Elements of Access: Introduction to Topology

Networks play a role in nearly all facets of our daily lives, particularly when it comes to transportation. Even within the transportation realm lays a relatively broad range of different network types such as air networks, freight networks, bus networks, and train networks (not to mention the accompanying power and communications networks). We also have the ubiquitous street network, which not only defines how you get around a city, but it provides the form upon which our cities are built and experienced. Cities around the world that are praised for having good street networks come in many different configurations ranging from the medieval patterns of cities like Prague and Florence, to the organic networks of Boston and London, and the planned grids of Washington D.C. and Savannah, Georgia. But how do researchers begin to understand and quantify the differences in such networks?


The primary scientific field involved with the study of shapes and networks is called topology. Based in mathematics, topology is a subfield of geometry that allows one to transform a network via stretching or bending. Under a topological view, a network that has been stretched like a clock in a Salvador Dali painting would be congruent with the original, unstretched network. This would not be the case in conventional Euclidean geometry where differences in size or angle cannot be ignored. The transportation sector typically models networks as a series of nodes and links (Levinson & Krizek, 2008). The node (or vertex) is the fundamental building block of the model; links (or edges) are not independent entities but rather are represented as connections between two nodes. Connectivity – and the overall structure of the network that emerges from that connectivity – is what topology is all about. In other words, topology cares less about the properties of the objects themselves and more about how they come together.

For instance if we look at the topology of a light rail network, the stations would typically be considered the nodes and the rail lines would be the links. In this case, the stations are the actors in the network, and the rail lines represent the relationships between the actors (Neal, 2013). Those relationships – and more specifically, those connections – embody what is important. Taking a similar approach with a street network, we might identify the intersections as the nodes and the street segments as the links as shown in the network based on an early version of Metropolis above (Fleischer, 1941). For most street networks, however, the street segments are just as important as the intersections, if not more so. The ‘space syntax’ approach takes the opposite (or ‘dual’) approach with street networks: the nodes represent the streets, and the lines between the nodes (i.e. the links or edges) are present when two streets are connected at an intersection, as shown below using the same Metropolis network (Jiang, 2007).


Initial theories related to topology trace back to 1736 with Leonhard Euler and his paper on the Seven Bridges of Königsberg. Graph theory based topological measures first debuted in the late 1940s (Bavelas, 1948) and were initially developed in papers analyzing social networks (Freeman, 1979) and the political landscape (Krackhardt, 1990). Since then, topological analyses have been widely adopted in attempting to uncover patterns in biology (Jeong, Tombor, Albert, Oltvai, & Barabasi, 2000), ecology (Montoya & Sole, 2002), linguistics (Cancho & Sole, 2001), and transportation (Carvalho & Penn, 2004; Jiang & Claramunt, 2004; Salingaros & West, 1999). Topology represents an effort to uncover structure and pattern in these often complex networks (Buhl et al., 2006). The topological approach to measuring street networks, for instance, is primarily based upon the idea that some streets are more important because they are more accessible, or in the topological vernacular, more central (Porta, Crucitti, & Latora, 2006). Related to connectivity, centrality is another important topological consideration. A typical Union Station, for example, is a highly central (and important) node because it acts as a hub for connecting several different rail lines. Some common topological measures of centrality include Degree and Betweenness, which we will discuss in more detail in subsequent sub-sections.

There are also some peculiarities worth remembering when it comes to topology.

When thinking about the Size of a network, our first inclination might be measures that provide length or area. In topological terms, however, Size refers to the number of nodes in network. Other relevant size-related measures include: Geodesic Distance (the fewest number of links between two nodes); Diameter (the highest geodesic distance in a network); and Characteristic Path Length (the average geodesic distance of a network).

Density is another tricky term in the topological vernacular. When talking about the density of a city, we usually seek out measures such as population density, intersection density, or land use intensity. In most cases, these metrics are calculated in terms of area (e.g. per km2). In topology, however, Density refers to the density of connections. In other words, the density of a network can be calculated by dividing the number of links by the number of possible links. Topologically, the fully-gridded street networks of Portland, OR and Salt Lake City, UT are essentially the same in terms of Density; with respect transportation and urbanism, however, there remain drastic functionality differences between the 200’ (~60m) Portland blocks and the 660’ (~200 m) Salt Lake City blocks.

As illustrated with the Portland/Salt Lake City example, one limitation of topology is that it ignores scale. However, this can also be an advantage. For instance, Denver might be much closer to Springfield, IL than Washington, DC as the crow flies, but a combination of several inexpensive options for direct flights to DC and relatively few direct flight options for Springfield mean that DC is essentially closer in terms of network connectivity. Topology captures such distinctions by focusing on connectedness rather than length.

While topological analyses such as the above are scale-free, we also need to be careful about use of this term because scale-free networks are not equivalent to scale-free analyses. In topological thinking, scale-free networks are highly centralized. More specifically, if we plot the number of connections for each node, the resulting distribution for what is known in topology as a scale-free network would resemble a Power law distribution with some nodes having many connections but most having very few. A hub-and-spoke light-rail system, for instance, tends to exhibit scale-free network qualities with relatively few stations connecting many lines. The nodes in a random network, on the other hand, tend to have approximately the same number of connections. For instance when we define the intersections of a street network as the nodes and the segments as the links, the results tends towards a random network. If we flip the definition again, so that the streets are the nodes and the intersections the links, we trend back towards a scale-free network (Jiang, 2007; Jiang & Claramunt, 2004).

One reason to look at connectivity in these terms has to do with the critical issues of resilience and vulnerability. In general, robustness is associated with connectivity. When we have good connectivity, removing one node or link does not make much of a difference in terms of overall network performance. In contrast, scale-free networks are more susceptible to strategic attacks, failures, or catastrophes. However, as shown in a recent paper about urban street network topology during a Zombie apocalypse, good connectivity could actually be a double-edged sword (Ball, Rao, Haussman, & Robinson, 2013).