Is Sim City 4 Still Making Us Stupid?

Long ago I did a post on my memories of the original Sim City, which I played a bit in the 1990s until I’d hammered its limited possibilities to rubble.  My impression looking back was that despite a minimal transit option, Sim City encouraged us to think in terms of 1960s city planning: rigid separation of commercial, residential, and industrial zones, and a car-based approach to transport supplemented by rail only at very high densities.

Sim city logo Lately I’ve played a little with Sim City 4 including its “Rush Hour Expansion Pack.”  Given that I have a fulltime job plus a book to write, this was a perilous lapse, but I’m relieved to report that the game spat me out within just a few days, uninterested in playing further, and not just because it crashed my MacBook a few times.

Has Sim City 4 really improved the range of cities that we’re allowed to envision?  Certainly, its small grid squares allow the creation of neighborhoods that feel more “mixed use.”  The Rush Hour module also allows you to look in more detail at the travel choices of your simulated residents.

But a few things are still not good and one thing is actually worse than in the 1990s version.

What’s worse is that buildings must now have orientations toward a particular street.  A building that can be accessed from several directions is deemed impossible.  A building that loses the street it’s “facing” dies even it it still has access on another side.  The simulated travel patterns assume that everyone goes through each building’s front door, even when the “building” is a shopping mall, university, or stadium.  (And even though the stadium has only one door, nobody ever gets hurt in a crush of stampeding fans.)

From a transit standpoint, the greater irritant is that while many new modes of transit are now provided, you still don’t control transit service; the prevailing assumption is that creating transit infrastructure — wherever you find it convenient — will cause useful service to exist.  A SimCity model of the Bay Area, for example, would leave the user clueless about the difference between BART (every 20 minutes or better) and Caltrain (every two hours at off times).  Both have rails, so what’s the difference?

In suburban California in the 90s, it was common to see developers build new bus shelters in places where there was no service, as though they thought “If I build a shelter, a bus will come.”  Sim City 4 is based on that exact assumption.  Obviously, I want to draw my own bus, rail, and subway networks, and turn the frequencies up or down.  Such a tiny tool, easily integrated into the budget panel, would have forced legions of geeks to at least learn the mathematical relationship between frequency, line length, and operating cost.  The real expense of most transit is operations, not construction.  SimCity constantly reminds us of operating cost when it comes to utilities and other public services, but the only sign of transit operations cost is a vague “mass transit” line item, and nothing too terrible happens if you turn it down a bit.

Yes, of course, the scale is all wrong.  Cities are quantitatively miniaturized, so that cities of 30,000 start needing subway systems, airports, and stadiums.  People don’t seem to walk any further to subway stations than to bus stops, and neither walking distance makes any sense compared to a real city.

And yes, after a while, it feels like all you’re doing is accounting.  Turn down the various budgets until your overall budget is in balance, then turn them up individually as performance sags or interests squeal.

And no, since you ask, I didn’t want a mayoral mansion, and certainly not a statue of myself, no matter how often the game offered them.  Spend that money on transit, the mayor says!

33 Responses to Is Sim City 4 Still Making Us Stupid?

  1. Curt December 14, 2010 at 4:16 am #

    It’s funny that you come back to Sim City 1. When I used to play this on the Nintendo way back, I used to build with rails only. No roads at all. IT was quite successful and while unrealistic, still built large cities. LOL
    Fun post Jarrett. I also had a stint with Transport Tycoon which was fun as well

  2. SimonC December 14, 2010 at 4:51 am #

    SimCity and transport modelling share a striking similarity… both are simulators.
    Much like a building must “face” a street in SimCity, a transit stop must sit on a node near a Centroid connector. SimCity is just pretty nodes, links and centroids.
    I find SimCity’s transportation system more of a demand simulator, use the route query tool to find where Sims are travelling to and from work. Then like any great transport planner use the information on the ebb and flows of your simulated city and get to work creating fanciful bus networks and rail networks! However the only influence you have in SimCity unlike the real world (of fares, frequency, hours of operation, directness of route), patronage of transit service is dependent on funding (which influences capacity).
    If you’re really keen on SimCity, there’s the Network AddOn Mod (NAM) which adds all sorts of road types and transit types and even pedestrian malls.
    Oh and download ‘Open Transport Tycoon’ – inter-city transport fun!

