Notes on SimCity at 30

Car oriented development looks a lot more viable when you hide all the parking!

Yes, the first attempt at a comprehensive city planning game, Sim City, is 30 years old.  Jessica Roy in the Los Angeles Times has a good piece on how the game helped turn people onto city planning …

Along the way, the games have introduced millions of players to the joys and frustrations of zoning, street grids and infrastructure funding — and influenced a generation of people who plan cities for a living. For many urban and transit planners, architects, government officials and activists, “SimCity” was their first taste of running a city. It was the first time they realized that neighborhoods, towns and cities were things that were planned, and that it was someone’s job to decide where streets, schools, bus stops and stores were supposed to go.

… while also reinforcing some bad 20th century ideologies.  Sim City …

  • conceals the impacts of parking, thereby making car-dependent development look more functional and attractive than it is.
  • requires single-use zoning.  You can’t live above your shop, or have a grocery store in your office building.
  • requires car access to every building.  Pedestrianized urban cores are impossible, no matter the density.
  • treats transit very superficially, not allowing the user to specify routes and frequencies, and giving the misleading impression that any kind of transit, anywhere, produces some vague benefit.  Thus there is nothing to stop you from common mistakes like building high density in culdesacs, where efficient transit could never get to it.

Recently, I did a quick look at available iPad city planning games.  I tried Megapolis, Designer City, Pocket City, and Sim City: BuildIt.   They’re all built on the same four fallacies, and their handling of transit ranges from comical to nonexistent.  (Sim City BuildIt actually starts with a greenfield freeway interchange, leaving no doubt what kind of city they expect you to build.)

My past articles on SimCity are here, here, here, and here.   Sim City gets credit as a pioneer, but it’s run its course.  I hope we see more planning games that try to get transportation right, and games that try to do transit in particular.  If you’re working on one, let’s talk!

  (Photo: BLDGBLOG)


How do the network changes affect your trip?

Here's a great way to help people understand how a transit service change or project will affect them.

Houston METRO has released a new tool to help people understand the upcoming major changes to the city's transit system. It puts two trip planners side-by-side: one routing via routes in the existing network, the other via the routes of the New Bus Network

Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 10.31.56 AM

Houston's transit network is about to change dramatically, and everyone is going to have to learn how to use the new one.This lets anybody quickly compare different trips trips to see both how a trip will go in the new system, and how long it will take.  It could be a great educational tool in the public consultation phase, not just when implementation is occurring.

It can also make the tradeoffs implied in the system redesign explicit. For example, in the trip above, a grid movement in southeast Houston is now much faster due to the reduced waiting times on frequent network routes in the area. Other transit systems implementing major changes would do well to build similar apps.

However, while the dual trip planner is great for understanding how the changes effect specific trips, it is less useful for developing a sense of how the overall mobility level changes across the city with the new network. As an extension of this same idea, a companion tool could be developed that would compare the transit isochrones of different points in Houston in the existing and new networks. Not only would a person be able to understand how specific trips from one point to another change, but how the area of the city (and all of the opportunities located within it) accessible by transit changes as well.

Knowing it in your hands

IMG_4520I'm writing this while our Interactive Course in Transit Network Design in Seattle goes on around me.  About 25 people are huddled around maps having intensely animated conversations about what the best possible transit network would look like.  Now and then someone comes up and asks a (good) question.  

This kind of workshop is not just "inexcusably fun," as one student called it, but it's also the best way to get a practical grasp of the transit tool.  If you've actually tried designing a transit network, you have some knowledge of the material in your hands, not just in your head, and hand-knowledge is easier for the mind to trust and integrate.  Hand-knowledge (also called body knowledge) is knowledge you trust without even having to think about it.  It's the very essence of what we perceive as obvious.

The biggest problem facing urban transportation in North America is that most influential people have hand-knowledge of driving cars but only brain knowledge of other transportation options, if that.  Hand-knowledge is so powerful in us that it governs the metaphors and assumptions we bring to other topics.  When people ask me why transit isn't serving their labyrinthine business park, or ask why it can't run smaller buses that fit better into their neighborhood, or why it can't run sexier vehicles with nicer seating, they're assuming that transit is just like cars, only bigger.  And until you've taken some time to play with what transit really is, that's a compelling delusion and therefore a consequential one for policymaking.  

Transit is not just like cars.  It's also not just like bikes or any other private vehicle.  It's not just like taxis or Uber either.  It's a completely different thing, and to know it you have to touch it.

