"The True Size" map lets you move countries around the globe, to show how big they really are

The US, China and India combined: still not quite as big as Africa. Image: The True Size.

The problem, you see, is that the earth isn't flat. This is generally considered to be a good thing: it means you can travel east from Hong Kong to Los Angeles, for example, without falling over the edge – but it's a right pain in the bum for cartographers.

That’s because the surface of a sphere cannot be turned into a flat sheet without some major distortions around the edges. The Mercator Projection is a case in point. Invented by a Flemish geographer, Gerardus Mercator, in the 16th century, it re-imagines the earth as the surface of a cylinder.

When laid out flat, it’s pleasingly rectangular, and its eastern and western edges line up neatly. This projection is pretty useful if you're, say, trying to steer a ship across an ocean, so in its 446 years of life it's become one of the standard maps of the world.

But it's also done some odd things to our idea of how the world looks. In reality, lines of longitude converge at the poles; on the map, they're parallel. As a result, the closer you get to the poles, the more distorted the map becomes, and the bigger things look relative to their actual size.

Thus it is that we’ve all got stuck with maps of the world which show Africa (30.4mkm2) as basically the same size as Greenland (2.2mkm2), rather than a whole order of magnitude bigger.

Until now.

The True Size is a website that lets you compare the size of any nation or US state to other land masses, by allowing you to move them around to anywhere else on the map. So, when left right up in the north of the map, Greenland does indeed look huge:

Place it next to Africa though, and you can see it really isn't all that:

You can see how vast India is, next to uppity islands that conquered it:

Or how small even a big European nation like France would be in Africa:

Some US states are actually pretty big...

...but even the US looks tiny next to Africa. Africa is huge:

The site is the work of James Talmage and Damon Maneice, who were inspired by (what else) an episode of The West Wing. It’s worth quoting an entire speech from the episode in question, in which a guest character argues that cartography can warp how we view the world:

When Third World countries are misrepresented they're likely to be valued less. When Mercator maps exaggerate the importance of Western civilization, when the top of the map is given to the northern hemisphere and the bottom is given to the southern... then people will tend to adopt top and bottom attitudes.

Mercator maps exaggerate the importance of Western civilization, when the top of the map is given to the northern hemisphere and the bottom is given to the southern... then people will tend to adopt top and bottom attitudes.

Or, to put it another way, Africa is much, much bigger than you think it is – and Europe much, much smaller.

You can play with The True Size map here.

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Here’s how Copenhagen puts cyclists at the top of the social hierarchy

A cyclist in Copenhagen, obviously. Image: Red Bull/Getty.

Have you ever wondered why Britain is not a nation of cyclists? Why we prefer to sit in traffic as our Dutch and Danish neighbours speed through the city on bikes?

Forget about hills, rain, and urban sprawl: the real reason we aren’t cycling is much closer to home. It is not just lack of infrastructure, or lack of fitness, the reason that 66 per cent of Brits cycle less than once a year, is because of status.

An obsession with social status is hard-wired into our brains. As we have built a society that relies on cars, the bicycle has slipped to the periphery, and gone from being regarded as a sensible mode of transport, to a deviant fringe-dwellers choice.

Even though cycling to work has been shown to be one of the most effective things an individual can do to improve health and longevity, researcher David Horton thinks that there are a set of collective anxieties that are stopping us getting in the saddle. These include not just an unwillingness to be made vulnerable, but fear of being thought of as poor.

A quick look over the North Sea shows that there is an alternative. Danish culture has elevated cycling to the point of reverence, and the social status of cyclists has followed. As we have busied ourselves building infrastructure that testifies to the dominance of the car, Denmark has been creating magnificent architectural features, aimed specifically at bike users. The Cycle Snake, or Cykelslangen, literally suspends the cyclist above the city, metaphorically elevating the cyclist and creating a sense of ceremony.

In doing so, they are subtly persuading people of all backgrounds to see past their prejudices or fears and take it up as the clearly better choice. This means there are more women cycling, more older people cycling, and more ethnic minorities cycling. The activity is less dominated by comfortably middle class white males: there are cyclists from every side of the community.  

The Cykelslangen, under construction in 2014. Image: Ursula Bach and Dissing+Weitling architecture.

Despite abstract motivations like getting ripped and conquering global warming, it is only when the bike path becomes the obviously better choice that people will start to cycle. It can take years of traffic jams before people try an alternative, but if you make motorists jealous of cyclists, then the tables can quickly turn.

Another way that Copenhagen has done this is by taking privileges normally afforded only to the motorcar, and given them to the bike. The city has ensured that cycle routes do not include blind corners or dark tunnels, and that they form a complete, coherent network, and a steadily flowing system – one that allows cyclists to maintain a reasonable pace, and minimises the amount of times you have to put your foot down.

The ‘Green Wave’, for example, is a co-ordinated traffic light system on some of the main thoroughfares of the capital that helps minimise the amount of cycle congestion during peak times. It maintains a steady flow of cycle traffic, so that there is no need to stop at any point.

Small measures of prioritisation like this one increase the sense of safety and consideration that cyclists experience, making it natural for the citizens of a city to act in their own self-interest and get on their bike.

As well as redefining the streets around the bicycle, the Copenhagen Cycle Chic blog positively fetishises cyclists. The tagline “dress for your destination, not your journey” depicts the social fashion life of the cycle lane as a “never ending flow of happy people heading from A to B”. Its writers are  literally making cycling sexy, dispelling the idea that going anywhere by bike is odd, and helping the world to see that the bicycle is actually the ultimate fashion accessory.

So unlike in London, where cycling is still a predominantly male pursuit, Copenhagen sees a more even split between men and women. Not just because they feel safer on the roads, but because culturally they are comfortable with their appearance as part of a highly visible group.

So while our low level of cycling is partly due to our physical infrastructure, it is also due to our cultural attitudes. The mental roadblocks people have towards cycling can be overcome by infrastructure that is not only safe, but also brings old-fashioned notions of dignity and grace into the daily commute.

Of course, office shower facilities might stop cyclists being ostracised, too.