  3. Ethan Tucker December 14, 2010 at 5:44 am #

    Agree with SimonC – the popular Network Add-on Mod is a step in the right direction, as it boosts public transport use in the game to more reasonable levels. Will check out Open TT, thanks for the tip.
    Although you’re not likely to be playing SC4 again any time soon, it might be worth pointing out that while it may rankle to be offered the opportunity for naked self-aggrandisement in the form of mayoral residences and statues, they’re actually major demand-boosters for your cities. The mayor’s house, in particular, is really important for early commercial and residential development.

  4. Corey Burger December 14, 2010 at 6:45 am #

    Ah SimCity, teaching children everywhere that Euclidean planning is the only way. I would second a vote for OpenTTD, an open source clone of the old Microprose Transport Tycoon.
    A game I haven’t played in a few years but is more transportation-oriented than SimCity is Mobility. Info at

  5. Patrick M December 14, 2010 at 7:09 am #

    While I do not wish to cause further book delays, maybe you should check out Traffic Giant:

  6. Jeffrey Jakucyk December 14, 2010 at 9:16 am #

    I’ve played every version of SimCity since I was a kid, and continue to regularly play SimCity 4 Rush Hour (with the Network Addon Mod) today. It’s come a long way over the decades, but of course it’s not perfect, and it IS a game after all.
    The requirement of buildings to face a particular street can be annoying, but it makes sense. It’s not so much a case of requiring access along that face (in fact pedestrians and cars will access the building from all sides if there’s a road or pedestrian mall), but to give some discipline to the direction the building faces. In SimCity 3000 there was none of this, so buildings just faced the same direction no matter what side of the street they were on, and it was very unrealistic looking.
    There’s other structural problems hard-coded into the program that the brilliant modders of the NAM can’t get around. For one thing, the game tries to find the closest job for each resident, so in a way traffic is a lot less than you’d expect. The original programming of the game compensated for this by making the various road and rail networks have very low capacities, so they became congested at a much lower threshold. The NAM fixes capacity problems and allows residents to work a lot farther away than in the unmodified game, but it’s still trying to find the closest job, which is rather unrealistic.
    Other problems have to do with the way the traffic simulator treats neighboring cities. It makes assumptions about job availability in the “suburbs” and you can end up in a situation where commuters go in an endless loop from one city to the next to the next and back without ever really connecting to an actual job. You get large traffic volumes cutting through the corners of the cities while centrally located business districts have no workers or traffic despite high demand.
    Another big problem in my mind, and one that rarely seems to come up in criticisms, is that people only travel to their jobs and nowhere else. This severely limits traffic to commercial areas, hospitals, schools, stadiums, convention centers, airports, and the like because the only people who go there are employees. There are NO shoppers in SimCity! This is a big oversight.
    Keep in mind however that there’s a reason for all these compromises. Better pathfinding (residents searching for jobs) requires more computing horsepower. The lack of shoppers, the endless commuter loop around neighboring cities, finding the closest job rather than the best fit job, these were all done to make the game actually playable by reducing overhead. Otherwise it would spend all its time trying to calculate traffic patterns. The NAM actually lets you choose certain pathfinding engines to better suit your own gameplay but also to tailor it to the capabilities of your computer. The original game came out in 2003, and it can still bring today’s computers to its knees when crunching the traffic patterns.
    All that said, while the lack of any truly mixed-use zoning is unfortunate, in that you can’t have ground floor retail with residential above, there’s nothing stopping you from mixing zones horizontally. The more interesting aspect of the game is that you tend to build cities much more densely than you usually see in real life. Part of the reason is because creating huge sprawling suburbs and exurbs in SimCity is just plain boring. There’s little use for transit, it takes up a lot of time, and it’s just boring houses. The medium and high density zones get used a lot more in the game than they would in reality, which generates more traffic so you can have more fun managing it with the various road and highway networks, subways, elevated rails, mainline railroad, and with the NAM, you get to build overpasses, roundabouts, light rail and streetcars too. With the right mods and the enormous library of custom buildings and even transit vehicles, you have a lot more freedom to build what you want, it just takes some time to figure out how to do it.

