Ingenious Infographic: U.S. Highways, Mapped Like A Subway System

Gimmicky, yes. But damn useful, too.

The graphic language of the London Underground map is so iconic that "[insert any network or process here] visualized as a London Underground map" has become a design cliché. So why are we writing about the latest iteration, a Tube-style map of U.S. interstate highways, created by Cameron Booth? Because, clichéd or not, visualizing this particular system in this way is actually damned useful.

The U.S. interstate system actually has a grid-like logic to it: Highways that go north/south are labeled with odd numbers, and highways that go east/west have even-numbered labels. Not that you’d be able to easily tell, though—much like the London Underground rail system, interstate highways look like an overturned plate of spaghetti when plotted on a geographically accurate map. I remember getting confused all the time when I was a kid living in northern Illinois: I-94 technically goes east/west, but between Chicago and Milwaukee, it actually goes north/south.

Chucking geographic accuracy for a Tube-style schematic makes much more sense for plotting routes on the U.S. interstate system. Like the London Underground, the interstate highways are all about connecting nodes and skipping the stuff in between. On the Tube, there’s no scenery between stations; as far as a rider is concerned, it’s like riding an elevator. So who cares if the clean, orthogonal lines connecting stations don’t completely correspond to geographic reality as long as the endpoints do?

Interstate navigation is the same: When you’re driving from New Jersey to San Francisco, you want to know which line will get you from point A to point B. You already know you’ll be generally traveling in a westbound direction, so why not just show I-80 as a nice, clear, straight red line cutting across the U.S.? It’s also useful to know what other major cities (and interstate connections) you’ll be passing through. No problem: Just like on the Tube map, cities are "stations" and intersections are "transfers."

Click to zoom.

Planning a cross-country trip with this map—and navigating your way during it—can be accomplished in seconds, and the map can be easily miniaturized without becoming hard to use. Sure beats fumbling with a Rand McNally map that never folds right, takes up the entire dashboard, and requires a jeweler’s loupe just to read. Maybe some enterprising member of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials—which designed the numbering system in the first place—could strike up a clever licensing deal with the London Underground and make this map official.

via Visual.ly; top image by Tim Roberts/Shutterstock.

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45 Comments

  • J O'neill

    Its a good concept for  high speed railways,cause the highway system in the us its to old to be fixed, it would take billions and billions to make it look like that,but straighter roads means less energy or gas to get to places with faster vehicles on wider highways,but its impossible to accomplished a project like that ,they would have to make a lot of tunnels crossing mountains and blow up mountains ,more ecological damage  and the metropolitan areas would have to be in the air,cause everything its so over populated.

  • Alexander Cohen

    It actually amazes me the number of people commenting here that feel the need to say this map is no good for driving. Of course it's not! It's not meant for you to plan your next trip from Seattle to Houston, it's meant as art. And in that regard, it's outstanding. I'll be ordering one for my wall. One small error, though: I-96 doesn't end in Detroit per se, it actually ends goes to the Canadian border at the Ambassador Bridge. There should be a little Canadian flag and "Windsor" at the end of I-96. Otherwise, fantastic.

  • Trainclightrail

    This design of map was started up in Montreal, Canada by The Montreal City Passenger Railway Company for early transportation network maps in that city and later expanded for the 1967 Expo67 Montreal Worlds Fair and the unveiling of the then new Montreal Metro System subway network which is still one of the finest subway networks in the world. This design was later adapted by Harry Beck for use in London in 1931 and many other subways and rail systems including Chicago, Toronto, New York, Seattle and Paris would also adopt this similar design for their subway and rail network maps. Previously to this design, subway maps were railroad tunnel maps in their topography.

    To adopt road maps in this method would be to create quite a colorful spaghetti and may be more confusing and confounding to an interpreter than following a standard 2-dimensional layout. However, maps where each street are colored differently is not a new design.

  • Mrwebb

    Good art; bad map. A map like this works for a subway system because it can show all the stops and all the train routes. The same can't be said for this map.

  • eleanorundeadgoat

    To those who are freaking out that this map is no good for driving: Obviously. How many cross-country trips have you taken where you never left the interstate until you reached your destination? This map implies, for example, that you can't get to Madison from Des Moines without going through Minnesota or Illinois, when in real life what you do is take US-151. And so on and so forth, as Bilbo Baggins once said "the road goes ever on and on" while trains require stations and therefore the tracks can't be extended and connected indefinitely. The analogy will never be perfect, and if we actually had a robust rail infrastructure in this country the network probably wouldn't look like this at all, all that rectangularity out west would be replaced by good old-fashioned hub-and-spoke connecting cities.

