Most of the maps we use in everyday life are designed to make complex transportation systems seem simple. Highway maps often omit railroad lines that are vital for industry but are not as important to passenger travel. Toll-road maps regularly highlight intersections where motorists can enter and exit. Subway and other transit-system maps are highly stylized to make twisting and turning routes appear more direct than they actually are. Such simplifications are made to avoid overwhelming map users who merely want to get from one place to the next as quickly as possible.
Maps used by transportation planners, by contrast, can be unabashedly complex. Whether prepared by public or private institutions, they often depict multiple transportation modes as well as the terminals, industrial districts, and freight yards that support them. Showing these facilities helps achieve the dual purpose of educating citizens about the status of transportation systems while providing planners and other stakeholders with the technical perspective needed to manage them.
This essay focuses on the latter category—the maps used to study transportation systems in urban and metropolitan regions. This includes both systems already in existence and those proposed, a distinction that often affects their orientation and design. When viewed chronologically, the changing features of these maps are fascinating testimonials to the aspirations of planners during the various phases of transportation development. For example, the following maps illuminate the ebb and flow of planning history, and how professional planners have gradually expanded their focus beyond city blocks and neighborhoods to vast metropolitan regions.
Evaluating the maps used by transportation planners also shines light on the gradual advances in technology that have improved cartography. Most maps were quite primitive 150 years ago. Railroad lines and roads were often shown in uniform width, regardless of their relative importance. Coastlines, despite being unchanged for centuries, were relatively crude approximations, and cities were typically represented with mere dots or blotches, regardless of their actual shape. Some maps were intentionally simple, such as when their creators sought to convey a basic message or idea, but more often than not, mapmaking was constrained by the available information and technology.
By the late nineteenth century, however, maps began to offer a veritable feast of vivid colors and details. Creative schemes, abetted by lithography and involving color-coding, the use of symbols, and tiny but easy-to-read text, came to the fore. In the 1940s and 50s, the complexity of printed maps arguably reached its zenith, as planners commissioned works that were packed with urban land-use and transportation information. The 1990s brought another metamorphosis, this time in the direction of technical precision thanks to the advent of satellite-based geographic information systems.
Regardless of the era, however, it remains necessary to ask why a map was created to understand its importance. Was it to convey complex data to help decisionmakers assess the technical feasibility of investments and engineering options? Or to impress upon the public the acumen of public agencies? Or to engage the public in an open and meaningful dialogue about the possibilities that lie ahead?
Today, as technology advances at breakneck speed, interactive three-dimensional views, shape files, and data layering allow transportation problems to be studied in previously impossible ways. Yet, as we will see, contemporary mapmakers continue to stand on the shoulders of pioneering cartographers who have made enormous efforts to document the arrangement of transportation systems in metropolitan regions for the benefit of future generations.
Railroads, Rivers, and Wharves: 1835–1899
In the first half of the eighteenth century, private companies and public officials relied heavily on engineering drawings and blueprints that depicted the layout of transportation facilities. These works showcased the spatial configuration of buildings, roads, and, other physical assets in a relatively small area as accurately as possible at the time.
By contrast, most maps of this era depicting more expansive areas, such as metropolitan boundaries, were not drawn with such attention to detail. This was due to the fact that there simply wasn’t a strong demand for such information, and was exacerbated by the technological limitation of this era. For example, communities were often shown merely as black circles, rivers as thin undulating lines, existing railroads and canals as thicker black lines, and canal and railroad construction as dashed lines that did not reflect the exact routes that would be followed. Maps in the Official Guide of the Railways through the 1860s exemplify this propensity for simplification during this era.
In some cases, governments attempted to compensate for the simplicity of their maps and drawings by making them quite large. The adjacent map, published by the New York City Board of Aldermen in 1836, is an excellent example of this. Users taking the time to unfold this irregularly shaped map, which measures six feet wide by five feet tall, must have been impressed by its extravagant proportions. The map shows the proposed “Great Pier” in the North River— at the time a popular alternate name for the Hudson River—on Manhattan Island. Details of the surrounding neighborhood, however, are scant; and by contemporary standards, the rendering is more akin to a giant sketch.