A lot of experienced transit riders do have this kind of knowledge, though you also have to be able to separate what's convenient for you from what makes a good network for the city.  (The public outreach for the Houston System Reimagining asked people both "Is this better for you?" and "Is this better for Houston?" to try to prompt both kinds of thinking.).  Many existing transit riders aren't able to make that distinction, but those who can become powerful advocates and leaders.  

Hands-on workshops are also the essence of my firm's approach to all forms of outreach, not just formally educational activities like this course.  A key part of all of our planning projects is the stakeholder workshop, where key leaders from a city sit down and do network planning exercises together.  At first it seems amazing that such busy people are willing to take the time to do this, but on reflection it's less so.  Great leaders know they don't know everything, and are eager for fun ways to expand their hand-knowledge.  

The other great frontier, of course, lies in web-based tools that let people have some of this experience at home.  Explicit games that involve designing transit networks are either wildly simplifed (Mini Metro) or arcane (Cities in Motion) or massively misleading (Sim City).  (I've heard good things about Cities:Skylines but don't have the supercomputer needed to run it smoothly.)  What's needed is something less graphically complex that still helps people explore the essences.  

But of course games don't have to call themselves games.  Transitmix is an excellent and fast-developing tool for sketching and costing transit networks.  As it adds features that measure outcomes, it takes on the features of a game:  It's a space where you can try out different transit plans, see the results, and gradually figure out what kinds of network work best.  This is one of the most effective kinds of learning, because the result is hand-knowledge.  

Hand-knowledge doesn't always make you an explainer, of course.  I've met many transit planning professionals who have great instincts but can't describe their thought process. So we work back and forth between hand-knowledge and brain-knowledge.  Feel how this substance works in your hands, but then spend a little time thinking more about what you've learned from that. Get your brain and your hand on the same page.  Then you're ready to change the world, or at least figure out the real transit issues in your community.  

learning from “mini metro”

Mini metro logoI've long wished there were an computer game that would require players to figure out the basic facts of transit network design.  I don't mean complex simulation games like Cities in Motion, Transport Tycoon or (shudderSimCity, which simulate so many things that it's hard to focus on the network element.  I mean a game that is simple but engaging the way chess is, and where the strategy you need to learn happens to also be What City-Makers Need to Understand About Transit (but Often Don't).  

Games are a good way of thinking about real problems (see Jane McGonegal's great book Reality is Broken).   And there are plenty of geeks out there, in city-building professions and advocacy, who'd enjoy learning this way.  I use (non-computer) games in all my courses and stakeholder workshops because things you've played with are things you remember.

Well, now there's a draft of the very game I've been imagining, thanks to Peter and Robert Curry of the New Zealand gameshop Dinosaur Polo Club.   Their game, Mini Metro, is  simple, fun, and (if this is a virtue) addictive.  And if you notice what's going on, you'll learn some sound principles of network design that will serve you well, no matter what your role is in creating the cities of the future.  

This post is not a critique of Peter's and Robert's work.  They eagerly emphasize that they're not transit experts; they're just clever blokes who set out to create a fun game about transit, and who succeeded.  My focus here is twofold.  First, let's notice how accurate a game that set out to be fun turns out to be.  Second, let's think about what steps you'd take to make it a little more accurate, if you wanted to.  

Here's how it works.

You choose one of several world cities, which basically gives you a famous set of water features that will require bridges or tunnels.  Start the game, and little shapes start appearing.  These are potential stations, with demand for travel to other places.  Click on a shape and connect two of them, and you've built a line, where a short train starts running back and forth.  Before long, you have something like this, from a recent session of the Cairo game.  

Mini metro cairo early

(If you don't like the background color, play one of the other cities; I think this one is trying to suggest desert sand.)

Early in the game, you see circles and triangles, and a single square.  Next to each symbol, you'll see little black symbols accumulate.  Those represent someone at that station who wants to go to a station of the specified shape.  For example, in the image above, at the circle station at the south end of my Red Line, above, someone is waiting who wants to go to a triangle.  

The demand-generation rules of Mini Metro are oversimplified, but not disastrously so.  People always want to go to a station of a different symbol.  Most demand is between a circle and a triangle.  You'll note that in the sample above, I've arranged a radial network so that identical symbols (between which there's no demand) are never adjacent on a line, and so that each circle or triangle is connected to a nearby symbol of the other type.    

