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How To Make Infrastructure Sexy

Infrastructure is vital, but totally boring. One Chicago agency tries to spice things up with data viz.

Infrastructure is key to maintaining safe, efficient, people-friendly cities, but it’s not the most alluring topic. Road repairs and rail maintenance rarely command the same urgency as, say, school funding or policing. And that apathy has consequences: America’s aging transit systems, roads, gas lines, and other vital structures are falling into disrepair, and the bills to fix them keep growing.

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In northeastern Illinois, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) is combating disinterest among voters and lawmakers with web design. CMAP’s new mobility-themed website, which debuted last week, uses data visualization to make major economic issues like congestion, antiquated freight systems, and transit funding woes a little sexier–and a little more urgent.


Created by Netherlands-based interactive design agency Clever Franke, the site is based on GO TO 2040, CMAP’s plan for the seven counties surrounding Chicago as the region grows from approximately 8 million people to more than 10 million in the next 25 years. “We want to drive a narrative, not just push data,” says Clever Franke director Thomas Clever. “We want to tell a story–where the city of Chicago is right now, and where it’s heading toward.”

The site opens not on charts and graphs, but on a swirling satellite map of the region, overlaid by the city grid. Only one statistic is visible: the miles of road and rail built in the area. As you click into the site, you’re taken through several slides of briefly explaining why infrastructure matters to Chicago’s economy and well-being before launching into a slew of data visualizations organized around roads, transit, and freight infrastructure. One map presents a color-coded snapshot of highway traffic, showing the average speed of traffic flow on major thoroughfares on a weekday. Another visualizes access to transit, based on proximity, walkability, and frequency, through grids of different sized colored dots. Yet another tallies the number of delay hours faced by motorists at train crossings throughout the region, highlighting the impact of freight trains on productivity. CMAP plans to roll out two similar projects later this year on Chicago’s economy and livability.

In the end, the site makes a case for the improvements suggested by the 2040 plan, like express toll lanes and the implementation of bus rapid transit. “No one is going to read 300 pages for fun. It’s about informing stakeholders, and having it in bite-sized chunks,” Clever says.


The site is designed to appeal to both legislators who make decisions about infrastructure funding and the average citizen, who has probably never thought about infrastructure planning before. To appeal to the former, the designers highlighted economic aspects of infrastructure decay, like the 50-year cost of constructing expressways or the $20 billion needed to keep the regional transit system running at its best. For the general public, though, the billions of dollars in funding for capital projects can appear abstract. To make it more accessible for laymen, Clever Franke tried to relate abstract numbers to more everyday phenomena, like the time people spend stuck in traffic or how much every single car passing over a bridge costs the region in maintenance.

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“It’s definitely not a sexy topic to talk about, and it’s definitely not something that people want to spend money on,” Clever says of infrastructure investments. But “if you want to stay competitive as a region, you have to do something about it.”

About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut.

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