How Are Symbols Used on a Map?

Written by emily vertosick
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How Are Symbols Used on a Map?
Road maps may use a variety of symbols for roads, cities and places, but the meanings of abbreviations and symbols can be found in the map's legend. (Noel Hendrickson/Digital Vision/Getty Images)

Cartographers simplify road maps by using symbols instead of crowding the maps with words and descriptions. Symbols on road maps are used to designate local attractions, road names and numbers, exits, cities and towns and railways and waterways, among other things. Some maps are more detailed than others and some maps may use variations on the standard symbols, although all good maps have a legend that should explain all symbols and abbreviations.

Road and Highway Symbols

Highways and roads are delineated by a single line or sets of parallel lines. The lines may be dashed or broken to signify various types of roads like dual carriageways, gravel or unpaved roads or private streets. Highways are numbered depending on the type of road they are: interstate highways, represented by blue and red highway shields; U.S. highways, represented by black and white highway shields; state highways, represented by round black and white signs and county roads, represented by pentagonal blue and yellow signs.

Railroads, Waterways and Boundaries

Railroads, bridges and ferries are delineated by symbols on parallel lines. Waterways are shown as one or more wavy lines, depending on the size of the waterway. Lakes and reservoirs are drawn as their approximate shapes, and usually blue on coloured maps. Boundaries such as county or state lines are usually drawn as thicker black lines and the names of the territories are written on the map.

Symbols for Special Attractions

Specific places like capitals, local attractions and amenities are often marked on maps to help tourists and visitors. Cities are marked as dots or circles and the state capitals are marked as a star inside a circle. Recreational areas and historic sites are marked by black triangles. Schools are shown by a black box with triangle on top, churches by a black box with a cross on top and post offices by a black box with a circle on top. Hospitals are marked by bold crosses. Some maps may even have symbols for places like mines, racetracks or rodeo arenas.

Municipal Facilities

Government facilities are sometimes marked on road maps, especially on more detailed maps. Fire control headquarters are marked by a house shape with a flag on top and fire stations are shown by white squares with "FS" inside. White squares with abbreviations inside represent waste disposal facility: a J in the centre for a junkyard; an F for a sanitary fill; an S for sewage disposal plant; and an I for an incinerator. A black square stands for a power plant, and a white rectangle with "DOT" inside is a Department of Transportation facility.

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