News & Politics

These Maps That Show Only Roads Are Remarkably Accurate

Maps that use roads, and no other geographic features, create near-perfect images of what our region looks like.

We can chalk up our jagged state boundaries to more than a century of unscientific measurements, arbitrarily placed straight lines, and, occasionally, genuine topographical limitations. But even though the United States’s geographic subdivisions predate its infrastructure, it’s remarkable how accurately states hold their familiar shapes on maps that only show roadways.

Images via Fathom.

Fathom, an information design firm in Boston, is selling posters featuring maps of every state and the District that represent those jurisdictions only as networks of roadways—no waterways, mountain ranges, forests, parks, or canyons, but those natural features still emerge as the streets flow around them. There are no marked cities either, but they are easily spotted on Fathom’s maps where the street grids are densest. The thickest parts of the Virginia map, for instance, shade in the Washington suburbs, Richmond, the Hampton Roads area, and big college towns Charlottesville and Blacksburg. The map’s western edge, where the roads are thinnest outlines Shenandoah National Park and the Appalachian Mountains.

The Maryland poster is heaviest around Baltimore and suburban Washington. And just as the Virginia map’s lightest areas show mountains, the thin tendrils on the right side of the Maryland map shapes the Eastern Shore.

Fathom created these posters based on “All Streets,” a map it created in 2008 showing the entire country using the Census Bureau’s TIGER/Line shape files. The District, which is actually bounded on three sides by straight avenues, appears in near-perfect detail, thanks to Pierre L’Enfant’s rigid planning. The biggest gaps come, obviously, from Rock Creek Park and the Anacostia River.

Fathom is selling the posters for $45 and $60, a perfect gift for geography nerds who need a new novelty map.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.