transit as a city’s bloodstream: the video

Watch this video, and maybe you'll grasp the beauty of a great transit network, a beauty that has nothing to do with the technology it runs, but everything to do with the real life of a city and the feedom of its people.  Public transit vehicles moving around Greater Vancouver, an entire day compressed into 2.5 minutes.

The original is here.  It's by STLTransit, who has done a number of other cities.

Long ago I posted another of these, for Auckland, New Zealand.  It uses endearing tadpoles instead of white dots.  It's also interesting because Auckland's is not a single unified network, as Vancouver's is, (although we're working on it!).  You can see the difference if you watch closely, using the tips below.

So many people see public transit only as a vehicle on the street, or a thing they're waiting for.  But when you watch this video of a well-designed unified transit network, you can see that it's a gigantic interconnected organism.  And like all organisms, it's made up of complex but rhythmic motion.

Like your heart and lungs, the network effect of transit is quiet, ignorable, and yet the foundation of everything.   The network is one being, moving to a beat.  It's made of connections,  little sparks of energy that you must imagine whenever two dots touch, as the dots hand off to one another like relay runners.  For example, as you watch the video, watch this spot, especially toward the middle of the day:

Vanc tadpoles note phibbs

That's Phibbs Exchange, an example of strong pulse scheduling. At a langorous pace (representing a pulse every half hour or even every hour) you'll see many white dots gather themselves into a single bright dot, shine brightly for a moment, then "pulse" outward again.  What's happening is that many buses that run infrequently are converging on a point and sitting together briefly, so that people can transfer from any bus to any other.



I'm not sure I'll ever convey to my non-transit friends that regardless of what you think of buses, a pulse is a beautiful thing to watch.  Phibbs is more spread out than I like, and I photographed it at a quiet time of day, but in an ideal one, like the ones in downtown Eugene, you see this gradual gathering of energy to a climax, then a release.  Gradually the buses arrive, until finally they're all there.  You see signs on the buses announcing different parts of the city, all the places you could go right now, from here.  The drivers get off the bus briefly, chat with customers, point them to the right service.  People meet by chance.  It happens many times a day and yet there's always this sense of event: here, at this moment, you have service to all these different places, ready to go right now.  Enjoy the banquet of choices, select your bus, and let's go.  In a moment it's over, the buses all gone, the place quiet or even deserted, like a field after a storm has passed.  And in half an hour or an hour it will happen again.

And it's not a random thing, like a storm, but part of a huge intentional network that (in Vancouver's case) is designed.  This pulse is one of the network's many continuous, reliable heartbeats.  It's one big organism, made of unconscious rhythmic motion and circulation as all organisms are.  It's inseparable from the life of the city it serves.  And you're part of it.

using dynamite for lack of paint: alex broner on “cities in motion”

Ever since I posted on SimCity and SimCity 4 people have been telling me I must try Cities in Motion.  But when you have two jobs and you're already devoting hours to a blog and a book and a remodel, there is only so much time for computer games.  Fortunately, Alex Broner has boldly gone there in a guest post, so I don't have to!


CitiesinMotion_Image3In Cities in Motion (a game by Colossal Order, published by Paradox Interactive), one assumes the role of a CEO of a transit company tasked with providing transit to a particular city. In the campaign mode the cities are all based on specific cities at specific historical periods, Berlin during the cold war for example. There is also a “sandbox” mode in which you can play additional cities including player created cities and fictional cities.

Your transit company operates without subsidies for the most part, though there are “missions” which often offer monetary rewards for their completion. The most common mission is to connect two or more places together with a transit line.

In the campaign mode there are certain required missions which you must complete in order to “win” the scenario and unlock further scenarios.

Your transit company has a variety of different vehicle types which it can use to meet the needs of the city’s residents: Buses, trams, Metro, waterbuses, and helecopters.  There is (premium) downloadable content that adds electric trolleybuses, cable cars, and monorails.

CitiesinMotion_Image2Your success of failure in the game depends on finding ways to efficiently provide service connecting residents with destinations such as workplaces, shopping, leisure, and government. “Leisure” seems to include regional transportation hubs such as inter-city rail stations and airports. Like a real transit company, you must consider expenses for capital improvements such as stations and vehicles and also operational expenses such as labor and fuel/electricity.

This is not a city building game but the connection between density and transit service is made clear by the simple fact that even though you can build a subway to rural or suburban area, very few people will ride it.  The connection between service levels, frequency, and customer satisfaction is made clear by the “wait time” indicator. If the wait time on your transit lines is too long then customers will grow dissatisfied and eventually leave the station. Also, since all infrastructure such as stations and rails has maintenance cost, creating under-utilized infrastructure leads to a poor cost-revenue ratio.

