No Dead Ends For the Map Man

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 1, 2000

Scouting the great metropolis, John Oakes finds the unknown corners not yet on your map. One day, you will need Oakes. He works the Edge of Sprawl.

Oakes drives the big van up to Fire Company 18's station in the Cascades section of Loudoun County. He's here to meet a source, Jason Collins, fire department technician and master of the streets. Collins has a couple of new roads to report, stuff that's not on any map. A shopping center has changed its name, and a street that didn't use to connect to two others suddenly does. Firefighters discover these things on their rounds, and Oakes knows it.

Collins hands Oakes the goods, Oakes pencils the info onto the old map and the two shake hands. Oakes leaves behind fresh maps.

Next stop: Maurice the Address King.

Oakes is the map man, chief of research for ADC, which publishes the ever-changing street atlases that are the bible of firefighters, cops, delivery people and commuters in a region bursting beyond its seams.

As soon as each new edition of the maps is published, Oakes and crew move on to the next version. Compare this year's Loudoun map with one from a decade ago, and entire pages that were once empty white sheets -- representing farmland, estates and forest -- are now dense green thickets of curling roads, spreading developments and metastasizing shopping centers and industrial parks.

Oakes gets much of his news about just-built streets and instant landmarks from the computerized geography services that most counties provide online. But at the edge of sprawl, where the speed of change is blinding, computers can't keep up with the bulldozers. That's when the map man gets in the car to work his sources. He's got them sprinkled around -- a school board friend who tips him to locations of new schools, someone in parks who helps out with new recreation facilities, map fans who pass along the contours of new developments, and always the firefighters, chroniclers of sprawl's every advance.

"It's really a big puzzle, and for each feature on the map, there's a contact," Oakes says. It's a tough business -- change never stops, and things aren't always what they seem. Oakes watches for "paper streets," roads that developers plan but never build, maybe because they run out of money, maybe just because things change.

Oakes pops in on Maurice Rioux, who runs Loudoun's office of addressing. Rioux's staff has tripled to three of late, busy mapping the latest sprawl, sifting through applications for names of new streets, assigning addresses to new houses. Loudoun has 6,546 streets, and 2,380 names are already reserved for future roads.

Rioux is a powerful fellow: When MCIWorldcom applies to name streets in its new headquarters complex "Hard Drive" and "Disk Drive," it's Rioux who says no;the law forbids names that might confuse 911 operators. Or someone wants to name a street Foxtale, but there's already a Foxtail, so no go.

The map man passes along tidbits he's picked up from his other sources and donates a pile of ADC products to the county. Rioux provides Loudoun's latest changes. Relationships matter on the edge of sprawl.

Next stop, Broadlands, a booming suburb along the Dulles Greenway, the privately built highway connecting Dulles Airport and Leesburg. Entire new developments have sprung up since Oakes last drove through.

Dump trucks rumble by in a never-ending parade, bulldozers tackle trees and workers raise yet another row of town houses.

The remaining swaths of white on Map 30 of the Loudoun book will be cluttered with swirling streets and tiny black schoolhouses in the next edition.

"They can't find enough help to put these houses up fast enough," Oakes says. To a guy who grew up in Annapolis cherishing the water and open spaces, all this construction doesn't exactly warm the heart. But he sees it from a different perspective now. "Keeps us employed."

© 2000 The Washington Post Company