Both circles and triangles also generate demand to squares; initially there's only one square but gradually more appear.  If you like, the square is downtown, the triangles are local retail/activity centers, and the circles are residential areas.  Because all stations generate demand to squares, and initially there's only one, it's logical to start by building a radial network, like the one above, with the single square at the hub.

So far, the game has presented two obvious oversimplifications.  First, there is no "mixed use," but this is accurate in a way:  Players experience the transport demand problems created by monotonous single-use development patterns.  The residences (circles) are all over here, and the shopping (triangles) are all over there, and a bunch of important things are only downtown (squares), so everybody has to get from here to there, over a distance too far to walk.    So there's lots of need for transport in this city, even from the earliest days!

Second, the society represented by Mini Metro displays some strongly fictional features.  A black triangle by a symbol means someone wants to go to any triangle, not a particular one.   Not only are people content to go to whichever shopping center the next train is going to, they feel the same way about jobs and even about homes!  Nobody  in this city wants to go to their own home+family, but just to whichever is easiest to get to on the next train.  Clearly, we are in a science-fictional society that engages in spontaneous partner-swapping and communal parenting on a citywide scale.

But does this simplification get in the way of the accuracy of the game in conveying how earthbound transit networks are designed?  Only to a point.  It makes the game much easier than real network design is.  In Mini Metro if a circle is connected directly to any triangle, it doesn't need to be connected to others, whereas a real residential area will generate specific demand to each of the retail/activity centers nearby.  

On this point, the game encourages a  lazy design habit that creates problems the real world: focusing  on the large-scale flows of demand to the point that you neglect the fact that people are going from everywhere to everywhere.  I can't tell you how often I've seen someone point to a map and say "these people, they're all going over there!"  What that really means is that above the high level of everywhere-to-everywhere demand, there's some preponderance of demand from this place to that place, but this pattern is rarely as big as it's made to appear.  Some people are just uncomfortable thinking about the reality of everywhere-to-everywhere demand, and need to oversimplify.  Be suspicious when you hear statements of that form. 

Look again at that first screenshot above.  At this stage, I've gotten to nine stations with a totally radial system, and it's working fine, but that's an artifact of the game's oversimplification.  In the real world, someone in that circle at the west end of the Blue Line would want to go to the triangle on the same side of the river — because in a real city, people are going everywhere.  Mini Metro makes that not my problem as a designer, but in a more accurate game it would be; we would see more complex demand patterns, perhaps with many people willing to go to the nearest triangle but some needing to go to specific ones.  

In the upper right of the screen is a timer that counts off days of the week.  Every seven days, you get one "locomotive" (which is to say, another train you can add to an existing line, increasing frequency).  You also get either a new line, a new carriage (which adds to the capacity of an existing train, or a new tunnel or bridge to extend another line across the water body.  I like the Cairo and London games because they don't need a lot of tunnels, which enables me to focus more on network structure.  Mini Metro also includes cities with much more complicated water barriers (Osaka, Hong Kong, Auckland) if you like dealing with those.

The object of the game is to carry as many people as possible to their destinations before any station exceeds its capacity.  In the image above, I've already carried 36 people in this early stage of the game, per the counter just to the left of the clock in the upper right.   If people accumulate at a station faster than trains come to pick them up, the station is marked as critical and you have some time to intervene.  Eventually, though, the game ends with so many stations over capacity that you can't manage to get a train to them all soon enough, and that's the end.  The number of people you've carried by that time is your final score.

This is not, of course, how real transit networks die.   But it is true that capacity is considered a must-solve problem by many transport engineers.   Meanwhile, it's very realistic to score a game on how many people reached their destinations.  That's access, after all, or if you're a businessman it's also fare revenue.

When I say that some engineers think capacity is a must-solve problem, am I implying that it isn't?  Well, in the real world, some capacity problems are so expensive that they are not worth solving, so people stop travelling.  Likewise, if you add a lot of new capacity, you will get more people using it.  These are the phenomena of suppressed and induced demand, respectively.  Unlike the citizens of a Mini Metro city, real people have a range of choices, and choose transit or not based on how it stacks up against alternatives.  (The same things happens with roads, of course.)  So more capacity attracts more people and less capacity pushes them away.  There's a longer term land use impact of this process that can be positive.  If you don't keep meeting a very expensive capacity demand, the development pattern will eventually adjust to one that doesn't require so much capacity — for example, one that fosters generally shorter commutes by putting jobs and appropriate housing closer together.