17_0To be successful your agency must take into account the layout of the city and where different groups of people want to go: working class people work at working class jobs, students go to the university, professionals to the offices, and so on. Then you must make choices between vehicle types and network arrangements and put it all together into a profitable enterprise.

All of this is pretty realistic but as I played I immediately began noticing some major problems. The most notable problem is that the “walk shed” for each stop or station is different for each type of vehicle. The game will have residents walk much farther for metro service than they will for buses or trams, no matter how poor the metro service is or how good the buses and trams.

An additional problem is that there is nothing like transit lanes or transit signal priority for buses and trams. The streets of Cities in Motion have various amounts of traffic and in heavy traffic your vehicles will bunch up, depriving you of much needed revenue and making your riders unhappy. One's tools for dealing with this are limited: trams can run on unoccupied ground such as across plazas or on grass. Often in the game I find myself building a tram because there’s a long park or other way to bypass congestion. One can demolish buildings that get in the way of your trams but not build roads or even transit lanes, placing one in the bizarre situation of reaching for the dynamite for lack of paint. In combination the limited walk shed and lack of prioritization tools such as transit lanes means that the game very quickly becomes about building Metro systems. Not only is this unrealistic it’s also quite boring.

Additional annoying features:

  • Cyclical economic changes causes one to have to adjust ticket prices and labor pay rates constantly for each type of vehicle and 5 types of employees. There’s a mod that allows one to do this automatically but it would have been nice if that had been included in the base game.
  • Residents are drawn to transit in an almost fanatical fashion, they will navigate around any barrier to reach a station that’s close enough by straight line distance. One is not encouraged to situate stations in places realistically accessible. The routing algorithm of residents is poor meaning that they’ll pile up on the platform of one metro station even if there’s an empty platform with comparable services right nearby. 
  • Metro trains try to get 100% full before departing, even if this means holding up the empty train behind them. 
  • Finally, one is unable to combine either metro or tram vehicles to form longer trains (or construct longer platforms).

On the whole I give the game a B- for gameplay and a C for simulation value. It obsesses over certain aspects of transit (different types of customers, different types of workers, etc) while failing to address some really important ones. It teaches some important things about transit (frequency, density, operation costs) while furthering our confusion about the relationship between technology and levels of service. I would love for the makers of the game to fix some of these problems either through downloadable content or a new release. We need clearer thinking when it comes to transit and while this game doesn’t quite provide it, it very easily could.

[Alex Broner is a graduate student working on his Masters of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Hawaii with an expected graduation date of December 2012. He is also an intern writer/researcher for the Sightline Institute.  His professional interests are in transportation, landuse, and urban design. Alex is passionate about creating enjoyable urban places where it is easy and safe to walk, bicycle, and take transit. His personal interests include cycling, science fiction novels, computer games, and dodgeball.]

singing the metro

UK reader Adham Fisher, who recently visited all 301 Paris Metro stations and wrote a song about the quest, announces a musical project:

[I asked] different musicians to submit songs about various metro systems around the world. The result is the Metro EP under the collective name 1000 Stations. We toured it to Paris last month and hope to release it early next year. The project may be followed here: .

It would be great to see more musicians trying capture the beauty of networks in musical form.  Music is mostly math anyway — especially electronic music — and as many composers have discovered, you can make great music simply by exploring music's mathematical structure.  Geographic networks have structures too, that could be explored by analogy at various degrees of abstraction or popularization.  

Storing and transmitting geographical information in songs is not a new idea, especially for premodern cultures.  That's part of what Australian Aboriginal songlines are, for example.  

what makes a good “planning game”?

People learn from doing more than by being told, so public outreach is increasingly turning to various kinds of simulations, which can broadly be called planning games.  A planning game is any interactive exercise that allows people to play with the tools of planning, under some kind of budgetary constraint, and thus to experience the hard choices that arise from the material. 

You've probably played with online tools, often published by newspapers, that invite you to "balance the government budget yourself."  Planning games drill down to a more detailed level than that, but they share the same spirit:  They invite the citizen to express her views through grappling with the actual problem that government is facing.  When used as outreach tools, the rule of these games is: Listen and educate at the same time. 

Planning games can be group exercises in public meetings, but of course they can also happen on the web.  Web-based versions are better for allowing an individual to explore at her own pace, but they don't fully expose the user to the diversity of opinions and needs in a community.  Public workshops tend to be much better for that.

