Google's time machine will show changes in development and nature


I like to play the “used to be” game. While walking around my hometown with friends, I point to a storefront — one of the snazzier restaurants in town, say — and say, “That used to be this weird little store that carried everything from comic books to frogs in formaldehyde, all left over from the fifties — the hipsters would love it!” Without fail, my friends then yawn in amazement and stupefied awe. I’m kind of like a walking time machine, spouting out the urban landscape equivalent of those before-and-after diet pill photos.

So you can imagine my excitement when I saw the headlines saying that Google’s Street View maps now had a “time travel” function. I could play the “used to be” game all over the world, from the comfort of my own desk. With the click of my mouse, I’d be able to watch that weird old store transform into snazzy restaurant — instant gentrification! So I went to Google maps, found the restaurant, went to Street View and clicked on the little clock in the upper right hand corner.

A bulldozed piece of land becomes a neighborhood in this suburban Phoenix neighborhood. Source: Google Street View.

Disappointment fell on me like a shower of formaldehyded frogs. It turns out that Google didn’t send its panopticam cars all over the place back in the 70s or 80s or even the early Aughts. And so, the trip through Street View time is a short one, at least for now. The earliest views I can find are from 2007, with the most recent in 2013. That’s just not enough time for drastic changes to happen in the street- and road-scape, especially during a major recession. The exceptions, of course, are places that happened to get hit by a massive natural disaster between the earliest Google car visit and more recent ones, e.g. Fukushima in Japan: Where once stood a town, now there is none.

But finding such places isn’t easy. One of the major weaknesses of the time travel feature is that you don’t know what time range — if any — is available for a particular place until you are actually in Street View. I had to “go” to the bridge just beneath Glen Canyon Dam to find out that there is no time travel there at all, meaning I couldn’t watch Lake Powell shrinking. When I clicked my cursor on Williston, N.D., a place that had an oil boom while everywhere else was busting, I found that the longest time trip I could take was from 2007 to 2009. It wasn’t a big enough window through which to see the town’s transformation.

As I was about to give up on this whole time travel thing, it occurred to me that I should try a place that I know has changed a lot since 2007, and that is populated enough that the Google car would have made several trips there. The greater Phoenix-metro area is, of course, infamous for growth over the years: Its developers have replaced saguaros with subdivisions at an alarming rate. Of course, the place is also well-known for having a massive housing bust and, indeed, that growth almost came to a standstill, at least in the fringes, after 2006.

But lately I’ve been looking into a different kind of development in Phoenix — the kind that happens in the urban core, and that follows mass transit. A light rail line in Tempe and Phoenix (with a little bit in Mesa) went into operation in 2008, in the depths of the recession. It spawned huge changes, with empty lots getting filled up with big new buildings, and in one case, a bizarre 70s-era architectural-blunder is now a pop-up park. In those cases, the time travel function not only allows you to toggle back and forth between 2007 and 2013, but you can also see in-between years and watch the transformation in increments.

Over time, this tool — a bit of a novelty now — will become increasingly valuable. It will allow us to see changes not only in our built environment, but also the natural one, at least in places through which the Google cameras regularly travel. This cyber time travel isn’t yet available for the Grand Canyon, though Street View is. But I imagine it will happen. It’s only a matter of time.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. He tweets @jonnypeace.

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