Sponsored By

Featured Blog | This community-written post highlights the best of what the game industry has to offer. Read more like it on the Game Developer Blogs.

Urbanization, Sim City 4, and design hopes for its sequel

I revisit Sim City 4 a week before the launch of the sequel, and talk about some of the weaknesses in it's simulation of city systems like zoning and mass transit.

Ryan Sumo, Blogger

February 27, 2013

6 Min Read

Sim City 5 (renamed simply as SimCity) is set to come out next week, and like every other armchair urban planner I’m excited to see what Maxis has come up with after a decade away from this storied franchise.  Other games have filled in admirably while it was away (CitiesXL and Cities in Motion to name a couple) so I’m excited to see what they have to offer, despite the annoying always online requirement.

To refresh my memory and to really help me appreciate the changes, I decided to download Sim City 4’s Deluxe Edition via Steam last weekend and create a new city according to a couple of parameters,  Specifically I wanted a city that:

  1. Offers mixed use development

  2. Emphasizes pedestrian and mass transit traffic over cars.

Walkability is the new buzzword in urban planning circles these days, and I have to admit I’ve swallowed the Kool-Aid on this.  Living in a city (Metro Manila) with terrible walkability and awful mass transit, I’m using Sim City to build the city of my dreams as a form of catharsis.

Mixed Use Development

Mixed use development is a philosophy in urban planning has been on the rise in the past few decades.  Prior to the twentieth century most cities featured mixed use areas because of walkability and lack of space.  Rapid industrialization changed that because it introduced numerous factories that produced affordable goods but also contributed a lot of pollution to their surroundings. 

Workers at these factories couldn’t afford decent housing, so they lived in ramshackle buildings that were a health hazard in more ways than one. They made cities terrible places to live.  The Garden City Movement, which introduced the idea of zoning residential areas away from industrial areas, materialized during this time.  This was the accepted course of Urban Planning in the early 20th century, and Sim City inherited the zoning laws that were codified in the United States in the 1920s.

Since then the tide has turned against strict zoning, and mixed use development and increased walkability is once again in vogue, with proponents citing the benefits of increased health and reduced pollution (more walking, less car use), amongst other

Simcity 4 doesn’t allow for mixed use development in this sense, but it does allow you to mix zoning a little bit, at least while your citizens are still poor.  This starts to fall apart once your citizen start getting wealthy though, and become much snootier about living next to a factory.  The alternative is to build the traditional zoning grids but to have different zones adjacent to each other, simulating mixed use development.

many pedestrians

Pedestrians walk to work

Here’s an example of how that works out, with Sims in a residential area walking over to the office buildings just opposite them to work.  I’d initially thought that these Sims were also shopping, but it turns out that Sim City 4 didn’t model shopping or leisure movement, or any other sort of movement for that matter.  For example when I clicked on my hospital, it was treating about 2500 sims, but when I checked the route tracking tool only a hundred people were finding their way to the hospital everyday.  Presumably these were doctors and nurses traveling to the hospital to treat the 2000 ghostly Sims residing there.

Even taking that into consideration, I consider my hacked mixed use development a success, especially since it encouraged far more pedestrian than vehicle traffic, as we’ll see in the next section. 

The War on Cars

The rise of the automobile came hand in hand with zoning rules.  As cars rapidly expanded the distances we could travel, so too did the distance between work and home.  Cities became the place where people worked, and then emptied out as people traveled home to the suburbs.  As car ownership became cheaper and cheaper larger roads and eventually highways began to be built to better serve the commuters driving to and from cities.  That model is now starting to collapse as the sheer number of people with cars trumps many cities’ capacity to carry (road) and store (parking) these vehicles.  

Sim City 4 didn’t have mass transit as its top priority, something that Maxis tried to rectify with its “Rush Hour” expansion.  That expansion introduced one of my favorite Sim City tools : Route Query. It still fascinates me to know exactly how my sims are getting to and form work, which I used to good effect when planning my fake mixed-use development, as seen above.  

Unfortunately despite this addition the public transport options in Rush Hour are both woefully inadequate and sometimes just a pain to use.  There’s no bus routing tools of any kind, and the player simply plops down a bus stop and hopes that the transit authority sorts it out. 

Subways are excruciating to build, and a couple of mistakes laying down subway tracks can bleed your budget dry.  Games like Cities XL may be more limited in other ways, but their transport options were top notch, allowing you to build a bus station of a certain capacity then routing the buses around the city according to demand.

lazy car

What a lazy guy

In any case I made do and just tried to make sure that there was a bus stop plopped on every other city block.  This is important because Sims are notoriously lazy, and will some cases will drive to work right across the street.  The richer Sims are the harder it is to get them to use public transport, so accessibility is key. 

transport chart

More pedestrians that car users

Thanks to a combination of my mixed-use policy and generous bus stop placement I was able to achieve my goal of limiting car usage to a pretty astounding degree.  Pedestrian traffic ruled overall with 4500 sims choosing to hoof it, 3000 sims taking their cars, and almost 2000 choosing the bus. 

I also had a very small train system running at this point, which attracted maybe 200 passengers or so. The limited car traffic meant that the majority of my roadways were actually streets, meaning marginally less maintenance costs.  Fewer cars also meant less air pollution, which helped offset the the pollution generated from my mixed use policy of scattering industrial areas throughout the city.

Sim City 5

After dealing with the limitations of the Sim City 4 engine, I’m excited to see what Sim City 5 has to offer.  Maxis has already announced that there will be no mixed-use zoning, which is a shame.  you’d think that in 10 years they could have thought of a way to integrate that into the game. 

With regards to mass transit, Maxis promises a wealth of options including bike lanes, but I have yet to read anything into how much control you can have over routing buses.  Given that massive improvements have been made to transit simulation in the decade since SimCity 4, I would be devastated to find out that SimCity 5 still has limited transit options.  I’m hopeful though, and looking forward to March 5!

Read more about:

Featured Blogs

About the Author(s)

Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like