I'm inspired to return to this topic because of an intriguing style of planning game developed by Community Transit in suburban Snohomish County, Washington (north of Seattle).  I'll talk first about the kind of planning game I do — and the one on which my network design course is based.  Then I'll talk about the very different approach that Community Transit used.

Geography-Based Planning Games

To build stakeholder consensus around a transit plan in a difficult area, TransLink in Vancouver BC uses a geographical planning game.  I helped them hone this tool for their South of Fraser area in 2006 and they have used it successfully in other areas since then.  It can be helpful in many other contexts.  This planning game technique, applied to a fictional city, is also the core of the interactive course in network design that I teach.

Picture1 For a long-range infrastructure plan, stakeholders would be gathered in groups of about six around a map of their community, with a layer of clear acetate over it.  We'd give them some tools:  the red tape is an elevated metro, the blue tape is light rail, the green tape is frequent bus service.  Here, fellow citizens:  We have 24 kilometers of green tape that we can lay out.  You can trade five km of green tape for a km of blue, or ten km of green tape for a km of red.  Design your own system, but experience the process of making hard choices as you do.

A similar exercise can be done when doing a short-range bus service redesign.  Here, you're just dealing with frequencies of service rather than technologies, so the costs are more obvious.  Red tape is a bus every 15 minutes, blue is a bus every 30 minutes, green is a bus every 60 minutes, so a kilometer of red is worth two km of blue or four km of green.

Self at SOFA wkp  At the end of the work at tables, different groups of citizens would have come up with different networks for the same area.  So we'd put the resulting maps on the wall and I'd lead a discussion about how different groups had solved the problem differently, and get citizens talking to each other about why they approached the problem in various ways. 

At the end, we understood their views, but more important, they understood each other's views.  They also understood the underlying problem facing the transit agency, so they could form more useful and constructive ideas in the future.

In my course, I add a number of other features to this tool, including different ways to analyze the resulting networks, and also ways to humanize the issues.  I also emphasize how the geography of transit generates choices among competing values, which is why citizens and their elected officials ultimately need to make the decision. 

I advocate geographically-based games because the network design problem happens in geographical space, and you can't really see either the obstacles or the opportunities unless you look at a map.  But Community Transit did it differently …

The Community Transit "Transit Values Exercise"

Like many US agencies, Community Transit is having to make a steep service cut this year, around 20% of their total service.  They wanted a way to engage citizens in thinking about the choices that this implies, so they invented their own "Transit Values Exercise."

Instead of talking about geography at all, they forged a set of 15 fictional people who represent slices of their market.  The question for participants was:  "Which of these people should we no longer serve?"

Each person is represented by a card:


The narrative on the left is Cathy's story, but we're to understand that there are many people "just" like her.  Services that meet the needs of these people have a total cost of 7 points (lower right) out of a total of 125 for all the cards.  Icons on the left tell us that Cathy doesn't have a car (or a bike, or a wheelchair) and gives a sense of the diversity of trip purposes that she uses transit for. 

On the right, the five bars describe the consequences, for the whole network, of serving Cathy and people like her.  Note that she lives in a rural community, so it's not surprising that (compared to a whole network that also serves a larger urban area) she tends to need services that have high cost to operate (first bar) and require high subsidy (second bar.)  Like all rural services, the routes Cathy rides cover a large area (high "Coverage") but have very, very low ridership by system standards.  The middle bar, "Efficiency," refers very narrowly to schedule efficiency: the amount of dead running required.

(Obviously there's a little redundancy among these five, since subsidy itself is a result of ridership and cost [as well as fare levels, not modelled here].   Logically, subsidy could have been omitted, but it does tend to pique the interest of more conservative participants.)

Here's another card:


You get the idea.  At the APTA Multimodal Operations Planning workshop on August 17, a roomful of professionals had a chance to play with this tool, choosing different people to "discard" (harsh, but that really is what we're doing) and then seeing how that choice effects the system's cost, subsidy, efficiency, coverage, and ridership.  For example, if you discarded only the patrons associated with low-ridership routes, you can cut almost 50% of the system's total coverage area while cutting only 20% of cost and barely 10% of ridership.  Rural coverage is a lot of area, and almost no riders.

