Why has Google Maps started shading bits of cities orange/brown instead of grey?

What's going on here then? Image: Google Maps.

One of the great things about being the world’s leading purveyor of urbanism for the social media ageTM is that, sometimes, people on social media come to you with interesting questions about how the world’s cities work.

One of the less great things is that, sometimes, you don’t know the answer.

Last night, David Freeborn asked the following:

This is a good question – one I’ve been wondering about myself. Not so long ago, Google Maps showed urban areas in a uniform grey. A few weeks ago, though, it’s started to show some of them in that brown/orange shade.

My first thought, having wasted the 90s playing SimCity, was that this is the difference between residential and commercial areas. The UK doesn’t zone its cities in blocks in the way the game, based on the American experience, did – but there is definitely an identifiable difference between, say, a town centre and a housing estate. So maybe the diverging colour schemes reflect that.

But that, confusingly, would mean the colleges of Oxford counted as “commercial” premises:

...but the area around Tottenham Court Road station in London’s West End doesn’t.

Which doesn’t really stack up.

So, to find out what is actually going on, I – what else? – Googled it. The search uncovered this Google blog post which explains things a bit.

As you explore the new map, you’ll notice areas shaded in orange representing “areas of interest”—places where there’s a lot of activities and things to do. To find an “area of interest” just open Google Maps and look around you. When you’ve found an orange-shaded area, zoom in to see more details about each venue and tap one for more info.

This, then, is why the orange areas are more commercial, but are neither entirely commercial, nor cover all commercial areas. “Areas of interest” are a more nebulous sort of category, covering, basically, the bits that are worth exploring.

So central Oxford shows up because Oxford colleges are the sort of things that might be of interest to the passing visitor; while that bit of central London doesn’t, presumably because construction works means there are fewer shops and restaurants there than in surrounding areas, and those which exist frankly aren’t that interesting.

Or that, at least, is the theory. I’m not entirely convinced by this one.

It’s certainly true that some bits of cities have more stuff to discover, a greater density of incident, than others – and these are more likely to look like downtowns than residential suburbs.

But, to go back to Oxford, why are University College and St Edmund Hall areas of interest, while New College or All Souls aren’t?

By the same token, why is the corner round Tottenham Court Road station grey, while equally unpromising stretches of nearby New Oxford Street are orange?

I’m sure the inconsistencies make perfect sense to the algorithm. I’m just not sure they make that much sense to the human mind.

One factor is probably the types of places Google classes as interesting, which are, more often than not, the sort of places where you can spend money. To quote that blogpost again:

We determine “areas of interest” with an algorithmic process that allows us to highlight the areas with the highest concentration of restaurants, bars and shops.

This probably makes sense if you’re a major multinational corporation selling advertising. But there’s an argument that an algorithm that thinks Trafalgar Square is less an “area of interest” than the restaurants across the road is not fit for purpose.

Most of us, I’m sure, can instinctively tell the difference between an area of a city that is worth exploring on foot, and one that isn’t. But defining that difference, and putting it into words, is rather harder.

And if you can’t define areas of interest, how you can accurately programme an algorithm to look for them?

“In high-density areas like NYC,” says Google, “we use a human touch to make sure we’re showing the most active areas.” Perhaps the human touch is needed elsewhere, too.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He tweets as @jonnelledge.

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TfL is offering you the chance to stop two proposed Bakerloo line stations from having stupid names

Bakerloo line trains at London Road depot, mournfully wishing they could continue their journey to the south. Image: Getty.

Ever wanted to name a tube station? Well boy is this your lucky week. The latest round of Transport for London's interminable consultation on the proposed extension of the Bakerloo line from Elephant & Castle to Lewisham, hopefully due to arrive at some point in the early 2030s, is asking your input into names.

Necessary background blah blah blah. The most efficient way of running a metro line is to have it cross the city. The Central Line, for example, doesn't just allow west Londoners to get into the city centre: it allows east Londoners to do the same, and for everyone to get about within the city centre to boot. All that and it's only one line. Amazing really, isn't it?

But the Bakerloo line, unusually, isn't doing all this, because it gets to the south-eastern-most edge of the city centre and then gives up. That doesn't just mean that south east London remains the bit of the capital most poorly served by TfL's rail network, although it does mean that – there are no stations inside the yellow box here, look:

The tube/rail desert, with the rough location of the proposed new stations marked. Image: Google Maps.

It also means that the line through the centre isn't pulling its weight compared to every other line, because it's a lot more useful to commuters coming from the north west than from the south east. That's great if you want to get a seat for the six minutes it takes to get from Elephant to Embankment. It's not great if you're, say, in charge of London's transport network and want to sweat your assets.

Anyway, the plan for some time has been to extend the line under New and Old Kent Roads, down to New Cross Gate and Lewisham. A later phase may see it take over the Hayes branch of the South Eastern Rail network, but one thing at a time. The official map of the proposal looks like this:

Ooooh. Image: TfL.

Old Kent Road 1 and Old Kent Road 2 are obviously rubbish names for stations, so the latest round of consultation suggests some alternatives: Old Kent Road or Burgess Park for the northern one, Old Kent Road or Asylum for the southern.

CityMetric has long argued that naming stations after roads is stupid: either the road is long enough that it's not a useful name because who knows if you’re at the right end or not, or short enough that it's only useful to people who already know an area. The fact that two different stations might revel in the name Old Kent Road seems to me to prove this point pretty nicely – so if I had my way TfL would go with Burgess Park and Asylum. The latter, named for both Asylum Road and, well, what used to be an asylum, seems particularly cool to me.

Alternatively, buses terminating at the former have sometimes said "Old Kent Road Dun Cow" after a long dead pub, and naming a tube station after some livestock is amusing too, so, Dun Cow, why not?


Meanwhile the latter site, next to the junction between Asylum Road and the Old Kent Road, is sometimes known as Canal Bridge, because it used to be where the Old Kent Road crossed the Surrey Canal. The latter is long gone – although more bridges across it remain in Burgess Park, which is nicely surreal – but naming tube stations after two things that aren't there any more would be amusing too.

Anyway, the point is: please don't call either of these stations Old Kent Road, the world is confusing enough as it is. Now go vote.

Incidentally, one thing TfL has already decided is that there won't be a third Old Kent Road station, at its northernmost point, the Bricklayers Arms junction. This seems a shame to me, but I suppose they know what they're doing.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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