The Little-Known Capitalist History of the Highway Map
A 1975 Highway Map of Northern California by the American Automobile Association. Image: University of Toronto's Map and Data Library

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The Little-Known Capitalist History of the Highway Map

Since the early 1900s, road maps have been designed to advance capitalism, influencing where and how people travel.

The author John Steinbeck once remarked that "maps are not reality at all—they can be tyrants."

Take road maps, for example. These maps aren't just designed to provide geographic and navigational information. Since the early 1900s, road maps have been designed to advance capitalism, promoting the ventures of businesses and governments, and in the process, influencing where and how people travel. These ulterior mapping objectives aren't only found in older paper highway maps, but modern digital mapping applications as well.

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The production of paper highway maps in the early twentieth century was a time-consuming and expensive process. So, to offset production costs, most early highway maps were supplemented with advertisements. Because these maps were widely used by motorists, they were great opportunities for advertising for local businesses, such as gas stations, restaurants, and hotels.

A 1968 map of Ontario sponsored by Shell. Image: University of Toronto's Map and Data Library

By the mid-twentieth century, oil companies such as Shell and Esso were mass producing highway maps in North America. Their maps were often distributed for free at their gas stations, superimposed with advertisements for their products and brands. Some companies went so far as to only show the locations of their gas stations amongst the network of highways, thus persuading motorists to stop at their gas stations rather than their competitors.

Beyond advertising specific brands and products, highway maps were also designed to promote auto travel in general. The more people drove, the more certain industries—namely, oil companies and car manufacturers—stood to benefit. So, to further encourage people to drive, highway maps often included idealistic drawings of places and landscapes shown on the map that people could drive to. Such imagery invoked ideas of freedom of mobility and the great outdoors, with the hopes of persuading people to become motoring tourists.

A 1941 map of Colorado by the State Highway Department. Image: University of Toronto's Map and Data Library

Designing maps also involves choices of how real world features are represented—which are omitted, and which are emphasized. People are more likely to stop at tourist destinations and businesses that are included on their map, rather than those that are not.

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In France, some of the first road maps were published by tire-manufacturer Michelin, and were often paired with guide books, which provided travel advice and recommended hotels and places to eat. If the location of a business was mentioned it could mean more customers, particularly if it had favourable reviews (the star rankings for restaurants originating in Michelin's guide books are now one of the most sought after culinary awards worldwide).

A 1922 Map of Toulouse from a Michelin Guide of France. Image: University of Toronto's Map and Data Library

Even the style in which roads were drawn could influence where people travelled.

Roads drawn with thicker lines and brighter colours indicated faster routes, and as such, people were more likely to travel on these roads rather than others. In some cases, roads were emphasized specifically to encourage people to drive along them. In Ontario, for example, some highway maps produced by the Provincial government highlighted the province's highway and infrastructure projects with more prominent lines compared to those roads built by local governments—even when roads had similar surfaces and speed limits.

Similarly, some maps funded by local businesses would highlight roads that passed through their towns, because that's where their businesses were located.

A 1955 map of Ontario published by the Provincial Government. Prominent red roads are provincial highways while solid blue are similarly paved roads, but funded by local government. Image: University of Toronto's Map and Data Library

Since the turn of the century, however, the use of paper highway maps has dwindled with the development of GPS devices, Google Maps, and other mapping applications. But like their predecessors, these digital maps also influence users often under a guise of navigational accuracy.

People are more likely to travel along the routes recommended to them by mapping applications than those that are not. If a map shows multiple routes, those shown first or those with faster travel times are more likely to be selected. As a result, because car travel is often the fastest mode of transportation, mapping applications can actually deter people from using public transit or other forms of travel. In other cases, this deterrence is less subtle; a partnership between Google and the ridesharing service Uber means that Google Maps will compare walking or public transit to Uber when suggesting directions—Uber often being faster, albeit more expensive—if users have Uber installed on their smartphone.

Google Maps uses a variety of factors to determine which shops and restaurants to show by default, and which ones to hide. Image: Screengrab

And like their predecessors, mapping applications such as Google Maps have become crucial for advertising retail businesses. The more a store appears on a map, the more likely people will shop there rather than at a competing store. Having a business show up at higher map zoom levels or being at the top of a list when keywords are searched is an important marketing strategy. Generally, these rankings are determined via algorithms based on a combination of business location, number of searches, having complete information, and favourable reviews—but the things that a user searches for, or the places a user visits, can affect what is displayed on a map, too.

What's important to remember is that maps are not merely representations of the physical world. They are also cultural texts, lenses into the societies that create and use them, and they are often used as instruments of persuasion. This is not to say that most maps, old or new, are inaccurate, but they do not display a whole truth—only a selected vision of the world.