It was clear that the Community Transit exercise would teach citizens about basic budgetary tradeoffs, and obviously it gives those tradeoffs a human face — or at least a set of demographics with a name [though not an ethnicity, an annual income, or a political persuasion].  The bracing task of jettisoning human beings, like deciding who gets the lifeboats on a sinking ship, certainly must have impressed participants with the gravity of the problem, and perhaps, in aggregate over time, such tools could motivate more support for funding sources that could change the picture.

But it's still about geography …

In the last stage of the Community Transit exercise, participants are finally given a map of the fictional community where these people live:

TVE map

Knowing this, we were to make one final assessment about whom to discard.

For me, this part was a problem, because the geography revealed so much more than the game wanted us to think about.  Now, for example, it was apparent that Cathy lives on the way to where Pat lives, so if we "discarded" Cathy but kept Pat we knew Cathy would still have some service.  Yet there was no way for the game model to capture this obvious fact.  I would probably have introduced the map much earlier in the exercise, and thought about how to integrate its geographic information into the "human" discussion about which cards to discard.

Ordinary citizens often assume that a transit agency's service to them reflects an assessment of what they need or deserve.  In fact, this is only true if you're at the outermost end of a line, where the line is serving only you.  Everywhere else, transit efficiency lies in combining the needs of diverse ranges of people onto a single vehicle, and this relies, above all, on taking advantage of situations where multiple people, often with very different demographics, are travelling along the same reasonably direct path.  If you're on such a path you'll get better service than if you're not, even if you are exactly the same person in all other respects.

I wonder if, by steering us away from noticing the way transit combines diverse markets, the Community Transit game may have missed an opportunity to educate about how transit efficiency actually works.  By presenting us with people whose needs are cheap or expensive to serve, the exercise may confirm a widespread and false assumption that transit planning really is about assessing the merits of interest groups and communities. 

That's not what it is at all.  Your transit service isn't a judgment about who you are, but about where you are!  The barriers and opportunities presented by your location (and the location of places you go) are what determine how much service you can expect.  We need to put a human face on our work, and help people understand the human consequences of changes, but we also need to help customers focus on the geometric fact of life.  More than anything else about you, your location matters.

mapnificent breaking through?

As WalkScore's fine transit travel time tool languishes in extended beta, the alternative, Mapnificent, is getting some mainstream blog attention

I may still be alone in this, but I as I explored with WalkScore's Matt Lerner here, I believe this tool, whoever finally perfects it, has revolutionary potential.  It can easily be converted into a two-digit transit score which, unlike the WalkScore Transit Score, actually describes people's ability to get places.  But it's bigger potential is as an alternatives analysis tool.  When you city is facing a series of possible alternative transit projects, what if every citizen could use a tool like Mapnificent to see the exactly impact of each alternative on their mobility, and that of people and destinations they care about. 

A major problem in transit politics today is that negative impacts of a project are obvious but benefits are often described in terms of ridership and development outcomes — things that don't matter to the selfish present-minded citizen.  We will always have selfish present-minded citizens, and I'd rather work with them than complain about them.  Until we help people see the way a proposed project will change their lives for the better, sensible transit projects will continue losing these debates.

deep-geeking a fictional city

Newport for blog
In this post I invited readers to poke around in a fictional city that I'm developing for use in a transit planning course.  The city is laid out in Excel to make its features easy to analyze.  Students will work with a slightly more naturalistic map under a layer of acetate, and will draw lines on the map to attempt various types of transit networks that might address the city's needs.  More on the project and its purpose here.

I received many excellent comments, which I've used to expand and enrich the city.  The city now has more layers of detail that you might find it fun to explore and comment on. 

You're welcome to poke around in the updated version and share your views on its realism.  Download here:

Download Game Newport intro (.doc file)

Download Game data (.xls file)

Your comments are welcome, but before you comment, have a look at the previous post and its comments first, just to see what's been said!  Also, the little illustration at left is just one of many layers; to see the whole thing, open the files above.

This course is going to be fun!  I hope to be able to repeat it many times in many cities. 

planning games: “in praise of the urban sandbox”

Game from ferozco article Games may soon be the best way to build understanding of city planning and transport.  So argues an excellent article in Planning magazine by Jeff Ferzoco of New York's Regional Plan Association (my links):

At a recent talk at the American Museum of Natural History, Jane McGonigal, the Institute for the Future's director of Game Research and Design, noted that research from universities and the U.S. Army Mental Health Assessment Team show that the benefits of gaming lessen at about 21 hours in a week. … Her point is that gaming has major benefits — stress relief, strategic thinking, goal attainment — if kept within the 21-hour limit.

