Paper towns and trap streets: when mapmakers get it wrong on purpose

Argleton: actually a collection of fields. What's going on, Google? Image: Google Maps.

Bad news, folks. Much as we like to rely on them, and, in fact, view them as a lone source of stability in a confusing and ever-changing world, maps can be wrong. And not just wrong by accident. Wrong on purpose. 

The reason for this actually stems from maps' very purpose: that is, their attempts to accurately represent of the world around us. If you’re just documenting what’s already there, there’s nothing to stop other map-makers copying your work – and, if you’re as accurate as you’d like to be, you’d have no way to prove that they’d done so. 

So, to protect their work, many cartographers fall back on a simple trick: “easter eggs”. These are small errors or jokes buried somewhere in the map, which act as a kind of watermark for the map-maker: fake towns, say, or imaginary streets. This is great for map companies; but less great for those of us led astray by the mistakes.  


Mount Richard

In the 1970s, the official map of Boulder County, Colorado, contained a very misleading feature indeed. According to Mark Monmonier's How to Lie with Maps, the sketch of the Rocky Mountains included a peak called Mount Richard, which, as you may have guessed, didn’t exist. Sorry, confused mountain climbers. 

It’s assumed that this was a matter of avoiding imitation – though the coincidence of its drafters name, Richard Ciacci, suggests ego might have had something to do with it, too. 

London's trap streets

According to a BBC2 programme broadcast in 2005, London’s A-Z street atlas contains around 100 “trap streets”: made-up roads used to trick imitators. Most are small, connecting streets between larger arteries, such as Moat Lane in Finchley.

There are other idiosyncrasies, too – for a while, Haggerston park appeared to have its own ski slope:

Agloe, New York

This example is particularly uncanny, as the fake settlement (often called a “paper town”) actually became a reality. In the 1930s, cartographers placed a non-existant town called Agloe on a map of Delaware county, New York state. In 1950, a general store was built in the area. It was near “Agloe” on the map, so its owners named it “Agloe General Store”.

Beatosu and Goblu

OK, this one doesn’t have much to do with copyright at all. Beatosu and Goblu were two made-up Ohio towns, inserted into the 1978-79 official map of the neighbouring state of Michigan. Go Blue was the slogan of the University of Michigan; Ohio State University (OSU) was its rival. Peter fletcher, chairman of the state highway commission and University of Michigan alumnus, asked the map's cartographer to include the fake towns as a dig at his rival college.

You gotta get your kicks somewhere, I guess. 

Argleton 

This was a mysterious town marked out on Google Maps near the West Lancashire village of Aughton. It was discovered, and brought to the internet's attention, by Mike Nolan, an employee at Edge Hill University, in 2008, but was only removed last year.

Google have kept quiet on their reasoning for the town’s existence, and the long interlude before its removal – though it’s possible that, like creators of physical maps, they just wanted a way to protect their content.

Alternatively, keen-eyed commentators have pointed out that the town’s name is an anagram for “Not Real G” and “Not Large”. (Also, according to our independent research, ”Angle Rot” and “No Gel Rat”). Perhaps we’ll never know. 

 
 
 
 

London’s rail and tube map is out of control

Aaaaaargh. Image: Getty.

The geographical limits of London’s official rail maps have always been slightly arbitrary. Far-flung commuter towns like Amersham, Chesham and Epping are all on there, because they have tube stations. Meanwhile, places like Esher or Walton-on-Thames – much closer to the city proper, inside the M25, and a contiguous part of the built up area – aren’t, because they fall outside the Greater London and aren’t served by Transport for London (TfL) services. This is pretty aggravating, but we are where we are.

But then a few years ago, TfL decided to show more non-London services on its combined Tube & Rail Map. It started with a few stations slightly outside the city limits, but where you could you use your Oyster card. Then said card started being accepted at Gatwick Airport station – and so, since how to get to a major airport is a fairly useful piece of information to impart to passengers, TfL’s cartographers added that line too, even though it meant including stations bloody miles away.

And now the latest version seems to have cast all logic to the wind. Look at this:

Oh, no. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

The logic for including the line to Reading is that it’s now served by TfL Rail, a route which will be part of the Elizabeth Line/Crossrail, when they eventually, finally happen. But you can tell something’s gone wrong here from the fact that showing the route, to a town which is well known for being directly west of London, requires an awkward right-angle which makes it look like the line turns north, presumably because otherwise there’d be no way of showing it on the map.

What’s more, this means that a station 36 miles from central London gets to be on the map, while Esher – barely a third of that distance out – doesn’t. Nor does Windsor & Eton Central, because it’s served by a branchline from Slough rather than TfL Rail trains, even though as a fairly major tourist destination it’d probably be the sort of place that at least some users of this map might want to know how to get to.

There’s more. Luton Airport Parkway is now on the map, presumably on the basis that Gatwick is. But that station doesn’t accept Oyster cards yet, so you get this:

Gah. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

There’s a line, incidentally, between Watford Junction and St Albans Abbey, which is just down the road from St Albans City. Is that line shown on the map? No it is not.

Also not shown on the map: either Luton itself, just one stop up the line from Luton Airport Parkway, or Stansted Airport, even though it’s an airport and not much further out than places which are on the map. Somewhere that is, however, is Welwyn Garden City, which doesn’t accept Oyster, isn’t served by TfL trains and also – this feels important – isn’t an airport.

And meanwhile a large chunk of Surrey suburbia inside the M25 isn’t shown, even though it must have a greater claim to be a part of London’s rail network than bloody Reading.

The result of all these decisions is that the map covers an entirely baffling area whose shape makes no sense whatsoever. Here’s an extremely rough map:

Just, what? Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

I mean that’s just ridiculous isn’t it.

While we’re at it: the latest version shows the piers from which you can get boats on the Thames. Except for when it doesn’t because they’re not near a station – for example, Greenland Pier, just across the Thames to the west of the Isle of Dogs, shown here with CityMetric’s usual artistic flair.

Spot the missing pier. You can’t, because it’s missing. Image: TfL/CityMetric.

I’m sure there must be a logic to all of this. It’s just that I fear the logic is “what makes life easier for the TfL cartography team” rather than “what is actually valuable information for London’s rail passengers”.

And don’t even get me started on this monstrosity.

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