The Mini Metro world has none of that nuance; instead, it runs on the assumptions of classical transport engineering.  Demand is envisioned as being like floodwater: it's coming at you in a predictable quantity, nothing you do can change that, so you just have to handle it somehow.  So this is another simplification that can mislead.  

Let's take the game above a little further.  Again, here is the radial network that evolved early in the game, with an alternation of circles and triangles on every line.

Mini metro cairo early


And a bit later it looked like this:

Mini metro cairo early plus 1

Something interesting has happened on the west side of Cairo.

In the first screenshot, the Green Line west of the river had only one circle to serve, so I routed it through the triangle to end at the circle.  But as more station areas appeared — that is, the city grew due to single-use development — I was presented with a problem.  The original circle was south of the triangle, so I had turned the Green Line south to end there.  The next circle that appeared, however, was northwest of the triangle, and a reasonably direct line could not serve both.  This is the "Be on the Way" principle, probably the single fact about transit that the city-building professions are least likely to understand.   The "be on the way" principle says: "If you want your new development to have great transit service, put it on a direct path with other places that do."  

In this case, I can imagine what happened.  The developer of the first circle, south of the triangle at the west end of the Green Line, took it for granted that the green line would be extended to him, and it was because he was there first.  Meanwhile, the second developer, northwest of the triangle, assumed that the Green Line could be extended to him.  But it couldn't be extended because the triangle was no longer end of the line.  (Mini Metro doesn't allow branching, but if it did that wouldn't really solve the problem because branching divides frequency.)

So the appearance of that one circle northwest of the triangle required me to rearrange the whole westside network structure.  I extended the Blue Line north so that it would cover both southern circles and end at the triangle, making it possible to extend the Green Line to the new circle out to the northwest.  It's never good to have two identical symbols connected, because there's no direct demand between them, but often it's unavoidable.  Here, it's manageable because once the Blue Line extends to a triangle, its trains will pick up triangle-bound people from these two circles in both directions of travel.  This doubles the effective frequency for getting to any triangle, which is all that our flexible citizens seek to do.

Let's notice some other things that have happened by the time of the second screenshot, above.  Apart from the westside problem I just described, I've been able to arrange the rest of the network so that stations visit circles and triangles in alternation.  This is a very efficient use of capacity, because many people ride for just one station; that means we turn over the load quickly, serving many people with few trains.  By contrast, if we have a series of circles with no triangle, each circle's demand adds to that of the previous circle, so we hit the capacity limit of the train sooner, and start leaving people behind.

Is it good that the game's goal is to optimize capacity rather than optimize customer travel time? Real transit agencies care about both, and at low levels of demand (early in the game, say) they're very different.  But they do tend to converge, mathematically, as cities grow.  The key elements of transit travel time are speed and frequency, but these are both elements of capacity as well.  Obviously, too, a capacity failure means that a train leaves the station without you, and that affects your travel time as well.

Less realistic is the game's construction of costing.   In the game, adding a carriage to a train is more expensive than adding another train, where in reality the opposite is true.  In the game, the cost of a carriage is the same as the cost of a tunnel/bridge — which amounts to confusing millions with billions — and it's also the same as the cost of a "new line."  Lines, of course, do not make sense as cost units at all.  Their cost is entirely a function of their length, the vehicles on them, etc.  "Line" is just a unit of nomenclature.  (Once more with feeling: When a transit agency brags about how many lines or routes they run, they are not bragging about the quantity or quality of their service; they are bragging about its complexity.)  Finally, of course, capital and operations costing are conflated, which is not necessarily fatal in a game this simple, but would need to be thought about. 

Now let's skip well ahead in my Cairo game, to see how the network evolves.

Mini metro cairo early plus 2

The city kept adding more station areas — new development nodes — and I've been forced to extend service to them.  In particular, more squares have appeared, signifying multiple regional centers — like the original downtown — that draw demand from longer distances.    Also, many more unique citywide destinations have appeared, such as the cross in the southeast part of town that presumably represents a hospital.  Third, there are more maddening cases where the various demand generators are not conveniently balanced.  West of the river, for example, there are now ten circles, three triangles, and no squares.  That means that it's impossible to set up lines with an ideal alternation of circles and triangles, because there aren't anough triangles per circle.  It also means  everyone from that part of town who's going to a square (or any unique citywide destination) has to cross the river, which means long-distance demand flows that will consume lots of capacity on all the east-west lines.  

