In Transit: In the era of GPS apps, is there still a place for paper maps?

By Marni Pyke

On a recent family road trip, I was blessed with advice from nondrivers in the car eager to whip out their navigation apps and offer directions.

But when I unfolded my trusty map to check a location, I was ridiculed for being an old fogy. It begs the question: Are paper maps obsolete?

Actually, "people do use maps," AAA's Molly Hart said. The drivers' club has produced more than 4.5 million navigation-related items this year, and the majority are maps or road atlases. "We had to increase the original run of atlases this year due to popular club demand," Hart said.

DePaul University professor and transportation expert Joseph Schwieterman brings "my frayed Rand McNally Road Atlas on all long trips. In some ways, it is a baby boomer's equivalent of a security blanket.

"There is a risk when using navigation apps that you'll have only a vague sense of whether you're going north, south, east, or west."

And "on vacations, spontaneity often goes by the wayside when you go totally digital since you are less aware of potential side trips or more scenic options," said Schwieterman, director of DePaul's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development.

Likewise, Harper College geography professor Mukila Maitha has "always loved maps from the time I was a kid up to now."

He recently took a road trip from Chicago to the Black Hills in South Dakota with a Rand McNally road atlas that proved invaluable in the rugged terrain.

Maitha tells his kids, "your atlas battery doesn't run out." Plus, they aren't subject to spotty cell service, don't need downloads, and won't break when dropped.

Apps are invaluable when you miss your exit on the interstate or need the quickest route through gridlock. But dispensing directions in 10-mile increments on a tiny screen is not the same as spreading a U.S. map out and visualizing a journey.

Everyone has a "mental map ... made up of both factual information about a place and also our own understanding and imagination about the place," Maitha said. Paper maps help build that mental map and provide spatial awareness, he explained.

A recent road trip renaissance was triggered by COVID-19 shutdowns, Rand McNally Publishing believes.

"Since 2021, paper maps have seen a resurgence in popularity, with unit sales increases of greater than 20%," the publisher said.

But what if you drive for a living?

Mid-West Truckers Association Executive Vice President Don Schaefer is the proud owner of a 2024 Rand McNally Motor Carrier Road Atlas purchased last week.

"I use them both," Schaefer said of apps and maps.

When planning out a route, "an atlas is good because it gives you a chance to get a visual," but apps are an essential tool every trucker uses, he said.

"We still depend on the old stuff, but we lean very heavily on GPS," Schaefer said. He noted his navigation system plotted "the craziest route" from Wrigleyville to his home in Springfield last week, but it still saved 20 minutes.

And although they may sometimes mix up Lower and Upper Wacker Drive, "every year, the apps are getting better," Maitha said.

As an alternative to ubiquitous apps like Google Maps and Waze, he suggests checking out Avenza, All Trails, GAIA GPS, and

Got an opinion on road maps or a good travel app to share? Drop an email to

Gridlock alert

September brings a major shift for drivers in the Hinsdale area with the closure of the northbound Tri-State Tollway ramp to eastbound Ogden Avenue starting Tuesday through October as part of a massive rebuild. Detours will be posted.

One more thing

Last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation fined American Airlines $4.1 million for keeping hundreds of passengers in planes on the tarmac for three hours or more. It's the largest penalty ever for breaking federal rules about tarmac delays. A DOT review between 2018 and 2021 found: "American allowed 43 domestic flights to remain on the tarmac for lengthy periods without providing passengers an opportunity to deplane."

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