Good maps do much more than simply tell you how to get from point A to point B. They tell stories of how people and places came to be, why certain routes go a certain way, and what features can make a journey far more important than the destination.
The eternally misfolded gas station maps that once crammed our vehicles’ glove compartments are a far cry from products created using digital mapping and GIS technologies, bringing a trove of valuable new information—and stories—to everyone from resource managers to vacationing families.
Don’t think that infrastructure buffs have been left out. Washington Post blogger Christopher Ingraham recently reported on a map derived from FHWA’s National Bridge Inventory that shows all 600,000 highway bridges in the U.S. longer than 20 feet. Ingraham notes that the map, “illustrates the ubiquity of America’s bridges—it’s basically impossible to go for a drive in any densely populated area and not cross one.

For those who want to be sure pavement is adequately represented, Boston-based design and cartography firm Fathom offers its All Streets series of posters, depicting 240 million individual U.S. road segments derived from the U.S. Census Bureau’s TIGER/Line data. (Software engineer Nelson Minar has produced a similar map All Rivers, showing all the  waterways in the 48 contiguous U.S. states.) All Streets posters are now available for individual states and several countries.

What makes these maps particularly interesting is that they contain no other natural or built features—no rivers, mountain ranges, municipal or state boundaries, city names, points of interest (aka, tourist traps), nothing. Only the things made of concrete, steel, asphalt, and similar materials that help people get around town or across the country.

Yet this minimalist approach has many stories to tell as well. Examining them, we can see what factors determine the volume and density of bridges in certain areas (population, extent of waterways, etc.), the patterns by which they spread (generally to the west and south), and the conspicuous-by-their absence features that influenced engineers to go with the easiest route, rather than the shortest (for example, one doesn’t need to know much geography to figure out where the Rocky Mountains are).

Underlaying databases can help these maps tell other kinds of stories. As Ingraham notes in a follow-up post, the National Bridge Inventory also makes it possible to delineate the entire spectrum of structural conditions, from well-maintained to functional obsolete.

As such, theycan help infrastructure investment proponents make their case in ways that words alone cannot.

But at least in terms of the built environment, the original maps that depict only the infrastructure and nothing else might well have the stronger story to tell. For it can be argued that without all those bridges and roads, there wouldn’t be anything else.