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the spatial structure of the city of Atlanta has shifted significantly as the city grew. It emerged from a pattern of colliding grids, which bridged the railroads, and an analysis of these early maps illustrated a centrally located area of dense street connectivity distinct from the spaces that are more easily accessible in terms of direction changes – where direction changes describe cognitive rather than metric accessibility. As the city grew and additional clusters of higher local density emerged, each isolated from the other, a multi-centered city was established with ever increasing fragmentation of the Directional Reach structure.Eventually, then, the city is forced to negotiate the dispersed pattern of cognitive integration and metric density through a symbolically, culturally supported patchwork of dispersed areas of interest.

In this paper, the evolution of the Atlanta Streetcar, significant as the first major means of local public transportation for the city, is tracked and compared to those original maps of Haynie & Peponis. To track the development of the Atlanta Streetcar, a series of historic maps are selected – a summary of 1871 to 1881, a summary of 1882 to 1892, 1895, 1900, 1912, 1924, and 1933. These maps outline the various routes for the different companies managing the streetcar systems at particular points in time. Similarly, the area of focus is contained within a four-mile radius centered on downtown. The intent of the study is to reveal where and when the routes of the streetcar intersected the areas of highest metric and directional reach. The aim is to better understand the underlying influences of one upon the other and to explore whether public transportation routes reflect the cognitive, syntactic structure of the city.

The findings reveal that the early growth of the streetcar followed the shifting core cognitive structure of the city more often than the emerging metric densities. Thus, it can be argued that perhaps one becomes a “lagging indicator” of sorts for the other, particularly when the adaptation of the structure was left to its natural economic tendencies and not directed by outside political influences. This dependency is further verified by the shared location of the most profitable streetcar line in the system and the most consistently identified street within the core cognitive structure. Ironically, as the city began to noticeably and significantly fragment, the measured success of the streetcar began to collapse as well.

Carson has argued in his 1981 book, The Trolley Titans, that the demise of the streetcar resulted from a multitude of factors – the cost of the infrastructure and associated maintenance, the lack of flexibility in setting routes, fixed fares, labor disputes, and the introduction of the jitney bus and motor coach as competition. Preston has argued in his 1979 book, Automobile Age Atlanta: The making of a southern metropolis, that the collapse of the streetcar can be attributed to the accessibility and affordability of the individual automobile. The results here suggest that perhaps the true demise lies in the streetcars’ ineffectiveness to align with the core cognitive structure of the city coupled with the decentralized, fragmented, and ever-shifting structure of the city.


Originally published in:

Haynie, Dawn. “The Atlanta Streetcar: an analysis of its development and growth as it relates to the Core Cognitive Structure of the City,” 8th International Space Syntax Symposium Proceedings, Santiago, Chile January 2012.