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 published some tables about Tube Capacity and they are amazing

Budge up. Image: Getty.

Have you ever wondered just how busy the tube is as you’re sardined in every morning? Or which the quietest tube line is in the depths of night?

Well it turns out that Transport for London (TfL) holds this data and quietly released it a few weeks ago in response to a written question to Sadiq Khan from Conservative London Assembly member Tony Devenish. He asked about the capacity on the tube and TfL decided to publish the data it has in the form of three excellent tables which I’m sure the audience of CityMetric will be poring over for some time.

So, most of this won’t be a surprise to many of you veteran commuters: trains being at or over capacity in the morning peak, busy again in the evening peak with a solid use through the rest of the day. However, the data does throw up some interesting nuggets of information about how busy the tube actually is.

Click to expand. Source: TfL.

One of the most surprising aspects is how busy the tube remains throughout the day. The Central Line in particular is at 66 per cent capacity from the moment the first train runs and doesn’t dip below 35 per cent throughout the rest of the day, even those late-night services past midnight. Indeed, all of the deep level lines are pretty well used all day.

In the morning peak between 8-9am, the 130 per cent capacity on the Northern Line will be a surprise to nobody, but that is nevertheless very high. The note underneath states that this was calculated this on the basis of standing at a density of 4 people per square metre, so 130 per cent is having 5 and a bit people in just a square metre, again something many of us are familiar with. The Central, Jubilee and Victoria Lines are also above 100 per cent, but it’s interesting to note the jump from 15 per cent to 82 per cent on the Waterloo & City (W&C) Line from 6-8am.

Compare that with just how quiet the Metropolitan and W&C are throughout the day and late at night. A grand total of no one uses the W&C before 6am (it isn’t open), with only 4 per cent using it after midnight. The other sub-surface lines are also relatively quiet after 9pm.

The other trend is the slight increase in use after 10pm on the Bakerloo, Central and Piccadilly Lines. This happens after the commuters go home by 8pm, so the usage dips before bouncing back. It is most likely due to more people making their way home after their evenings out in central London, but an interesting point.

Click to expand. Source: TfL.

The second table shows when capacity is over 50 per cent. Again, the Central Line is the busiest with 10 hours a day over half capacity, including before 6am, and the Northern remains busy until 9pm on a typical weekday.

However, the table shows the tube is only more than half full just 35 per cent of the time – something to remember when you’re crammed in at 8:34am. It would be interesting to see if the increase in flexible working has had an impact in recent years. And if you do work flexibly, you should get a quieter commute the earlier or later you head in – just avoid 8-9am.

Click to expand. Source: TfL.

The third table shows if all of the seats are taken on the tube. Amazingly they are all taken 71 per cent of the time, and are all taken all day on the Central, Jubilee and Victoria Lines. Again, the Metropolitan is your best bet for a seat, with seats being available for 14 hours a day. The W&C offers a seat for that short journey for 13 hours a day.


How might we expect these tables to change in the next few years? Well TfL recently announced it was extending the morning and evening peaks on the Victoria Line to three hours, with a train every 100 seconds, so those figures could drop. Also, the Four Lines Modernisation programme will see increased service on the Circle, District, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan Lines from 2023, so again TfL will be hoping for those numbers to drop as more trains become available. It will also be interesting to see this table once the Elizabeth Line Crossrail opens.

Thinking further ahead, when the New Tube for London rolling stock upgrade progamme finally arrives from the middle of the next decade onwards, it’ll mean more trains on the Piccadilly and Central Lines initially, followed by the Bakerloo (which could be extended) and W&C. But with population growth expected to continue in London, will it make much of a difference to these tables? Probably not.

Now, to find out what this table would look like for Night Tube, Overground, DLR and Trams…

James Potts tweets @JamesPotts.