The exactitude and quantity of detail on transportation maps grew sharply between 1870 and 1890, in part due to breakthroughs in publishing technology, aerial photography, and the growing ambition of planners. Changes in printing technology, from engraving to lithography, added to the richness of this finished product. As cities industrialized and became more crowded, planners increasingly looked to cultivate public support that was necessary to finance transportation improvements. Efforts to relocate railroads, build more efficient passenger terminals, create landfills in harbors and lakes (often to provide more suitable arrangements for industry), and improve city streets, rose in priority. The illustrations created to support these projects, however, still tended to resemble elaborate line drawings rather than formal maps, and they were distributed only sparingly to the general public by government agencies.
Why did the government shy away from creating and distributing more elaborate maps? This was due in part to their lack of financial and legal capacity to make most large-scale initiatives a reality. Many had to rely on private firms, such as railroad companies, to complete large-scale tasks. Yet the relationship between cities and railroad lines was often characterized by suspicion and mistrust.
The necessity for railroad support of transportation-improvement plans can be appreciated when studying the adjacent map created by a private firm for tourists and travelers visiting the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition held in Philadelphia. One of the country’s first great railroad-oriented fairs, this exposition marked the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. This map includes a labyrinth of railroad lines, stations, roads, and streetcar and ferry routes permeated the city, although, as with other maps of this era, they are depicted in a relatively simple way.
Maps began to be used more extensively to educate the public about the benefits of government action in the early 1890s, as the Progressive Era bloomed. Civic leaders sought to harness scientific advancements, new techniques in public administration, and emerging technologies to improve the performance of cities. Maps became focal points of elaborate presentations calling for far-flung transportation projects built around clearly defined objectives. Planners and civic leaders wanted maps not only to support more enlightened policymakers, but also to engage everyday people who had little technical knowledge in a meaningful debate about the opportunities awaiting their community.
The use of maps reached new heights after the World’s Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago during 1893-94. This fair’s architectural splendor gave rise to the “City Beautiful Movement,” which was built on the idea that cities could be transformed from the dangerous, dirty, and noisy places they had become into inspiring destinations that cultivated a stronger sense of civic virtue, pride, and citizenship. As interest in city planning grew, Daniel Burnham—the fair’s director of works—and other architect-planners rose to positions of great public prominence.
By the late 1890s, elaborate maps were being commissioned to educate citizens about the need for wholesale changes to city streets, waterfronts, and rail terminals. Maps were published in ever-rising numbers to encourage voters to support the issuance of bonds (i.e., public debt) to fund infrastructure projects overseen by newly-formed public works departments. Spending funds wisely required that governments develop comprehensive neighborhood strategies to win the hearts of the populace, which raised the demand for mapmaking.
Few municipalities had bona fide planning or transportation departments as we know them today, and the advent of zoning (or “districting,” as land-use controls were called at the time) was still decades away. Still, in the spirit of Progressivism, governments were on the move, seeking enlightened solutions to lingering urban problems.
The result was a metamorphosis in map production, which gave rise to some of the first large-format color maps showing metropolitan regions in breathtaking detail. The adjacent map of New York City, produced by Rand McNally in 1896, was years ahead of its time, illustrating in vivid detail the juxtaposition of industry, parks, railroads, ground transportation, marine shipping, waterworks, and other features. Creating a foldable map with such intricate detail would have been unimaginable just a decade earlier—and was in fact still unaffordable for most smaller cities—but could be done in New York by virtue of the enormous consumer demand and growing amount of information being made available by governments.
In an attempt to help planners look more systematically at urban problems, maps increasingly used color-coding to depict complex aspects of transportation systems. The adjacent map of Chicago’s rail system, circa 1895, uses more than a dozen distinct color schemes to denote major railroads and their terminals. Abetted by the city’s well-developed aerial-photography industry, this map shows the arrangement of tracks in such rich detail that the user might feel that he or she is in a hot-air balloon above the city. Without aerial photography, it would have taken a staggering amount of field work to develop such a vivid and accurate portrayal of this area’s man-made environment. It only takes a quick look at the spaghetti-bowl of railroad tracks and terminals to appreciate Carl Sandburg’s description of the Windy City as the “Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.”