That, ultimately, is the problem that will cause this network to fail.  When a station goes over capacity because it's impossible to run enough trains across the river, everyone will yell at the transit agency.  But the problem is a land use problem.  If there were a square on the west side of the river, and the triangles were spread out more widely, the network could be more efficient, which means a lot more people could have accessed their destinations, and gotten on with their lives, without requiring so much expensive transit capacity.

A great thing about Mini Metro, then, is that it accurately conveys the exasperation of transportation planners about transport-ignorant land use planning.  Sometimes, there's nothing but circles in one part of the map.  You can either put them all on one line, which will go over capacity at once, or run a whole bunch of parallel lines to different circles, at huge expense.  Either way is inefficient, and the emotions you are likely to feel about this impossible land use pattern — analogous to many square miles of residential with few destinations, all requiring travel in a single direction at the same time — are definitely putting you in a transport planner's shoes!

What else has happened in the game by this time?  As a result of the city getting larger, the network has not only grown but changed.  Once other squares appeared, it was no longer necessary to run the whole network to the original central square.  Instead, the demand pattern called for a grid, the ideal network structure for a city with balanced everywhere-to-everywhere demand.  Of course, the demand is still not balanced, because of the land use patterns, but as the city has grown it has grown more diverse, with more different kinds of destinations in many areas, so this is moving toward an approximation of everywhere-to-everywhere.  

If you can't see a grid in the screenshot above, look closer.  From top to bottom, the east-west elements are the Grey Line, the Blue Line, and the Orange Line.  From left to right, the north-south elements are the Orange Line, the Green Line, the Red Line, and the Grey Line.  The Grey and Orange serve as both because they are L-shapes.  L-shapes are fine in a grid as long as they main bend of the L occurs on the edge of the city and not in the middle.  

They key requirements of a true grid are observed:  Each north-south or east-west element continues all the way across the grid so that it connects with every perpendicular element.  This means that all trips are possible with a single connection.  This is a good thing for customer travel time, but it is also a good thing for managing station capacity, the ultimate object of the game, because connections are a main cause of station overcrowding.

If you compare the last two images, you'll see that in evolving the grid I've had to change the network substantially, rather than just grow from the orginal radial network.  Earlier we discussed the Green Line on the westside, but now the Green Line doesn't go there at all.  In the earlier radial system this line went north out of downtown and then turned west.  Once another square appeared in the north-central part of the city, it made sense to let the Green Line continue north to that and create a new east-west Grey Line.  In fact, much of the original radial structure has been revised.  

Grids, I should add, aren't always the answer.  The game includes a couple of cities, notably Auckland and Osaka, where there are so many water barriers that the need to conserve tunnels imposes a dramatically different shape.  Auckland, a series of ithsmuses, seems to work best with local circulators and strong axes linking them (the trick is to put all the citywide destinations on the axes, which are then one transfer from almost anywhere).  

Auckland 1

Indeed, the essence of what's fun about this game is that you have to keep revising your notion about what's a good structure.  You don't know where or what the new station dots will be.  You may develop one structure to deal with a poor circle-triangle ratio, as on the west side, but then more triangles will appear and you need to change the structure substantially to take advantage of that.  Playing the game, you notice your attachment to your network ideas, but winning lies in letting go of a network pattern as soon as it no longer fits the growing city.  If there are not too many water barriers, grids are almost always the answer, but what you're seeking is a marriage of the grid principle with the actual geography and land use, and that marriage is always evolving.

The final phase of the game is, of course, the most frustrating.  Demand grows everywhere, and as stations fill up with waiting passengers, little clocks appear at them counting down to the moment when they fail and you lose the game.  A basic strategy is to keep one line in the bank, so that you can create a short, temporary line wherever it's needed as a capacity problem occurs.  If a station is over capacity, and I can see that no train with enough spare room will get there in time, I can build a little two-station line from that station to wherever its people most need to get to.  It runs one trip to evacuate the station, then I remove it and deploy the same line at the next critical station.  (In the Auckland screenshot above, the pale magenta line is one of these temporary relief lines, which I'd just removed.)

We have discovered the most realistic thing about Mini Metro:  If you want to win, think of these "trains" as buses.  

In real rail transit systems, you cannot simply abandon a rail line and build a new one — certainly not just to handle an overcrowding problem.  But to do well in Mini Metro you must revise the network repeatedly, and the last phase of the game you'll deploy lots of one-time-only temporary lines  In fact, for best results, make sure you also have a spare tunnel, so that if you have to get a train quickly to a station on an island, you can build a temporary line to a destination across the water, deleting it after use.  

