When you strip everything off a map except the roads, most of the U.S. is still clearly recognizable. In a series of maps of every state, and the country as a whole, Boston-based design firm Fathom took away mountains, rivers, and place names to demonstrate how well we can be defined by pavement.
The project started several years ago, when Fathom principal Ben Fry happened to create a map of the roads in Pennsylvania. "Seeing the Appalachian mountains emerge in the eastern half of the state, he later made a version that included the lower 48 states," says Terrance Fradet, a designer at Fathom. "The geographic features that emerged from just showing streets were so striking."
Most midwestern states, without mountains to get in the way, have neatly organized grids of roads radiating from town to town. Here's Illinois, with the dark splotch of Chicago's highways and streets in the top right corner.
In New York, the Adirondacks and Catskills show up as blank spaces, while New York City is nearly black.
"We were surprised by how easy it is to distinguish each state, except maybe Alaska which has so few roads," says Fradet. "We love that each state has such a unique image."
While some states like Wyoming show up with only a thin patchwork of roads, many, like Texas, are nearly filled in.
"It’s amazing how much pavement there is," Fradet says.
The U.S. is covered in about 4 million miles of roads. And while that's only a fraction of a percent of the total land area in the lower 48 states, it's still enough to have a noticeable impact on the environment—from heat islands, to floods, to pollution runoff in nearby waterways. It's also enough space that some argue roads could be used as solar generators to power the entire country.
After mapping the U.S., Fathom has started mapping other countries as well. Each of the state road maps is now available as a print on their website.