Using Maps to Inspire: The Early Twentieth Century
The power of maps to educate and inspire citizens—and to encourage them to rally around the ambitious programs envisioned by civic leaders—was used to particularly great effect by Daniel Burnham in the early twentieth century. This acclaimed Beaux-Arts architect, and a key figure in the City Beautiful Movement, achieved great fame with his plans for Cleveland (1903), San Francisco (1905), and Manila, the Philippines (1906). His plans emphasized the physical city, with grand boulevards and parkways, majestic buildings, and inviting public spaces.
The Merchants Club of Chicago persuaded Burnham to embark on a plan for the Windy City in 1906. Almost immediately, Burnham retained Edward E. Bennett, a young Beaux-Arts designer and architect, to coauthor this plan. This enterprising pair recognized the strong emotional appeal of color drawings and maps to the public, and made them centerpieces of their emerging plan. Using lofty prose, maps, and lavish illustrations that reminded readers of the bold projects that reshaped great European cities years earlier, Burnham and Bennett encouraged citizens to see the interconnection between transportation and other social and industrial issues and, ultimately, support actions intended to dramatically improve their city.
A team of draftsmen and two illustrators, Jules Guerin and Fernand Javin, created vivid pastel renderings for the Plan of Chicago. These renderings captured the attention of readers and encouraged them to contemplate the benefits of government-led action to reshape vast tracts of urban land. Such renderings were often accompanied by maps depicting possible arrangements for streets and boulevards, railroad terminals, and new parks and lagoons—all in spectacular detail. Less attention was paid to producing renderings with similarly exacting details, as on the previous New York City example. Burnham and Bennett evidently felt a sense of artistic license and instead created inspiring illustrations depicting the many opportunities that beckoned.
Upon its completion in 1909, more than 1,600 copies of The Plan of Chicago were printed for public distribution. Maps in this plan, and those prepared for other cities, not only envisioned new boulevards and parks, but a future in which electric railways played an ever-expanding role. At the time, few planners appreciated just how profoundly the private automobile would shape the future of transportation.
Optimism about electric railways was galvanized by a flurry of “interurban” construction in the East, Midwest, and California at the time. A longer-distance adaptation of urban streetcar technology, interurbans were relatively cheap to build and rapidly transformed the way in which residents of many cities moved from place to place. Interurban and streetcar companies did their best to convince investors that they would generate enormous profits.
Maps showing interurban systems are often filled with nuance, not only because these maps focus on relatively small geographic areas, but also because many of these companies sought to impress investors and show how their routes reached the commercial hearts of the cities they served. Whereas maps of “steam railroads” (i.e., conventional railroads, powered at the time by steam locomotives) were often drawn to make their routes between cities appear as direct as possible, interurban maps typically showed routes threading their way down streets and boulevards.
The adjacent 1911 map of the Pacific Electric Railway—one of the Los Angeles region’s most prominent transportation companies a century ago—illustrates this point. This map does not try to conceal the fact that the company’s “Red Cars” had to wind their way through many neighborhoods. It also shows the number of tracks on each route and the dense network of tracks in some of the largest cities it served, such as Long Beach and Santa Monica.
Within a few years, however, much of the optimism surrounding interurban and streetcar lines had waned. By the middle of the 1910s, Henry Ford’s Model T was transforming the American way of life, and Ford had sold more than 700,000 vehicles by 1916. Interurban and streetcar companies suffered greatly as Americans shifted to cars, buses, and trucks. Having electric-railway tracks in the middle of city streets was increasingly viewed as a nuisance that hindered efficient traffic flow. By the late 1920s, most interurban companies and many streetcar lines had been put out of business by the new rubber-tired competition.
The spectacular growth in highway travel created a new set of transportation problems, and local governments were unprepared to deal with the situation. As drivers grew frustrated with bumpy, muddy, and congested roads, the paving and widening of streets, as well as the creation of an integrated system of highways, became matters of great urgency. While travelers may have been satisfied with trains for longer-distance journeys, many who could afford automobile travel demanded its convenience on short-distance trips.
