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The Problem With Our Maps

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Maps shape our understanding of the world—and in an increasingly interconnected and global economy, this geographic knowledge is more important than ever.

Unfortunately, billions of people around the world have a skewed perception of the true size of countries thanks to a cartographic technique called the Mercator projection. Used just about everywhere, from classroom wall maps to navigation apps, the Mercator projection is the way most of humanity recognizes the position and size of Earth’s continents.

The Mercator Projection

The Mercator Projection Map

In 1569, the great cartographer, Gerardus Mercator, created a revolutionary new map based on a cylindrical projection. The new map was well-suited to nautical navigation since every line on the sphere is a constant course, or loxodrome. In modern times, this is particularly useful since the Earth can be depicted in a seamless way in online mapping applications.

That said, in this projection style, the sizes of landmasses become increasingly distorted the further away from the equator they get. One trade-off for the utility of Mercator’s map is that it pumps up the sizes of Europe and North America. Visually speaking, Canada and Russia appear to take up approximately 25% of the Earth’s landmass, when in reality they occupy a mere 5%. When Antarctica is excluded (as it often is), Canada and Russia’s visual share of landmass jumps to about 40%.

Canada is the second largest country in the world, but not by much. Here is an “at scale” look at Canada, the United States, and Mexico.

Canada, USA, Mexico Size Comparison Map

Africa, South Asia, and South America all appear much smaller in relation to countries further from the equator.

And from a North American perspective, countries such as Australia and Indonesia appear much smaller than they actually are. Comparing the landmasses on the same latitude as Canada helps put sizes into perspective.

Indonesia and Australia distorion

Greenland is the world’s largest island, but looking at its hyper-exaggerated depiction in the map below, you’d be forgiven for wondering why it isn’t a stand-alone continent. In reality, Greenland is about fourteen times smaller than Africa.

Greenland map distortion

Is Bigger Better?

Though Mercator’s map was never intended for use as the default wall map in schools around the world, it has shaped the worldviews of billions of people. Critics of the map—and similar projections—suggest that distortion reinforces a sense of colonialist superiority. As well, the amount of territory a country occupies is often correlated with power and access to natural resources, and map distortions can have the effect of inadvertently diminishing nations closer to the equator.

In our society we unconsciously equate size with importance and even power. – Salvatore Natoli, Educational Affairs Director, AAG

A prime example of this argument is the “True Size of Africa” graphic, which demonstrated to millions of people just how big the continent is.

true size of africa map graphic

Growing awareness of map distortion is translating into concrete change. Boston public schools, for example, recently switched to the Gall-Peters projection, which more accurately depicts the true size of landmasses.

Gall-Peters map

As well, Google, whose map app is used by approximately one billion people per month, took the bold step of using different projections for different purposes in 2018. The Earth is depicted as a globe at further zoom levels, sidestepping map projection issues completely and displaying the world as it actually is: round.

The Road to Equal-Area Mapping

In 1805, mathematician and astronomer, Karl Mollweide, created a namesake projection that trades accuracy of angles and shape for accuracy of proportion. The Mollweide projection has inspired many other attempts at a user-friendly equal area map.

Mollweide Map Projection

John Paul Goode’s attempt, known as the Goode Homolosine Projection, took this concept a step further by adding interruptions at strategic locations to help reduce the distortion of continents. The resulting shape is sometimes referred to as an “orange peel map”.

Goode Homolosine Map Projection

Another evolution in cartography was the Dymaxion map, invented by Buckminster Fuller and patented in 1946. In this version, the continents are no longer in their familiar positions—however, there is more spacial fidelity than in previous projection methods. We’re able to see the true proportions of Africa, Northern Canada, Antarctica, and other distortion hot spots.

The Dymaxion map wasn’t created for purely practical purposes. Fuller believed that humans would be better equipped to address global challenges if they were given a way to visualize the Earth’s continents in a contiguous manner.

Dymaxion map

The AuthaGraph Map

Using a new map-making method called AuthaGraph, Japanese architect, Hajime Narukawa, may have created the most accurate map of the world yet. AuthaGraph divides the globe into 96 triangles, transfers them to a tetrahedron and unfolds into a rectangle.

The end result? Landmasses and seas are more accurately proportioned than in traditional projections.

Authagraph map

The biggest downfall of the AuthaGraph map is that longitude and latitude lines are no longer a tidy grid. As well, continents on the map are repositioned in a way that will be unfamiliar to a population that is already geographically challenged.

That said, depicting our round world on a flat surface will always come with some trade-offs. As demand grows for a true equal-area map, it will be exciting to see what the next generation of map projections have to offer.

Map It Yourself

Looking to learn more about maps and map projections? This fantastic tool, created by Florian Ledermann, allows users to take a vast selection of projection styles, and modify them in different ways. This hands-on approach is a fun way to learn how the shape of landmasses shift as the projection changes.

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Markets

Who Owns the Most Vehicles per Capita, by Country?

Here are the highest vehicles per capita by country as a growing global middle class is fueling car ownership rates around the world.

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This bar graph shows the number of vehicles per 1,000 people around the world.

Who Owns the Most Vehicles per Capita, by Country?

This was originally posted on our Voronoi app. Download the app for free on iOS or Android and discover incredible data-driven charts from a variety of trusted sources.