She isn't the only one to see the implications. The Serious Games Initiative, founded in 2002 at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C., aims to "help usher in a new series of policy education, exploration, and management tools utilizing state of the artcomputer game designs, technologies, and development skills." One of its initiatives, Games for Change, runs an annual festival highlighting games — both electronic and physical — that encourage social change. Throughout the year, the initiative provides support for and development of new titles and helps potential developers navigate game making from concept to distribution. 

There is already a lot of interest in how we can use games for teaching. Those who design virtualworlds put a lot of emphasis on crafting the experience — and allowing others to change it…

In my work as a graphic designer for Regional Plan Association in New York City, I constantly think through concepts, illustrations, and designs. Ideas don't just come from thin air, and everything I experience influences what I make. Looking back, I can clearly identify instances when city-building games influenced my design work.  For instance, axonometric views: giant human hands placing houses on a row. These can be directly traced to a weekend I spent redesigning the suburbs of one of my virtual towns.  And I'm not alone. Many of the people around me have taken their design problems to these samearenas and come out with a slightly wider and more empathetic perspective.

Playing a simulation game is a bit like gardening. Just as air, soil, and water interact with seeds to bring a plant to life, simulated … cities can blossom and wilt, depending on your actions. You have to tend to the needs of the citizens, joining job centers and adding transit and roads to bring circulation to a dying center.  It's instant, satisfying, and educational. In fact, it's why I work where I do in planning. I could say that my career began the moment I opened up SimCity for the first time.

Or if that's too many words, see Jane McGonigal's enjoyable video.  Her basic thesis: "If we want to save the world, we need to spend more time playing computer games."

fictional city seeks reality check

Newport for blog
Did you draw maps of fictional cities when you were 8 years old?  If so, you and I are part of a near-invisible, uncounted minority. 

If that's you, I dare you not to be interested in this!  Even if you just enjoy maps of other cities, here's a chance to study a city you've never seen before.

For the transit planning course that I'm developing, I've created a fictional city that's designed to present a range of major transit issues, while also being an interesting place.  I considered using a real city, but in my experience, planning for a real city slides too quickly to details that obscure the big picture of how a good network works. 

My introduction to the fictional city is here:  Download Game Newport intro (.doc)

A rich set of map layers, created in Excel, is here:   Download Game data backsave  (.xls)

Both documents are covered by the assertion of copyright that covers all of this blog's material. 

I'd love feedback, especially about these questions:

  • Is the city realistic?  Does it contravene what you perceive to be "facts" of geology, hydrology, urban economics, bird psychology, or post-1800 urban history?
  • Have I omitted information that seems relevant to the basic task of designing a transit network?  Note that I'm not asking "have I omitted anything that might be interesting?"  The austere novelist and dominatrix who sells rare Asian herbs out of her Craftsman basement at 3315 W 43rd St while also being the invisible brains behind a top eco-fashion label is extremely interesting, but I only had a day to put this together.

Have fun!  The premiere of the transit planning course is in Surrey, British Columbia near Vancouver on June 9-10.  Last I checked there were a few places left.  Details here.


  • Please do not try to comment based only on the illustration above.  I'm getting many comments that indicate you've only looked at that image.  You would need to download the files and look at the whole thing.
  • Apologies to those who had trouble with the .docx and .xlsx versions; these old formats should be more widely compatible and convertible.
  • The newest version now has layers for income and existing rail infrastructure.

Finally, I'm surprised at early comments that I don't have enough freeways!  It's not a freeway dependent city, by choice.  (See the .doc file above for more on the freeway wars.)   But freeways that run only on the periphery and don't connect into the core are common enough in cities of this size class.  See:

  • Victoria, British Columbia, metro pop 330k.  Two small shreds of freeway, created only as traffic required.
  • Halifax, Nova Scotia, metro pop 372k.  Fragments of an outer ring freeway, nothing into the city.
  • Christchurch, New Zealand, metro pop 390k at least before February's earthquake.  One 5-km shred of freeway approaching from the north (Kaiapoi to Belfast), but it's really just an extended bridge.
  • Palm Springs-Indio, California, metro pop 365k.  The area is bypassed on the north by Interstate 10, far from most of the urban cores.
  • Gold Coast, Queensland, metro pop 591k.  A massive highrise hotel/retail core (30-60 storeys) at Surfers Paradise, a highrise business core in adjacent Southport, but the only freeway bypasses 7 km to the west.

The last two of these are not, by any stretch, leftist car-hating enclaves.  In fact, they're exceptionally car-dependent.  Still, no freeways near the core.  It's possible!

    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!