The Map That Made Los Angeles Make Sense

Long before I got my driver’s license, the Thomas Guide left a mark on me. Literally: Spread open in the backseat of my dad’s Mitsubishi Galant, the metal binding of its 3,000 pages of Los Angeles street maps would press spirals into my child-sized legs.

I’d flip to a random page, the paper worn and waxy, to peer over some colorful new square. All of L.A. County—5,000 square miles and 88 municipalities—was gridded inside the exhaustive street atlas. Surface streets were a dark blue hash, knots of freeways bright red clovers. Names of neighborhoods miles from our house in the San Fernando Valley beckoned in tiny print: Gardena. Alhambra. Manhattan Beach.

These maps used to be the key to the streets of L.A. For the better part of the 20th century, the Thomas Guide sat in hundreds of thousands of glove compartments and backseat pockets around Southern California. In an era when the city was growing like wildfire (L.A. doubled in population between 1950 and 2000), the Guide was a shortcut to intelligibility for waves of newcomers. Locals used to give directions via Thomas Guide page number. “Just a regular guy could drive up to the Angeles National Forest or to Venice,” Glen Creason, the L.A. Public Library’s map librarian told LAist last year. “Street guides opened the city up to the common man.”  

By the time my dad was driving me and my brother around, he didn’t have much use for the Guide: He spent decades behind the wheel in L.A., and his street knowledge rivaled that of a London cab driver. His internal GPS told him how to bypass the 405 through a fancy gated estate, and to cut over to Olympic to skip the Beckettian wait of Wilshire at 6 o’clock.

A page from a 1960s-era Thomas Guide. (Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)

For him, the Guide served as more of a totem than a tool, which was fitting in a city where dodging traffic is like a superpower. And when I started exploring L.A. behind the wheel as a teenager, the Thomas Guide’s birds-eye views imprinted onto my mental map, too. Their memory assured me that hitting Franklin Avenue on the way to Laurel Canyon meant I was on the right route. And that if I just followed Sunset, I’d eventually hit the beach.

But now, every time I go back, that big picture of Los Angeles gets a little harder to recall when I step into the driver’s seat. The iPhone-screen-sized view of Google Maps, Waze, and Apple Maps is slowly taking over my imagination.

Ah, navigation apps. They’ve democratized access to the roads—in certain ways more so than the cumbersome atlases of old. Their algorithms help us follow our personal wayfinding rainbows by devising traffic-responsive routes cleverer than the most seasoned navigators could imagine. In California’s congested cities, constant alerts to new and faster routes help put harried commuters at ease, quelling our sense of powerlessness against the rising tides of traffic.

Now, some 90 percent of Americans reported using their smartphones to get directions, according to the latest survey by Pew. L.A. is one of Waze’s largest markets in the world. Yet with progress comes decline: The last print edition of the Thomas Guide was published in 2015. The company that made them, Thomas Brothers Maps, was long ago acquired by Rand McNally.

But despite their current market supremacy, mapping apps have a fatal flaw compared to their paper ancestors. A map that is centered on the user—a format that cartographers literally call the “egocentric” view—blinds drivers to their surroundings. All those stories you’ve read of motorists who’ve charged up sloping underpasses that they mistook for freeway onramps, careened into the Mojave Desert, or steered off a bridge illustrate the risk of maps that de-center the larger context in favor of the individual.

Waze and Google Maps indulge our naval-gazing tendencies in an even more fundamental way. When a group of drivers veers off a jammed highway on an app’s recommendation, it can thicken congestion for surrounding commuters, even if a few drivers succeed in shaving a few minutes off their individual journeys. It’s an automotive variation on the tragedy of the commons, in which drivers are the herd and the road is public pasture, as The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal wrote last year.

Sherman Oaks, the San Fernando Valley neighborhood where I grew up and where my dad once pulled that Mitsubishi out of the driveway every morning, offers a vivid portrait of this dynamic. The windy street where I used to walk to haircuts and playdates has become one of Waze’s favorite alternates to nearby I-405. Now my mom wakes each morning to a chorus of car horns and struggles to pull out of the driveway by 7:30 a.m., so clogged is the right-of-way.

Traffic experts will tell you that traffic congestion can rarely be blamed on a single cause. But many residents of Sherman Oaks point to Google Maps and Waze. At homeowners association meetings and in Nextdoor’s online forums, neighbors debate the proper response, from passive-aggressive signage (“Are you REALLY saving time??” reads one woman’s front-yard post) to forming human protest chains on the streets at rush hour.

What many residents would like is for the apps to simply stop sending commuters their way. Last spring, a council member for Sherman Oaks urged the city attorney’s office to sue the apps, complaining that they’d failed to respond to the neighborhood’s concerns. Suburbs outside Palo Alto, Boston, Miami and other cities have made similar demands. One town near the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey tried to block cut-through traffic entirely. Communities, in other words, are trying to wipe themselves off the map. How very un-democratic.

My dad hates the new traffic, too. But he’s not out there blocking the streets or suing tech companies: A consummate gadget geek, he also uses these apps. The gray matter he built absorbing the Thomas Guide now goes into competing with Google Maps to see what “she” comes up with. He does it for fun, he says, and to see if he might learn any new shortcuts. But he’s relying on the machine’s authority now.

So am I. When I get around L.A., I shrug off the side effects and let the apps show me the way. It’s a privilege about half a million L.A. households don’t have, because they don’t own cars to begin with. Opening up “access” to L.A. streets does not look the same for everyone.

Similarly, the Thomas Guide was never meant for every Angeleno. 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. 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.

But maybe those are the kinds of navigation tools we need: the “allocentric” maps for the 21st century—as in, cartographic tools that are more concerned with the broader context than with an individual’s selfish needs.

Today, in the face of rising congestion, carbon emissions, and traffic fatalities, L.A. is charting a necessary path toward a future with fewer cars, with billions of taxpayer dollars pouring into a subway expansion, better bus services, bike lanes, and smarter urban planning. It’s going to take a powerful vision of post-automobile city to get there. Perhaps what’s in order is a new kind of map that reveals the whole city to transit riders, walkers, and cyclists, letting them see how it’s possible and delightful to move around sans car.

The Thomas Guide might have centered on drivers, too, but it delivered on part of this promise. Depicting L.A. in sweeping relief, it provided Angelenos with a common picture of the city and language for navigation. My dad has an old copy of it stashed away as a keepsake, and my generation may have been the last to absorb its innate wisdom. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t still inspiration to draw from it, and new maps to make.

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