12/22/2011 02:14 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Cameron Booth Redraws Highways As Subways To Rethink Mass Transit

If you've ever wondered how to get from Topeka to Fond du Lac in just one transfer, Cameron Booth has the map for you. The Australian-born designer is one of a small community of graphic artists obsessed with simplifying and improving mass transit maps. Now Booth is trying to get people to rethink highways as subways -- with intriguing implications for the way we get around.

In 2009 Booth took on the Interstate Highway System. Where interstates criss-cross U.S. maps as a gnarly mass of roads, Booth's representation reimagines the highways as a smooth color-coded subway.

That map, he told HuffPost, was "a commentary on America's love affair with the car, which all but destroyed most rapid transit in the U.S. for a considerable period of time."

"Eisenhower Interstate System in the style of H.C. Beck's London Underground Diagram," 2011 version

Now Booth has turned his attention to a far more tangled knot: the system of U.S. Routes that looks absurdly complicated when viewed from a cartographic remove. Those routes, some as famous as U.S. 101 or Route 66, were numbered in the 1920s and are the predecessors of the interstate system that came later in the 1950s. Here is Booth's take on them:

"U.S. Routes as a Subway Map"

"Good God Almighty, what a monumental effort," said Earl Swift, author of a recent book on the development of the highway system. "It's a great accomplishment."

For Swift, the U.S. route system tells an important story about how the interstates came to be. They weren't just lines laid down on paper. Instead, the route numbers were carefully doled out based on economic studies, and the later interstate system in turn shadowed the routes' path.

"There's nothing speculative about the routing," Swift said. "It's mostly a reflection of which counties were the best off in, like, 1925, 1926, when you get down to it. That's when the numbered highways were laid down."

The men who numbered the routes (mostly state highway officials) realized that "by building a chain of local roads and stringing them together, you can almost accidentally create a long-distance road system," Swift said.

When Booth was drawing his map, that cumulative effect of stringing together roads was what he tried to address.

"Connections rule these maps, they're absolutely the most important thing," Booth said. "On the interstate map, it's what makes Teaneck, N.J. (where I-80 terminates and joins I-95) look hugely important, while New York City suddenly looks tiny in comparison, as only one minor route ends there."

"It's a very different way of looking at something familiar," he added. "We all drive these roads and know where they go, but may not be aware of how it's broken down topologically."

Making the map was quite a challenge, Booth said, one that he tried to think of as puzzle. He worked on it after hours from his day job as a graphic designer for Parsons Brinckerhoff, one of the world's top engineering firms. He started from a city that proved particularly challenging -- Memphis -- and then worked his way out.

Detail of Memphis from "U.S. Routes as a Subway Map"

"There are parts where you really have to rack your brains to work out how all the roads are going to fit together," Booth said. "Memphis was tricky purely because of the number of routes that pass through it, almost all of which cross the Mississippi River."

Ultimately, Booth said, "This isn't engineering or traffic planning. I'm just a guy pushing lines around on a page to make something aesthetically pleasing and somewhat useful."

Still, Booth said, "we need to strike a balance and work out where transit can be beneficial."

Swift, whose book is called "The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways," said maps played an important role in building support for the interstate system that succeeded and complemented the routes.

While some popular accounts place great emphasis on the Army's Pershing map of 1921 or a Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1938 hand-drawn scheme in the development of the interstate system, Swift said a later map was much more important. A 1947 map by the Public Roads Administration was repackaged in the "Yellow Book" that was given to wavering members of Congress who were bickering over how to pay for Dwight D. Eisenhower's proposed Interstate Highway System in 1955-1956.

National System of Interstate Highways, August 2, 1947

"Although it's relatively unknown by most folks, and nobody really saw the thing outside of Congress, it's immensely important," Swift said. It helped members of Congress "know the interstate's going to come through the city where most of your votes are."

Critical as that map may have been, Swift himself rarely consults the spiral-bound atlas of the lower 48 he keeps in a pocket of his car.

"The beauty of the interstate system is that you don't need a map," Swift said. "If you know how the system's numbered, you know approximately where you are in the country."

"I don't use GPS," he added. "In the course of researching the book, I drove about 14,800 miles of interstate, and I didn't get lost once. It's tough to get lost."