  7. Jeffrey Jakucyk December 14, 2010 at 9:20 am #

    One other point I forgot to mention relates to creating better transit networks. Yes, I would like to create actual bus routes and set frequencies and fares too, but this also brings up the computing horsepower problem. It may not sound that complicated, but since pathfinding computation is the biggest hit on the computer, this would add yet another layer of complexity to those already monstrous equations.

  8. Jonathan Frazier December 14, 2010 at 9:31 am #

    I’m a fan of Simutrans myself because it models transfers and lets you create a giant map sprawling network. The game models trips, eg. from a house in Town A to a house in Town B via a Town A streetcar to an intercity train to a Town B trolleybus. It really hammers in the importance of connecting your airports, seaports and intercity train stations to the local transit network, otherwise people won’t use your intercity services. You have control over how many vehicles you send on a route and you can force them to maintain vague frequencies, very important otherwise you can get severe bunching.
    Unfortunately it doesn’t model short trips very accurately, as a person in Town A seems equally likely to travel to Town B or Town Q as they would to somewhere in Town A. At least when I play the local transit only exists as a feeder for the highly profitable long distance trips.
    But it’s totally free, has an active community , tons of addons and its very addictive.

  9. Lauri Kangas December 14, 2010 at 11:48 am #

    Cities in Motion will be another potentially interesting alternative. Not released yet though, so you can finish the book first. There is an ad on Youtube:

  10. David M December 14, 2010 at 1:00 pm #

    Simcity 4 has always frustrated me because I want to route the buses and trains, set the schedules according to demand or to shape the city. SimCity just doesn’t allow that.
    Neither does CitiesXL 2011. While this has a bit more control, you can establish 3 different size of buses on your routes and you can place bus stops and develop specific routes, you still can control the schedule. And you can even build a bus route until you reach 50,000 people and a metro at a much higher number.
    For network simulation, the best by far has to be the open source Simutrans. While you cannot schedule buses and trains, you can set up an integrated multi-modal network, including bus routes and stops, trams, trains, LRT, etc, and passengers have specific destinations and will change buses or trains, or whatever at transfer locations.
    It is hard to get started as the operational costs are high and it takes time to attract passenger traffic. Still, it is a lot of fun to play around with.

  11. Daniel December 14, 2010 at 3:20 pm #

    Funny, just the other day I was talking to my kids about mixed-use development (which we’re seeing a bit of here), and noted that Sim City (I was referring to the original, which they’re familiar with) was limited to one use per block.
    The forthcoming game Cities In Motion looks interesting from a transport simulation perspective.

  12. John December 14, 2010 at 4:45 pm #

    I am pretty familiar with Sim City 4 and yeah – the limitations with transportation frustrate me. I think the thing that annoys me most (and this goes for car traffic as well) if that traffic always takes the shortest route – even if you build a freeway, everyone will still cram on to the little road (or worse, the street).
    And the inability to build a simple bus stop annoyed me – rather than allowing something to be built that’s integrated with the street, you have to take up a unit of land for a bus shelter, which makes it hard to build additional bus stops after an area has built up, because it means demolishing a building. Same deal with subway stations.
    But hey, at the end of the day you just have to shrug and say “It’s just a game.”