Rethinking Regions: Maps of the 1920s and 1930s
During the “roaring twenties,” state governments commissioned many elaborate maps showing an interconnected network of arterial highways, and began to explore the possibility of “superhighways” that would permit non-stop driving over longer distances. The need to coordinate these investments fueled the nascent “regional planning movement,” built on the idea that coordinating public-works projects across large geographic regions was critical to good governance. Believing that all communities within a region—particularly those clustered around a major city—shared a common destiny, regional-planning proponents attempted to align urban transportation developments with the needs of expanding suburbia.
The creation of the Regional Planning Association (RPA) in metropolitan New York City in 1922 was a milestone in the movement, and similar organizations soon emerged in Chicago (through the leadership of Daniel Burnham, Jr., son of the famous architect) and Los Angeles. Organizations such as these understood the power of maps to enhance public appreciation for regional investments in airports, bridges, roads, and superhighways.
Regional planning organizations nevertheless lacked the power to regulate or levy taxes—they were not sanctioned governments—and instead relied heavily on the power of persuasion. When RPA issued a landmark two-volume plan in 1929, it set a new standard for using maps and technical illustrations to depict road and bridge building programs, while showing their relationships with other initiatives. Maps in the plan detailed how a major metropolitan area could greatly improve its transportation system—making maps from the Burnham era seem simple by comparison.
Maps produced for regional plans illustrated how highway development was linked to programs to expand forest preserves, parks, flood-control systems, among other goals. Regional planning associations also put great emphasis on airports. Not only was commercial aviation surging at the time, but the development of new and larger aircraft suggested that a revolution in passenger flight was on the horizon. Comparatively little attention was paid to public transit, housing, public safety, and schools. Social commentator Lewis Mumford, an outspoken critic of the movement, did not consider this to be regional planning at all, but merely “parks and highway planning.”
Although local governments mostly had to settle for incremental improvements, such as building overpasses or underpasses at railroad crossings, widening streets, and installing signals to regulate the flow of traffic, the construction of superhighways came to be seen as inevitable. By the early 1930s, reports and photographs of the new German autobahns—a prototype for the enhancement of intercity motor travel—had captured the American public’s attention.
The adjacent map, prepared by the New England Regional Planning Commission in 1937, illustrates how such goals were incorporated into regional plans of this era. Air routes link small cities to larger ones. Lengthy “limited way roads” (expressways) and “parkways” (highways through areas of natural beauty) slice through the countryside. Strategic locations for airports and seaplane terminals are clearly marked, while vast tracts of privately owned land are identified for new parkland and forest preserves. Tellingly, the region’s densely built rail network—apparently taken for granted—is not even shown.
The course of history, however, took an unplanned turn. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, almost all such regional transportation plans were put on hold.
America on the Move: Maps after the Second World War
Shortages of concrete, gasoline, labor, and steel necessitated that planners bide their time during the Second World War. After hostilities ceased, many mistakenly believed that a renaissance in the regional planning movement was around the corner.
The movement’s consensus-driven approach was out of sync with new programs coming out of Washington. Federal agencies preferred to work with state governments or newly created metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that met strict new legal requirements (such as provisions that all residents of a region be equally represented in planning decisions). Many regional organizations folded or were merged into newly-formed governments. New York’s RPA was a notable exception, but many other organizations disappeared, including those in Chicago and Los Angeles.
Transportation planning became more formalized and guided by federal mandates and requirements. As the flow of federal dollars accelerated, county and state governments developed their own plans that mapped out new schemes for building airports, expressways, and rapid-transit lines. Cities braced for an anticipated surge in housing investment and population growth. The adjacent map, prepared by the Chicago Plan Commission in 1946, illustrates the grandiosity typical of government-issued maps from this era. An enormous amount of information—such as existing rail, road, and water routes, as well as land uses, industrial areas, parkland, and proposed expressways—is included on this map as governments pushed ahead with long-delayed projects.
Metropolitan regions indeed boomed after the war, but the growth was much more concentrated in suburban areas than in the city. Growing numbers of residents abandoned deteriorating inner-city neighborhoods and moved to outlying areas that offered inexpensive new homes and quiet living on spacious lots. New suburban communities seemed blissfully isolated from the commotion and crowding of the central city.