In 2020, there were 289 million vehicles in use in America, or about 18% of the global total.

With one of the largest car ownership rates worldwide, the number of U.S. cars on the road have more than doubled since the 1960s. But how does ownership compare to other countries, and who is seeing the fastest growth rates amid a rising global middle class?

This graphic shows vehicles per capita by country, based on data from the International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers (OICA).

Highest Car Ownership Rates Worldwide

Below, we rank countries based on the number of registered vehicles in use per 1,000 people, including both passenger cars and commercial vehicles as of 2020:

CountryNumber of Vehicles in Use
per 1000 Inhabitants
Average Annual Growth Rate
2015-2020
🇳🇿 New Zealand8693%
🇺🇸 U.S.8602%
🇵🇱 Poland7614%
🇮🇹 Italy7561%
🇦🇺 Australia7372%
🇨🇦 Canada7073%
🇫🇷 France7041%
🇨🇿 Czechia6583%
🇵🇹 Portugal6402%
🇳🇴 Norway6351%
🇦🇹 Austria6322%
🇬🇧 UK6322%
🇩🇪 Germany6272%
🇪🇸 Spain6272%
🇬🇷 Greece6171%
🇯🇵 Japan6120%
🇨🇭 Switzerland6041%
🇧🇪 Belgium5901%
🇳🇱 Netherlands5882%
🇫🇮 Finland5771%
🇸🇪 Sweden5441%
🇩🇰 Denmark5402%
🇮🇪 Ireland5403%
🇲🇾 Malaysia5356%
🇸🇰 Slovakia5133%
🇱🇾 Libya4904%
🇧🇬 Bulgaria485-1%
🇭🇷 Croatia4743%
🇸🇾 Syria4727%
🇭🇺 Hungary4634%
🇰🇷 South Korea4582%
🇷🇴 Romania4387%
🇮🇱 Israel4044%
🇷🇺 Russia3892%
🇧🇾 Belarus3871%
🇲🇽 Mexico3584%
🇹🇼 Taiwan3441%
🇦🇪 UAE3438%
🇷🇸 Serbia3304%
🇦🇷 Argentina3110%
🇹🇭 Thailand2775%
🇨🇱 Chile2461%
🇰🇿 Kazakhstan226-1%
🇨🇳 China22314%
🇹🇷 Türkiye2204%
🇧🇷 Brazil2141%
🇺🇦 Ukraine192-1%
🇮🇷 Iran1832%
🇿🇦 South Africa1761%
🇪🇨 Ecuador1523%
🇻🇪 Venezuela149-1%
🇩🇿 Algeria1443%
🇲🇦 Morocco1124%
🇨🇴 Colombia1111%
🇮🇶 Iraq1114%
🇵🇪 Peru884%
🇮🇩 Indonesia785%
🇪🇬 Egypt644%
🇳🇬 Nigeria565%
🇻🇳 Vietnam5017%
🇵🇭 Philippines383%
🇮🇳 India3310%
🇵🇰 Pakistan207%

Clinching top spot is New Zealand, a country known for its love of cars.

With nearly nine cars on the road to every 10 people, this figure is notably high considering that children make up about 20% of the population. The majority of cars are imported second hand from Japan thanks to a wave of deregulation in the 1980s along with the country being a major producer of right-hand drive cars.

The U.S. falls close behind, with a clear preference for trucks and SUVs. In fact, the Ford F-1 Series has been the best-selling vehicle in America for 42 consecutive years.

In Europe, Poland has the highest number of vehicles per person, but one of the lowest share of electric vehicles (EVs). While EVs make up nearly 16% of all cars in top-ranking country Norway, they comprise 0.1% in Poland. On average, EVs account for 0.8% of passenger cars in the European Union.

Driven by an expanding middle class, Vietnam has seen the fastest growth in ownership. Between 2015 and 2020, the motorization rate grew by an astonishing 17% each year. Additionally, China witnessed 14% growth while India’s vehicles per 1,000 people increased 10% annually over the period.

The Top EV Markets, by Country

As EV sales gain momentum, here are the biggest markets worldwide, based on the number of all-EV cars in use as of 2022:

CountryEstimated Number of EVs in Use
2022
🇨🇳 China11,000,000
🇺🇸 U.S.2,100,000
🇩🇪 Germany1,000,000
🇫🇷 France620,000
🇳🇴 Norway590,000
🇬🇧 UK550,000
🇳🇱 Netherlands340,000
🇰🇷 South Korea300,000
🇨🇦 Canada250,000
🇯🇵 Japan210,000

Source: IEA Global EV Outlook 2023

China is home to over half of the world’s EVs.

Its foothold on the global EV market can be explained by its close proximity to the raw materials used in EV batteries. In fact, China produces roughly 70% of the world’s rare earth metals and has more battery production capacity than all other countries combined.

Adding to this, China developed key government policies that specifically tackled operational hurdles, such as battery constraints, leading to innovation in core technologies. In 2023, EVs made up 31% of all car sales in China, boosted by government incentives and strong consumer demand.

Norway is another leader in the EV market, whose government began introducing EV policies as early as 1990. By 2025, the country aims to phase out internal combustion engine vehicle sales completely. About 80% of all vehicles sales in Norway were EVs in 2022, the highest in the world.

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