  13. chuck December 14, 2010 at 5:22 pm #

    Which all gets me wondering: just what role did Sim City play in sparking our first interest in urban planning and design?
    For me SC 2000 clearly christened me into the congregation of Urbanophiles (no offense, Mr. Renn). More specifically, SCURK-ing was my real first awakening.

  14. rhywun December 14, 2010 at 8:27 pm #

    I’m sure I played Traffic Giant more than any SimCity except SC2000. I loved the cheery Euro playfulness and watching the trams go back and forth and trying not to tick off too many passengers… The sad thing for me about SimCity is how each version kind of bored me more than the last, despite the growing number of bells and whistles. I never really cared about how “realistic” any of these games were, either. I guess I just moved on to other things. On the other hand, if “SimCity 5” were to ever come out, I’d be first in line.
    And don’t get me started with all the hours I spent on BAHN….
    But then I switched to a Mac in 2006 which eliminated the option to (easily) play most of these games (though SimCity 4 for Mac does exist, and run – for awhile, anyway).
    I haven’t heard of SimuTrans – and it runs on Mac. Have to check it out.

  15. Plattypus1 December 14, 2010 at 11:08 pm #

    Another Simutrans devotee here. (Though I will admit to ticking the “freeplay” box and living out lavish transit fantasies from time to time…)

  16. Colin December 15, 2010 at 4:30 am #

    I also played Sim City 1 on the Super Nintendo. I recall the instruction manual stating something to the effect of “the ideal SimCity runs entirely on rails” (that is, with no roads). Unrealistic, of course, but it’s quite a subversive things to say.

  17. samussas December 15, 2010 at 7:38 am #

    For me it will be Traffic Giant and the Japanese A-Train (now findable in it’s 8 version).

  18. Daniel Brice December 15, 2010 at 10:31 am #

    A few of the problems mentioned above can be fixed fairly easily in the binary without a big hit to cpu load. The problem with endless looping from city to city can be fixed by allowing a sim to leave a city only in case the other city has a higher propotion of jobs to residents than the current city. The problem with no shoppers or hospitals can be fixed by giving stores and hospitals a “ambient traffic level” that gets distributed among nearby transit tiles without needing a full trip calculation.
    The biggest problem is sort of touched-upon in Jarrett’s article but not in the comments so far: SimCity treats all transportations options as Personal Rapid Transit. The sim walks to a bus stop, there’s a bus waiting, the sim drives the bus over to the subway stop, where a train is waiting, and then drives the train to work. It’s ridiculous. Busses don’t even reduce traffic conjection–they leave traffic the same, they just travel *faster* than cars. This is just plain silly.
    It’s as though Richard Nixon himself came back from dead and told Maxis exactly what they needed to do in order to skew everyone’s ideas about public transportation.

  19. zilfondel December 15, 2010 at 12:36 pm #

    Yeah, without the Network Add-on Mod, the simulator is pretty much broken – people will take about 2 hours to commute 2 miles. The game development company, Maxis, created a broken algorithm that was so inefficient, they had to compensate by limiting commute times (and thus distances) by 1/10th the real world.
    Correspondingly, all buildings hold about 10 times too many people.
    The mod fixes this by allowing the sims in the game to commute reasonable distances. Unfortunately, the largest maps are 4 x 4 kilometers, but you can have several linked maps together.
    You find out more info here:
    Completely agree about the failure of being able to build service levels, however. And the game doesn’t give you a lot to do besides zone and build roads/rails…

  20. Jerard Wright December 15, 2010 at 2:55 pm #

    I play Sim City 4 in various strategies since 2008, I find that the best strategy to be succesful are;
    1) Right city grid size and design.
    2) The proper tax rates for the type of development that you want.
    3) Develop districts and have toll plazas between the main streets/avenues so that transit use increases.
    4) Plenty of parks and recreational space.
    When you think about it, minus the transit component when you have cul-de-sacs everywhere and longer distances between work and home then your SimCity will die and cost too much to operate and maintain, go more compact the transportation becomes the city’s main money maker.
    I find that if each city block is like 6×6 or 7×7 then you can have the 4×4 high density zoned housing next to a bus stop and then have room to place low density commercial to “simulate” the mixed-use zone.
    Its not perfect but we have to remember that SimCity is an abstract device to helps us understand how to efficiently design the built environment, it will never be programmed finely enough to simulate the mixed use development overlays.

