I love maps. I don’t know why, but I could spend hours just staring at Google Maps and looking at places I’ve been to or places I’d like to visit. From the urban sprawl of London or Paris to the desolate back roads of the Canadian wilderness, I just find it fascinating to peer at places. It’s not just electronic maps either – old A to Zs hold a curious fascination and I love looking at outdated plans and layouts of towns that have been redeveloped and changed dramatically over the years. It’s almost as if the past still exists between the pages of those archaic records of the physical world.
For the purpose of this article though, I’m mainly focusing on two things. Electronic maps, and trap streets. Trap streets were (or are) a method employed by cartographers where fake streets or non-existent towns were added to printed maps in order to catch out rival map producers. If cartographer A added an erroneous street or cul-de-sac to his or her map, and cartographer B’s map also included it, then it was obvious that the work had been copied. It’s a pretty ingenious way of catching copycats, and trap streets – or rather the search for them – has been something of a hobby of mine on and off for the last few years.
And so we turn our attention to the mystery of Oxygen Street. I’ll start at the beginning. I was absent-mindedly browsing the internet recently and decided to have a search for trap streets that exist on modern maps. Naturally, since the invention of sat navs and satellite imagery and their inclusion in Google Maps, Ordnance Survey maps, Open Street Map etc., adding trap streets is a pretty redundant practice these days. However, in the winding warrens of the UK’s medieval city layouts, it’s pretty realistic that some trap streets may have been discovered or added as homage to the practices of yore. This search lead me to this article on the Londonist website, which documents some more recent discoveries on the topic of trap streets (some of which appear to just be honest mistakes that were hastily erased when discovered). Scrolling down to the comments on the article, I noticed the mention of Oxygen Street and followed the link to this blog post from 2010 which only briefly mentions the street in question.
According to the author, Oxygen Street was a modern-day trap street included on Google Maps, that was present in a number of British towns and cities (Norwich, London, Durham, Lytham St Anne’s, Edinburgh and Birmingham among others), but which was always presented as a cul-de-sac of the same length…but which did not actually exist. Again, according to the author of the blog post, some time after discovering the various instances of Oxygen Street, he went back to find them…and they were gone. Eradicated from Google Maps as if they never existed. You can try it yourself – go to Google Maps and attempt to find Oxygen Street. While some exist in other parts of the world, there are exactly zero streets or roads or cul-de-sacs listed in Great Britain that go by the name Oxygen Street. So a literal dead end then? Not quite. Here’s where things get very interesting indeed.
If you own an Apple device, open the Apple Maps application. Search for Oxygen Street. This is what you’ll see (at least, at the time of writing in November 2017):
The fictitious Oxygen Streets of Great Britain are alive and well in Apple Maps, but search for them in literally any other mapping software and you will not find them. It gets more interesting though, because if you use the satellite imagery overlay in Apple’s mapping software, you can clearly see that every instance of Oxygen Street is a phantom road that invariably runs through houses or other buildings. Using street view in Google maps at the locations marked Oxygen Street in Apple Maps shows…well, nothing.
As an added bonus feature, Durham’s Oxygen Street is an offshoot of the equally spurious Langdale Way.
Tellingly, pretty much all of the Oxygen Streets displayed on Apple Maps are located in quiet suburbs and at the end of dead-end roads. The kinds of places where a fabricated address is likely to go unnoticed, quite simply because there are no addresses on these streets that go nowhere. Norwich’s Oxygen street is at the end of another cul-de-sac that ends with a playing field; likewise with Edinburgh’s. These are the kinds of places you’re never likely to be looking for, unless you know about this mysterious topic.
So, what’s to be done about Oxygen Street? Or Langdale Way? Hopefully nothing to be honest. I actually find it quite comforting in a strange way that these oddities of cartography exist and are just left there in stasis. As Apple Maps runs on TomTom’s mapping technology, I did log in to my TomTom Sports account and search the maps there too, and lo and behold Langdale Way and Oxygen Street in Durham are shown.
I did think about contacting TomTom to inquire about these fake streets, but I feared that alerting them directly could lead to all of the Oxygen Streets disappearing into thin air, and that would be a crying shame.
Below are the other instances of Oxygen Street from around the UK, preserved here for posterity lest they be eradicated from existence once and for all.