To a rail engineer, all this is ridiculous, but to a transit network designer, it's the game's most realistic feature.

Build a subway line to run one train once, then tear it out?  No, this is not how rail transit works, but it's very much how buses work, and it's good thing, too.  That's why buses provide a much better sandbox for network design thinking.  When you build powerful networks with buses,  mistakes cost thousands rather than billions, so they're more likely to be repaired.  Real-life transit networks do need to evolve, usually from radial beginnings to more gridlike structures.  That's been theme of many of our recent network redesigns — in Houston and Columbus and even (if you squint) Auckland.  

Of course, this is not a bus vs. rail post; I hope I've established by now that "rail vs bus" is a false and boring dualism.  Rail is needed in many places, but rail mistakes are much bigger than bus mistakes.  When I advise on rail networks, for example, I'm always trying to make sure that planned lines make sense in the context of a much larger city and network of the future.  Grid patterns are safe because they work in so many possible future land use patterns, but I sense danger when a city proposes to build too many radial lines, or proposes short rail fragments that might one day be extended to a useful scale but that turn out to be net obstacles in the meantime (Hello, Toronto!).  

So while it's fun to imagine you're drawing a metro, Mini Metro rewards revision, which means it's about the kind of design that requires the flexibility of buses.  Buses are not flexible forever; well-designed networks do finally settle into successful patterns that become permanent, which means they could safely be converted to rail in the future.   But for now, your rail lines are really bus lines — or, since this is a science-fictional society — a sexy transit tool that's low-infrastructure and hence easy to revise. 

In my recent correspondence with Peter Curry, he mentioned that he was thinking about revising the game to make it more expensive to change structures that are already built.  I hope he doesn't, because that will make it a very different game, one that's about infrastructure instead of networks. Infrastructure is expensive, permanent, rigid, consequential, hard to make decisions about, and therefore best used only when necessary, which it often is.  Networks are full of possibility, are focused on liberating human beings, and for some of us can also be endless fun to think about.  Besides, there are already plenty of infrastructure games.  When it comes, I'm pretty sure that the ideal network planning game — and online teaching tool — will learn a great deal from what Peter and Robert Curry have done in Mini Metro.  

visualizing transit: subway operations made beautiful

Grad students Mike Barry and Brian Card have produced an impressive new set of interactive visualizations of Boston's subway system. It's worth having a look for yourself here; much is lost when these are reduced to a screenshot. They've looked at key transit metrics like travel time, passenger volume, vehicle delay, and station congestion among other topics, all drawn from MBTA's open realtime data, in a style inspired by the content-first approach of design guru Edward Tufte.

 The image below is an example, showing the time of point-to-point trips of individual trains through the day. In this chart, the steeper the slope of the line, the longer the trip took. Scrolling through the day, the effect of the peak periods becomes apparent as the quantity and steepness of lines increases. 

Another example of the type of work skilled information designers can produce when public agencies make their data available. 

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 4.48.10 PM



overcrowding and underfunding: the lessons of “mini metro”

Last week, several people emailed me to make sure I had seen Mini Metro, a simple but absorbing transit game that’s come out in alpha.   

Mini metro

Between deadlines, I played a little, but in two hours we reached a win-win condition: The program was sure it had beaten me, and I was pretty sure I’d exhausted its possibilities.

The deal here is that you can draw lines but you can’t site stations.  You build your first humming three-station metro, but then new stations just appear, further and further out, emitting graphical screams until you extend lines to serve them.   

Untitled 2

Each line has just one vehicle on it, so as the line is extended its frequency drops, so it visits each station less often, increasing the risk of crowding.  That's accurate in its own way: Under any fixed budget, frequency and extent are inversely related.  

Survive enough time and you’ll get upgrades: an additional line, or a chance to increase a line’s speed and capacity so that it drains its stations  more often. 

But it’s not enough.  Before you know it, stations are getting overcrowded and when one of them finally fails, remarkably, the game calls this “losing” and ends.  You see it as a little clockface loop on a crowded station, in this case the next to last station from the west end of the Blue Line.

Untitled 3

You are not offered options to encourage flexible work hours, run shuttle buses, or hire Japanese train-packing specialists.  Every round I played ended up in the “station failure” condition.  