  21. JJJ December 16, 2010 at 10:04 am #

    It’s a complicated game, and obviously transit was not the priority (hence why the majority of it was left for the expansion pack) but I think it does a good job at the basics.
    And as Chuck said, while it may not be accurate, it probably has done a good job of getting people interested in urban design.
    It’s been 6 years, so Im hoping they’re working on SC5. With newer computer technology, all the modeling can be more sophisticated.

  22. Wad December 16, 2010 at 10:04 pm #

    There’s also the German game Mobility, which in its first generation was a project of Daimler and the Frankfurt transit planning board.
    It’s at
    You get to draw your bus and rail routes.

  23. Kristen December 17, 2010 at 7:55 pm #

    I’m finding similar issues with Cityville on Facebook, albeit in that game people only get on buses to go to tourist attractions and it appears the cars are parked. I’m nowhere near unlocking my train so I can move people and freight.

  24. Daniel Howard December 21, 2010 at 1:27 pm #

    Simutrans here! There’s a steeper learning curve especially in mastering the block routing on the railroads but it is a free, open-source, and faithful attempt to let you roll up your sleeves and manage a transit network.
    I’d also give honorable mention to Cities XL. I haven’t played the 2011 version, but in the last version you had to set up bus depots and build the bus routes based on where their depots were located, balancing service coverage, service speed, and number of transfers. It was very pretty, too. Judging by screenshots it looks like the new version should have trains.

  25. Nathanael December 21, 2010 at 10:22 pm #

    I ended up at Simutrans as well. It’s based loosely on the Transport Tycoon designs, which are themselves *very* loosely related to the original Railroad Tycoon.
    SimCity was never about transportation. It has serious defects in its urban planning model even in *other* areas than transportation, but it really is sketchy on transportation. I’ll give it credit for trying to tackle pollution, though.

  26. Jmpalacios December 25, 2010 at 6:11 am #

    OK, people, why are you all using the old version of SimCity? SimCity Societies actually addresses several of the issues discussed here. In the demo version l placed a number of buildings without roadway access, just pavement for a pedestrian plaza–and people used it. I could see people milling around my plaza, even riding their bicycles on the roadway.
    People go to many more places than just work-home, as an integral part of Societies is happiness and you have to build bars and restaurants and bowling alleys and parks to give the people something to do.

  27. Art Lewellan December 25, 2010 at 12:08 pm #

    The city building games I recommend are “Zeus, Master of Olympus” and “Children of the Nile.” Both build agrarian economies and culture. Both are totally addictive AND an education in economics.
    Zeus builds stable neighborhoods, one by one, connected together into regional economies. Nile builds a larger and more elaborate single neighborhood (in 3D immersion) as a regional economy. Zeus is highly detailed 2D aerial perspective but in many ways the better gameplay. Both build magnificent cities. You will want to live there.
    Elements of these games are valuable material to study as a model for the next SimCity. You’d have to play them to understand what I mean. Zeus will take longer to master.
    I played the agrarian scenarios in ‘Societies’ for comparison, but the preacher was annoying as hell and other characters seem just too ambigious. People are unimportant? Zeus and Nile characters have occupational purpose and more personality, especially in Zeus.