The adjacent map, prepared by the city of Valparaiso, Ind., in 1951, typifies how transportation planners began focusing on large geographic regions to accommodate the rapid outward migration of urban populations. A small county seat destined to feel the encroachment of metropolitan Chicago, Valparaiso braced for change as its giant neighbor grew ever closer.
Before the 1950s ended, the construction of superhighways had kicked into high gear. Interstate highways were considered essential not only to routine travel but also for the rapid evacuation of cities in the event of a nuclear attack. As tensions rose during the Cold War, local governments produced detailed maps solely to increase the odds that civilians would survive an atomic apocalypse. The adjacent map, issued by the New Orleans Office of Civil Defense in 1961, dramatically shows how governments studied “who should go where” during the panic-filled minutes that preceded a bombing. The Crescent City, of course, would later be thrust into the national spotlight for its infamous struggle to evacuate in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Building the Interstate Highway System required relocating tens of thousands of residents from inner-city neighborhoods. By the early 1950s, “fast and free” expressway travel was ushering in a new era in travel throughout the country. Yet the door to unimpeded expressway construction slammed shut in the mid-1960s as “expressway revolt” reared its head. New federal regulations required a closer link between transportation and other aspects of urban planning. These regulations, while mostly toothless, showed that the tide had turned.
The mass-transit improvements envisioned on the adjacent map, prepared in 1969 by the municipal government in New York City, show how the pendulum had swung toward public transportation. This fascinating map, filled with ambitious proposals for new corridors, was produced shortly after plans to build a pair of elevated superhighways through the middle of Manhattan had been officially dropped. This shift in emphasis away from expressway construction was felt in other cities, as well. Beginning in the 1970s, new subway systems opened in Atlanta, Miami, Washington, D.C., and the San Francisco Bay Area, leading to the emergence of “light-rail” transit projects in large and small cities throughout the country.
Modesty and Metamorphosis: 1980–Present
Maps outlining bold plans for regional transportation improvement became less prevalent during the mid-1980s and the early 1990s. As funding for large-scale projects dried up, many agencies opted for simple “concept plans,” short on specifics and lacking detailed maps. Some came to view master plans—and their associated maps—as destined to collect dust on library shelves. Although many light-rail systems and circumferential “beltway” highways around cities were built during this period, such projects often were not guided by overarching master plans of the type published several decades earlier.
Large-scale maps for transportation planning staged a comeback in the 1990s, due to a resurgent economy, the renewed vitality of many downtown areas, and growing interest in expanding and improving public transportation. Transportation-planning maps increasingly focused on “transit-oriented development” and schemes to modernize aging infrastructure. Geographic information systems (GIS), meanwhile, allowed cartographers to show relationships between transportation and other activities, including land use, in increasingly sophisticated ways.
Advances such as Google Maps and hand-held display devices, meanwhile, have brought sophisticated mapping tools to the masses and reduced the importance of printed maps. Interactive digital maps have also allowed users to select only the variables and topographic features they want to see, giving maps a more dynamic quality. Internet-driven “geo-coded” databases have allowed users to see the same region in a variety of ways—whether depicting transportation lines and traffic flow, street-level or satellite views, or driving and other navigation options.
At the same time, demand for planning maps that encompass not only metropolitan regions but entire intercity corridors, depicting numerous large cities situated along routes 100 and 500 miles long, has grown. Proposals for high-speed rail systems, conventional bus and train service, and waterway improvement programs often require governments to use maps to bring geographically dispersed areas to pursue a common goal, much like Burnham had done in a more urban context years ago.
Meanwhile, the magnificent transportation maps of the past remain beacons of clarity that pointed the way toward making cities and metropolitan regions better places. Printed maps such as these teach us a great deal about the aspirations of planners, industry leaders, and civic advocates. As noted novelist Reif Larsen wrote, “A map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected.”