There's plenty of nonsense here.  Optimizing for capacity is a very different problem than optimizing for customer utility or freedom.  With a single train on each line, you add capacity by doubling up lines at key stations, or sometimes by creating odd loops whose purpose is to visit each station often, not necessarily run straight lines that would be useful to the customer.  In the session above, a looping downtown shuttle seemed useful, for example, though these are usually disappointing in reality.   Still …

There are may ways to construct a transit game, but if you want it simple and sexy, a metro game that focuses on capacity is not a bad way to go.   What’s more, although many of the assumptions are absurd, the game’s final message is surprisingly accurate:  Politicians demand that transit systems spread out but not that they provide enough intensity — whether that means frequency, speed, or in this case capacity.  Transit agencies are always being told to spread themselves thin. 

In Mini Metro, the relentless appearance of new stations (often in awkward and expensive places) mimics this constant pressure on transit agencies to spread out horizontally.  The slow trickle of funding – most of it spent just keeping up with that spread – is never enough to stop overcrowding.  Sooner or later, transit agencies have to invest in core capacity – new lines or bigger platforms  where the failure points are, which is often downtown.  But to too many local leaders, that’s read as “spending too much money downtown instead of in the neighborhoods,” or "they already have a transit line, so why are they getting another when my district/city/ward has none?" 

That's why Los Angeles's crucial new downtown rail link is called the Regional Connector, emphasizing (truly) that the whole region benefits from it.  Toronto is considering renaming its proposed “downtown relief line” for similar reasons.  

Imagine how a campaign to get every city councilor playing a well-designed game might raise consciousness.  

If any developers out there are interested in working with me on this, let me know.  As longtime readers know, I’ve been thinking about this for years.

boston: revealing the beauty of the useful bus

There seems to be no end to the uses creative people can find for NextBus feeds. This from Bostonography:

Screen Shot 2013-06-06 at 14.24.08

Screenshot of MBTA Bus Speed Map. Live version available at :

This map shows point-to-point speeds for MBTA buses across the Boston area. Like a stoplight, red lines are the slowest, green are the fastest. While the content of the map is unsurprising (freeways and tunnels make up the fastest segments, downtown streets and major intersections the slowest), this type of visualization is valuable because it takes the seemingly mundane function of a complex transit system and transforms it into a beautiful, comprehensible piece of art.

When we talk about beauty in transit, its easy to get stuck on the characteristics of the vehicles themselves: that shiny streetcar, or the sexy new buses for a branded express service. Properly displayed by someone with a sophisticated design sensibility, the mobility and access that a transit system can provide comes into focus as a dense latticework of possible trips. Local bus service might seem mundane when seen on the street, but visualized in terms of its utility as a system enabling people to get where they are going, it can be be a thing of beauty. 

real-time transit mapping: watch your system in motion

Many transit agencies subscribe to the idea of "Open Data", publishing bundles of information on the system. These feeds contain data on stops, routes, arrival times, fare information, headways, and other pieces of useful data. Even more interestingly, these feeds often have buried within them the ability to access vehicle GPS data, which provides the ability to find out where a transit agency's vehicles are in near-realtime (limited by the speed at which these location queries can be returned).

Developers have long used feeds published by transit agencies for trip planning applications, which are useful in the extent that they can tell you when you need to be at your stop to get to your destination. However, this information source has always contained within it the potential for much more emancipatory uses. Recall Nate Wessel's guest post here on the shortfalls of Google Transit.

Recently, an innovative new use of this technology has begun to be deployed. In Portland, Seattle, London, San Francisco, and perhaps elsewhere, developers have taken the data provided by transit agencies and done something revolutionary: drawn maps of where all the transit vehicles are at any time.

Obviously the image above is a still from a map whose utility depends upon its continual movement- I encourage you to visit the site to see for yourself. A consistent symbology seems to be emerging, where two colors represent inbound and outbound service – in this case red is going out, and blue in – with separate colors representing the different technologies present on the map. 

Browniefed over at github explains how this all works:

Buses are using short wave radios to transmit there position. They currently send updates every 30 seconds, and TriMet sees the update about 3 seconds later. Each bus gets a turn sending it's position and works like a tolken ring network. Previously it took 90 – 130 seconds and if a bus missed it's turn then it would be double that time (meaning for 1-5 minutes they would not know the position of a bus)

Buses do not actually send GPS coordinates back, what they do send is distance traveled along their trip. They do use GPS but primarily they are using the odometer for tracking position. There is also a door sensor, to verify that a bus is at a stop. There are all sorts of calibration issues with the odometer and drivers have reported that the vehicle is not updating its schedule adherence until the door opens.