    I want TRAINS. We were supposed to get one, I would have been able to walk to the station from my apartment with a wheelie suitcase and a backpack. I really hate taking the bus to Chicago . . .

  • engineerscotty

    This map only includes 2di's (2-digit interstates, including I-4, I-5, and I-8, the main trunk routes).  There are some regionally-significant 3Dis that should probably merit mention as well--I580 in California, I-376 in Pennsylvania, and I-270 in Maryland come to mind as three obvious examples.

  • Martinas

    well that's not completely true , the 91 is an odd number and it goes east and west ! so i don't think that's the exact deal here.
    just saying .

  • guest

    It is a well established fact that the overall numbering scheme for the Interstate Highway System assigns even numbers to east-west routes and odd numbers to north-south routes.  Apparently, you are indiscriminately lumping all numbered freeways into the very specific category reserved for Federal Interstate Highways.  You are probably referring to California State Route 91, which runs east-west from Riverside to Gardena.  As this Wikipedia article explains, CA Route 91 (also referred to as the Gardena Expressway) inherited its number from the now defunct US Route 91.  US Routes are another class of Federal Highways -- think Route 66.  So simply saying "the" 91 goes east-west as an attempt to refute the Interstate numbering system, accomplishes nothing.  In the future you might want to get better educated about the roads you drive on before posting a comment on a discussion of Interstate Highways on a forum accessible globally.

  • Jonathon Barton

    *Interstate* 91 runs north and south from New Haven, CT to the Canadian Border - not sure which 91 you're referring to, Martinas...

  • Simon Field

    I'm sure that there are people who remember the debacle that ensued after Erik Spiekermann and numerous other people commented on Mark Nolan's redesign of the London Underground map posted on FastCo a while ago.

    (http://www.fastcodesign.com/16...

    Is the same logic not applicable here? This is a diagram of connections and obviously not a fully-functioning map. Not every city, highway and interstate can be displayed considering the scale of the USA, otherwise it would be far too complicated to read as a whole.

    Just remember that simplicity is far harder to achieve than complexity, this kind of application of a strong-standing concept is a good step in the right direction.

  • Stu

    Be thankful that your highway names are consistent! If the I-94 were in Australia, guarantee some bright spark would've come up with the brilliant idea of giving the section between Chicago and Milwaukee an odd number, because it technically runs north-south. Just that section, mind, and then when it turns back to an east-west highway, it'd get a third number. 

    Classic example; the CBD of Adelaide is a well-planned grid, very logical. Yet some streets change name up to 3 times within a 10km distance. Others change twice, others don't change at all. Some roads into the CBD are limited at 60km/h, others at 50km/h. Where I live, if I want to drive "around the block" (an 11km section of twisty, winding mountain roads) the name of the road and the speed limit changes no less than 9 times, varying from 50km/h to 100km/h and everything in between. 

    I've lived here my whole life and I still get lost, confused and frustrated! A good old US speghetti junction seems downright logical to me, at least it's signposted!!

  • stcoop

    Wow - what a tough crowd! No, perhaps I would not actually get in a car and navigate with this map - but I really doubt the designer created it for that purpose per all the points readers have already presented. But as an information designer, I greatly appreciate it for the exercise of simplification and the nod to a highly regarded piece of design history.There is nothing wrong with re-using a design strategy that time as proven to be as smart and successful as the original Metro map. 

    What this one does do successfully is offer an incredibly clear and simplified top-level view of the main transportation byways across the U.S. and in doing so, reveals for us much in the way of the historical growth pattern of our transportation system, as well as the connections and destination hubs that remain important culturally, socially or commercially. And that's what good information design does - it organizes, clarifies, and reveals information in a way that let's us understand something better, or see it differently than we've seen it before. Well done.

  • Jasonb8man

    Hi Jason, actually, that is exactly the point. Maps and signals are supposed to be really easy to read (stupid proof, like made for kids). To come up with a map like this is harder than it looks.  I am sorry Daniel..I fully appreciate your comments, ref semiotics, semantics & pragmatics. I have great affection for the study of visual communication, from the simple to sublime and ingenious (which is my exact point..its not ingenious) i actually did one of these that represented Japan,s network of roads over 2 years ago.. yes there's a lot of planning & research but hard?  ..it is not.

    I'm not sure where you live, but children don't drive where i come from.

  • Jasonb8man

    sorry but my son of 9 could do the very same with tube map in hand and an atlas of the uk.

  • Daniel Robinson

    Hi Jason, actually, that is exactly the point. Maps and signals are supposed to be really easy to read (stupid proof, like made for kids). To come up with a map like this is harder than it looks.