Business Columns & Blogs

The decline of the paper map in Washington state

Today in “Spot the Generational Differences,” we’ll be discussing the fact that the state of Washington no longer prints a paper highway map.

Your reaction:

A. Good riddance. In an age of GPS and enhanced maps on mobile devices, there’s no need for paper maps.

B. Hold on, sonny. Paper maps can provide a breadth and depth of information that digital maps on tiny screens can’t.

C. I understand the change, but I still miss browsing through maps, remembering places visited and imagining trips to take.

D. What’s a map?

The decline of the paper map, like books, music and videos on physical media, is an evolutionary process, but there’s little denying that it’s in full progress. The state Department of Transportation decided to discontinue printing highway maps in early 2009 because of budget shortfalls, says spokesman Steve Pierce. The last printing of a Washington highway map, 800,000 copies in 2008, cost $150,000, not including staff time for designing and printing it or postage for mailing it. “Since discontinuing the service, we have not had much complaint from single requestors due, in part, to the advances in technologies such as GPS, online driving directions and in-vehicle navigation systems,” Pierce notes.

AAA of Washington says it too has seen a drop in the number of people requesting paper maps and guidebooks.

The paper road map had undergone changes long before the digital era. The prime source used to be gas stations, which for decades gave them away for free. That changed in the 1970s, according to the Road Map Collectors Association website, as oil companies slashed expenses in reaction to price shocks.

But there was still the state- issued highway map, which doubled as a tourism promotion piece. Those maps were typically decorated with color photographs of the delightful attractions awaiting the traveler, along with a picture of the smiling governor, welcoming you to the wonders of (fill in name of state here).

This state is no longer in the tourism promotion business, so there’s not much point in it printing such a map. But the private sector, taking up the mission of promoting Washington as a tourism destination, does see the value in paper maps. Pierce says that “most of the concern we’ve heard comes from tourist bureaus and map collectors.” The department recently negotiated an agreement with the Association of Visitor Information Centers of Washington for a digital image of the map that it can reproduce for free distribution. Private companies that want to print the map for commercial purposes can negotiate their own agreements with the state.

The paper highway map still exists, from AAA for its members and from publishers such as Rand McNally (for a price). And the state does still compile maps that individuals can view online or print out.

That the digital age offers navigational advances (going all the way back to MapQuest) over paper maps is evident to anyone who has watched a pizza delivery driver, or even friends, struggle to decipher and then find an address in this region’s grid-like street numbering system that has been imposed on a map of a plate of spaghetti. Digital maps can be customized, localized, enhanced and immediately updated.

But paper maps may hold on because they have some attributes beyond nostalgia that their digital equivalents can’t match. Much like paper catalogs are still easier for browsing (which is why retailers still print them), paper maps can provide more detail over a broader area than their digital equivalents.

And if paper maps stick around, younger generations will learn valuable skills – like how to read a map, and then fold it neatly to be stowed in another still useful device with an anachronistic name – the automobile “glove box.”

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at