So this is cool, but is it useful? How does having access to the realtime position data improve the user relationship with the transit system? These maps don't give any indication of how soon a bus is coming, or how long you will have to wait for it. They don't tell you where the bus is going, beyond showing the position of the next bus up the line. Of course there is no way to determine the time interval between your stop and the position of the bus icon. As a trip planning tool, live bus maps are next to useless.

However, as a method of communicating the shape of the entire network, live bus mapping does something very interesting. It translates frequency into a very simple unit- number of buses. A map reader can see very easily which parts of the city have a lot of buses, and which have few; which places have overlapping services or an interlocking grid, and which are provided only infrequent lifeline routes. Perhaps this technology could someday be integrated or displayed alongside isochrone visualizations as part of a map of the freedom of mobility afforded by a system, but to my eyes, for the moment this is a very technically accomplished curiosity. 


    how sim city greenwashes parking

     Here's a shot of an edge city from the new SimCity. Notice what's missing?

    2 WATC close up
      (Source: BLDGBLOG)

    From Geoff Manaugh's interview of the new SimCity's designer, Stone Librande:

    Geoff Manaugh: While you were making those measurements of different real-world cities, did you discover any surprising patterns or spatial relationships?

    Librande: Yes, definitely. I think the biggest one was the parking lots. When I started measuring out our local grocery store, which I don’t think of as being that big, I was blown away by how much more space was parking lot rather than actual store. That was kind of a problem, because we were originally just going to model real cities, but we quickly realized there were way too many parking lots in the real world and that our game was going to be really boring if it was proportional in terms of parking lots. 

    Manaugh: You would be making SimParkingLot, rather than SimCity.

    Librande: [laughs] Exactly. So what we do in the game is that we just imagine they are underground. We do have parking lots in the game, and we do try to scale them—so, if you have a little grocery store, we’ll put six or seven parking spots on the side, and, if you have a big convention center or a big pro stadium, they’ll have what seem like really big lots—but they’re nowhere near what a real grocery store or pro stadium would have. We had to do the best we could do and still make the game look attractive. 

    In other words:  SimCity deliberately misleads players about parking because if they showed parking in its true dimensions, it might make dysfunctional land use patterns look (and act) dysfunctional.  

    And we can't have that.  

    Sim City contains other examples where the real math underlying how cities work is distorted to appeal to supposedly prevailing prejudices, but few are as egregious as this one.  Practically any working urban planner will tell you that managing parking, without a SimCity tooth fairy that builds it for free underground, is a dominant factor in urban form and perhaps the biggest single obstacle to denser and more sustainable forms of development.  Change that assumption, as SimCity does, and you're working in fairyland.

    And it's refreshing to hear the designer confess that the distortion is intentional — a lie rather than a confusion.  

    Game makers can say it's only a game, just as movies that glorify violence are only movies.  But like movies, seemingly realistic and immersive simulation games teach people to misunderstand how the world works in a way that makes them less effective in dealing with the world.  Of course, SimCity has been doing this  – with an explicitly anti-urban bias that belies its name — since the beginning.

    sim city will continue to mislead on transit

    Ian Miles Cheong updates us on the struggles of Electronic Arts to get the new SimCity right.  But it sounds like EA is committed to the original SimCity idea that the user can place stations and pieces of track, but the program will decide the paths that the buses and trains follow.  And it doesn't decide very well.  Key quote from EA's designer Guillaume Pierre:

    1. If there are 300 Sims waiting for the streetcar on the other side of the loop for example, they may have to wait a long time for the vehicles to make their way. To remedy this problem, we’re looking into make crowded stops “high priority pick-up” destinations that transit vehicles will go to first.

    2. Another problem is that, well, all the vehicles that are in the same area and want to go to the same destination type will all follow the same path, resulting in clumping and general traffic problems. We’re looking into various ways to improve the situation so traffic will spread out better.

    If this all sounds oddly like demand-responsive service, well, that's more or less the model of fixed route service — even subways — that EA is using.  

    I criticized Sim City (original and version 4) long ago, but my understanding that EA's priority continues to be "immersiveness" for the gamer, not any relationship to reality.  (Yes, I'm aware this argument is like the argument about whether movies about science and history should be accurate or at least flag their biases — and given their influence I personally wish they did.)  I look forward to what the new Cities in Motion 2, expected soon, comes up with.