Readers interested in the interplay between transportation systems and the development of cities will find an abundance of classic readings available to them. Among these, John Stilgoe’s Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985) stands out for its eloquent description the manner in which railroad routes enhanced the cosmopolitan qualities of small and large cities. Tom Lewis’ Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013) is also widely regarded for exploring the societal forces unleashed by new limited-access highways starting in the late 1950s as well as for his commentary on the consequences of these roads have had on the spatial and cultural fabric of cities.
Those interested in patterns of development in individual cities will find a particularly wide range of materials on Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. D.A. Johnson’s Planning the Great Metropolis: The 1929 Regional Plan of New York and its Environs (London: Routledge, 1995) and Sarah Bradford Landau and Carl W. Condit’s Rise of the New York Skyscraper: 1865-1913 describe the changing character of metropolitan and central-city development, respectively, centering on Manhattan throughout the early twentieth century. Spencer Crump’s crisply written Ride the Big Red Cars: How Trolleys Helped Build Southern California (Glendale, CA: Trans-Anglo Books, 1962) describes the transformative effects the Pacific Electric’s interurban network had on metropolitan Los Angeles, while David C. Sloane’s Planning Los Angeles (Chicago: American Planning Association, 2012), offers a nuanced look at the way land-use policies shaped the region’s growth. Critiques of the Windy City can be found in D. Bradford Hunt and Jon B. DeVries’ Planning Chicago (Chicago: American Planning Association, 2012) and my own Beyond Burnham: An Illustrated History of Planning for the Chicago Region, written with Alan M. Mammoser (Lake Forest, IL: Lake Forest University Press, 2009).
The importance of high-quality cartography in helping the general public understand the complexity of transportation networks is vividly illustrated by Mark Ovenden’s Transit Maps of the World (London: Penguin 2007). Similarly, Trains magazine popular “Map of the Month” series offers technical perspective on the relationship of rail lines and urban development. An archive of these maps can be found on the Kalmbach Publishing’s website: trn.trains.com, although these documents are free for download only to magazine subscribers. An excellent overview of evolution of railroad route maps, as well as many downloadable works, may be found on the Library of Congress website at: memory.loc.gov/ammem/gmdhtml/rrhtml/rrintro.html. A similarly vast, if more loosely organized, archive of airline route maps can be found at: www.airlineroutemaps.com/countries/united_states. Finally, the Newberry Library in Chicago has a huge library of rare air, highway, and railroad maps, including the Rand McNally collection adn archives.
Black, Russell Van Nest. 1967. Planning and the Planning Profession: The Past Fifty Years, 1917-1967. Washington, DC: American Institute of Planners.
Burnham, Daniel H., and Edward H. Bennett. 1993. Plan of Chicago. Edited by Charles Moore, with an introduction by Kristen Schaffer. New York: Princeton Architectural Press. First published in 1909 by the Commercial Club of Chicago.
Chicago Real Estate Board. 1923. Final Report of the Library, City Planning and Zoning Committee of the Chicago Real Estate Board on Zoning in Chicago. Chicago: Chicago Real Estate Board.
Crump, Spencer. 1962. Ride the Big Red Cars: How Trolleys Helped Build Southern California. Los Angeles: Crest Publications.
Drury, George H. 1985. The Historical Guide to North American Railroads. Milwaukee: Kalmbach Books.
Hilton, George W., and John F. Due. 1964. The Electric Interurban Railways in America. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Johnson, David A. 1995. Planning the Great Metropolis: The 1929 Regional Plan of New York and Its Environs. New York: Routledge.
Krueckeberg, Donald A., ed. 1983. Introduction to Planning History in the United States. New Brunswick, NJ: Center for Urban Policy Research, Rutgers University.
Larsen, Rief. 2009. The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet: A Novel. New York: Penguin Press.
Schwieterman, Joseph P., and Alan Mammoser. 2009. Beyond Burnham: An Illustrated History of Planning for the Chicago Region. Lake Forest, IL: Lake Forest College Press.
Schwieterman, Joseph P. 2014. Terminal Town: An Illustrated Guide to Chicago’s Airports, Bus Depot, Train Stations and Steamship Landings, 1939 – Present. Lake Forest, IL: Lake Forest College Press.
Stover, John F. 1961. American Railroads. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Young, David. 2005. The Iron Horse and the Windy City: How Railroads Shaped Chicago. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press.