the internet. MapQuest, who had made physical maps since the time the company began in 1967, changed the game with its online mapping tool.
I remember being a young kid in the 2000’s as my mother shouted across the room for me to grab the MapQuest before we ran out the door. Then sitting there at 8 years old reading off the steps one by one as she drove. We got lost, a lot. Yet, people everywhere turned to MapQuest which had a digital map that one could pull up on their home desktop. No need for physical maps or book any longer. Even more crazy was people’s ability to type in a start and ending destination yielding a map picture and list of directions to get there (which everyone printed out). There was a newfound confidence for people traveling to new destinations and its helped spur the adoption of the internet much in the same was as e-mail did. People needed to know how to get around to places, and the internet, specifically MapQuest, made it that much easier.
Of course, MapQuest is no longer the dominating digital map, a result of the digital mapping race they kicked off in the early 2000’s. Other tech companies, now giants, including Google and Apple, began building their own mapping platforms resulting in the commonly used Apple Maps app and online website Google Maps. Similar to how physical maps were big money for producers before digitalization, they have developed into money makers for our modern tech giants in two ways. The first way is one utilized by Waze with their ads flashing up showing nearby coffee chains and gas stations, just as physical local maps did. The second and more nuanced one is the data gathering that Apple and Google conduct regarding traffic and driving patterns, helping them predict things like popular restaurants, vacation destination, cities to visit, and plenty more ways they can utilize “big data”. MapQuest and the ensuing digitalization of maps changed the landscape of travel, expanding peoples familiarity from the local neighborhood to the country.