Remembering LineDrive

Once upon a time, there was a website called MapBlast. This was during the wild frontier days of online road maps about ten years ago, when MapQuest was king and Google Maps was but a gleam in the eye of a couple of Danish guys in Australia. MapBlast never seemed to me to be more than a minor player during these days, but it had one special feature that made it my website of choice for route planning: LineDrive directions.

Then, as now, all the other online mapping services gave you route maps that looked like this, a highlighted route drawn onto a standard road map:

MapBlast, though, could give you what they called LineDrive directions, a linear cartogram of your trip that looked like this:

LineDrive was developed by Maneesh Agrawala, Chris Stolte, and Christian Chabot at Stanford University, and they describe their system in a 2001 paper if you’re interested in the details. What is most interesting to me is the creators’ inspiration for LineDrive: hand-drawn route maps. While most online mapping services were, and still are, patterned after paper road atlases, LineDrive was designed to look like what you might quickly sketch on a napkin.

Grabbed from the above-mentioned paper. Probably not done on an actual napkin.

This starting point leads to something quite remarkable. Hand-drawn route maps are custom products — they’re for just a few people, and are about going between one specific place and another. A road atlas, on the other hand, is the same for everyone. It doesn’t change based on the situation. It’s multipurpose, which is quite valuable, but it’s not as effective for a given route as something customized.

When the Web came along, the mapping services that came online simply translated the idea of a paper road atlas into its digital equivalent. They added a few enhancements — you could zoom in and out or draw routes on them, but it was fundamentally the same thing. It was still multipurpose, not customized. When mapping services today talk about customization, they mean that you get to draw a blue line on top of their map or add a picture of a pushpin. But the map is always the same for everyone. LineDrive’s most remarkable feature was that it gave everyone their own map, fully customized to their specific situation. It should have been revolutionary, but it turns out that nothing ever came of it, at least in the realm of online driving directions.

I did not apprehend the significance of this development at the time. Instead, I merely loved the design. It was brilliant. Clean, simple, effective. It tells you everything you need to know about how to get from A to B, and it tells you nothing else. There is no clutter. It does not take up my time or printer ink with roads I won’t be using, or cities hundreds of miles from those I’ll be passing through. I can look at this map quickly while driving. I don’t have to hunt around the page to find the little blue line that contains the path information I need — everything on this page is there because it’s essential.

The LineDrive map shows every detail of the whole route at once by distorting scale. It makes the short legs of the trip look longer, and the long legs shorter, so that everything is visible on the same page at once. With a more traditional road map, either in an atlas or printed off of Google/Bing/etc., I would actually need several maps at different scales to cover each part of the route — zooming in to Madison to show how I get to the highway, then zooming out to show the highway portion of the trip, etc. LineDrive fits everything on the same page, and it does so legibly. Again, it’s customized, which is what gives it value.

Since the scale changes, the length of each leg drawn on the map doesn’t correspond to the same distance. Therefore each line is marked with its distance, so you don’t lose that valuable information. In fact, distance is presented more clearly than on a standard road map. If I wanted to figure out how long each leg of my trip was on Google’s map, I’d have to go compare each one to the scale bar in the corner, measuring it out bit by bit. Or, I’d have to check the written directions. It’s not usually presented clearly on the map itself. For me, LineDrive eliminates the need for a verbal listing of directions accompanying the map. They can be clearly read out from the map itself, distances and turn directions and all.

This map doesn’t do everything, to be sure. It’s only good for getting from one place to another. It’s very purpose-specific, and there are plenty of things that more standard traditional print and online road maps can do that this can’t. It won’t tell you where the city you’re driving to actually is, or what’s nearby. You can’t deviate from the path, so you can’t react to road closures or changes of plan by switching roads. You don’t know the names of the towns you’ll be passing through. Within its particular niche, though, LineDrive was very, very effective, just like the hand-drawn maps it was inspired by.

I have never understood why it did not catch on. Perhaps most people don’t usually use the map to drive the route — the verbal directions tell them where to go more clearly. Perhaps they only have the map to plan routes, not to follow them. The map may be used for reviewing the route before you begin, or re-routing in case of emergency. I’m not sure if any of this is true; it’s just idle speculation. If it is true, though, then LineDrive doesn’t offer any advantages — it doesn’t explain the route any more clearly than verbal directions, and it doesn’t let you do any route planning.

Alas, it died too soon. Microsoft bought MapBlast in 2002 and closed them down. They took the LineDrive technology and kept it going on their own map service, MSN Maps & Directions, until 2005. The site stopped updating in 2005, however, and Microsoft’s subsequent mapping endeavors don’t appear to offer LineDrive as an option. You can still access the old 2005 site, however, at (EDIT 10/19/11: Microsoft appears to have finally taken MapBlast offline. Maybe traffic from this post reminded them that they’d left it up.) In generating a sample image for this post, I noticed that the database has quite a few holes and errors in it, so I wouldn’t trust the directions it gives. It’s merely a relic of a different era. If you try it, be sure to check out the standard map directions, too, in addition to the LineDrive ones — it’s a nice reminder of just how far online road map design has come in the past few years.

LineDrive was something truly different. MapBlast’s competitors offered a slightly enhanced version of the paper road atlas. MapBlast offered this, too, but they would also give you your own version of a hand-drawn route map for anywhere you wanted to go, at a moment’s notice. I feel like LineDrive made much more effective use of the power computers can bring to cartography than other online mapping services have. It was a more creative re-thinking of what the digital revolution could do for map-making.

I never used to draw route maps by hand; I would simply write verbal directions and bring an atlas. Discovering LineDrive changed that, though. Every long and unfamiliar trip since then has started with me taking pen to paper and sketching out a simple linear cartogram to get me where I want to go.