  28. nickbilz December 26, 2010 at 3:33 pm #

    i love how much discussion a SimCity post generates. i’ve played the game for over a decade now as well, starting with the original version up to SC4 (until it started crashing my Mac a little too often), and share all of the above mentioned gripes with the game’s design from the limitations in the transportation networks to the Euclidian zoning. but my biggest beef with the game which is supposedly so important to planners, is the complete lack of an actual planning tool! there’s no way to sketch out ideas before building, from the most basic like street design and zoning patterns, to the more complex transit planning decisions about rails and highways. the only way to see what any decision might look like or cost is to build it. i’ve often found myself pausing the game, playing out one or two different ideas then reloading the city w/o saving and hoping i can remember all the details of the project i wanted to complete. very frustrating! i would love to see a planning tool that would allow you to sketch things out with varying levels of detail before building.

  29. Jarrett at December 26, 2010 at 5:03 pm #

    Nick.  Well, in that respect, it's a fairly accurate representation of how things work in cultures that don't value planning, and where the self-esteem of political leaders is specifically tied to building things.  Stuff gets built experimentally, everyone decides they don't like it, but the bulldozer is more expensive in real life so they avert their eyes and work around it. 

  30. Christine December 28, 2010 at 6:34 pm #

    I haven’t played Sim City since the 1990s, when I rejected it because of the lack of flexibility. I have since been curious about how it has evolved. I may have to give it another try, though I would really love it it if took fares and frequency into account.

  31. Christine December 28, 2010 at 6:41 pm #

    Ah, but now I see that Sim City doesn’t seem to work very well on Macs. I think I will check out Simutrans.

  32. Morgan Wick February 16, 2011 at 9:06 pm #

    Sorry for the lateness of this comment. The only alternative I’ve played is Traffic Giant, and when it doesn’t crash, I have some issues with it:
    *No subways.
    *Related to no subways: Non-tram railways usually involve chopping through buildings, which would be okay, but…
    *…every map is static and no redevelopment ever happens.
    *Non-tram rail stations take up a ton of space, which makes rail seem impractical for distances short enough to fit on the maps.
    *Bus routing seems to favor one-way loops over lines. (Is this a peculiarly Euro thing?)
    *Buses and other transit vehicles ply their loops continuously, with no layover, and people are constantly starting new trips; perhaps a necessary condition of showing the transit arteries working on the map, but as a result there is no day/night transition, and no possibility of peak-only routes. There isn’t even an easy model of what frequency your routes are running at, only the pure number of vehicles.
    *On the maps I’ve played (admittedly mostly early ones), most lines have so much demand they could fill up the one double-decker bus the game offers, creating the impression of a transit paradise. (Is there an HT post on when to favor capacity over frequency or vice versa? It could help my Traffic Giant playing.)
    *Accidents are inevitable no matter what you do, and when they happen your “Image” plummets to near zero and congestion piles up, forcing you to make draconian fare cuts to get people back on the buses despite the increased congestion.
    *No ability to make routing, capital, or other decisions when the game is paused… which is a problem when a game mode allows you to play against CPU opponents, especially when the relationship between you and the opponents is strictly competitive rather than cooperative. (The one tips page I found actually recommends duplicating your opponents’ routes.)
    *Walking is unheard of (except to get to the roads or transit stops). Kids going to the school right next door will drive if there isn’t a bus that can make the trip.
    *Buses are hard-coded to a lane and will never change lanes to get around congestion. Lane changes in general are impossible except at intersections. Result: Unless your intent is to make an express (and there’s little incentive to do so), there’s no reason for buses to use the left lane… unless it’s a one-way street, in which case buses can somehow board on their left, while also being able to board on the right, despite the models you see showing no obvious ability to do so.
    *Could stand to use more information in general.
    *Somewhat hilarious encoding of 1950s gender roles in the name of simplicity; all men go off to work each day, all women are housewives who go shopping.

  33. Morgan Wick February 16, 2011 at 10:03 pm #

    Forgot another one: route numbering is hard-coded in the order that you lay them down, so unless you really plan ahead, say goodbye to any rational or otherwise aesthetic route-numbering system.