Help Find London's Missing Map Traps!

Three down, only 97 to go...

Haggerston, an area in the Borough of Hackney, northeast London, is notable for few things. For its Hackney City Farm. For its Haggerston School, designed by Ernö Goldfinger. For its long association with clowning [1]. And for famous residents such as comet-namegiver Edmund Halley and psychogeographer Iain Sinclair. 


All of which you might know from living locally or from looking it up on Wikipedia. But neither option will have informed you of the exciting skiing facilities available in Haggerston. For that, you'll have to consult the London A to Z. There it is, in the middle of Haggerston Park, next to the City Farm: a Ski Slope!

Now you ski it...

Stick your slats on the Overground to Hoxton or the Central Line to Bethnal Green, drag them another mile to said location... and the only thing going rapidly downhill will be your good cheer. London's landmark street guide has been lying to you. There is no ski slope at Haggerston Park. But the power of maps is such that the local Haggerston Park Users Group in 2010 devoted at least one of its meetings to finding out why that ski slope was mentioned in the A-Z. The conclusion, included in the minutiae of that meeting: "There is no evidence that there has ever been a ski slope and it is thought to possibly be an Ordnance Survey blip?"

The London A-Z is one of my favourite books. When I still lived in the city that King Lud built, my battered copy guided me everywhere within Zones 1 and 2. And when online mapping took over that job, I still took it along. Its batteries never wore out, and it never required an internet connection. And no online map is as beautiful, or feels as canonical, as the ones between its covers.

... Now you don't (in my copy of the A-Z).

But the Guide to all of London (sorry, Zones 3 to 9) is not flawless. Even more shockingly, its imperfections are deliberate. The London A-Z contains so-called map traps: non-existent features inserted into the map to catch out unauthorised copiers of the original. The phenomenon is well-known and widespread. The fake entries can take the form of so-called trap streets, deliberately altered street widths, erroneous elevations or depths, or even whole "paper towns" (see #643 for more on the curious case of Agloe, New York — the paper town that came to life).

The London A-Z is said to contain about 100 trap streets (or other map traps), one for each of its pages. That rumour seems to stem from a quote to that effect by a spokesperson of the Geographer's A-Z Street Atlas company, which produces the London A-Z, in Map Man, a BBC TV program from 2005.

On the one hand, it makes sense to put a trap on every page that can be copied separately. On the other hand: That sounds just a bit too much like an urban legend. Especially considering the evidence of trap streets in the London A to Z. Which is close to zero.

The example that keeps cropping up in any abortive list is Bartlett Place, named after Kieran Bartlett, an employee at the Geographer's A-Z Street Atlas company. In my opinion, not a "pure" trap street, as it merely mis-labelled an existing pedestrian walkway, which in more recent editions has anyway reverted to its true name, roadway Walk.

A lesser-known example was discovered by arts student Maisie Ann Bowes in the course of a project on "location" for the London College of Communication. In a blog entry dated October 23, 2013, she describes the process: “I started by photocopying pages of the A-Z, and comparing the roads on it to the roads on Google Maps, checking one by one that the roads matched up by crossing them out. This was a long, tedious process, but I found one on the first page.”

Whitfield Road in the A-Z.

No Whitfield Road on Google Maps.

What she found was Whitfield Road. In her A-Z (and my edition too), it's the continuation of General Wolfe Road on the south side of Shooters Hill Road, connecting it to Hare and Billet Road. But on other maps, and in real life, there's just the unbroken green of Blackheath Common.

And then there's The Great Wen, a great London blog, which discussed the Haggerston Park Ski Slope late last year, after a reader sent in a picture of the strange map trap. The blog notes that the ski slope “hasn’t been used for about a decade” in the A to Z. Are map traps being eliminated, or simply replaced upon discovery?

Either way, the gap between the 100 traps supposedly hiding in the A-Z and the measly trio described here is far too great. We're stuck in a cartographic Catch-22: It's virtually impossible to prove that there aren't a hundred map traps hidden in the A-Z. But it's equally difficult to identify any trap streets, phantom alleys, or other spectral street architecture on its maps — let alone all of them.

For consolation, we turn from unfindable real trap streets to a fictional one, so beautifully described in China Miéville's Kraken:

Don't you know what a trap street is? The cult collector had said, and no she had not, but a moment online sorted that. Invented streets inserted into maps to right copyright wrongs, to prove one representation was ripped off from another. It was hard to find any definitive lists of these spurious enmapped locations, but there were suggestions. One of which, of course, was the street on which the Old Queen was.

“So. Was it that these particular occult streets had been made, then hidden? Their names leaked as traps in an elaborate double-bluff, so that no one could go except those who knew that such traps were actually destinations? Or where there really no streets there when the traps were set? Perhaps these cul-de-sacs were residues, yawned into illicit existence when the atlases were drawn up by liars.”

How to trap a trap street: lots of legwork.

Even Miéville acknowledges that trap streets are hard to find. So is that the end of it? Surely not! I say we crowdsource ourselves out of this impasse, and follow in the footsteps of Bowes. Who, by systematically pacing up and down London's streets unwittingly copied the method Phyllis Pearsall used to compile the original A-Z, back in 1930s [2]. And so shall we. Or rather, anyone with an A-Z of London, and a few days to spare. Pick a page. Walk the streets. Compare to Google Maps and other sources. Tease out the differences. And help the map nerd community finally find London's 97 missing map traps!

Image of the Haggerston Park Ski Slope taken here from The Great Wen. The slopeless version from my own A-Z. Battered front cover picture also mine. Images of Whitfield Road and environs taken here from Maisie Said What.

Strange Maps #707

Please send any found map traps (or any other map suggestions) to strangemaps@gmail.com.

[1] The local Holy Trinity Church hosts an annual clowns' service to commemorate Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837), the father of modern clowning. 

[2] But never did, according to her half-brother, Alex Gross.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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