Transit planning with ‘Cities in Motion’

This may not be surprising, but one of my favourite video game series of all time is a public transit simulation game called Cities in Motion. In this game, you are presented with a city that has no form of public transit whatsoever, and you are tasked with constructing a public transit system. You have a choice of several modes (bus, trolley, tram, metro, and water taxi) and you must develop a profitable public transit system. You are often presented with different challenges, including reaching a coverage goal in the city, or transporting a certain amount of a group of people, or making sure service satisfaction stays high enough.

I’ve played a lot of these games (there are two in the series), and as with most games you play for a while, you start to develop a deeper understanding of what makes the game tick. One of the most intriguing things about this game is the massive amount of data and information you are able to use to your advantage. This kind of data can only come from a simulation or a police state, where people can be divided into simple, generalized categories (blue collar, white collar, student, and tourist), and you are able to know where everyone works, lives, and spends their leisure time. You don’t need this data to build a working transit system in the game, but you can use it to your great advantage, and learn some lessons about what makes public transit tick in real life.

Probably the most important data in the game shows you what buildings in the city are used for what (residential, work, work/residential, work/leisure, and leisure). Below is an example of what one of the cities looks like with this data overlay on:

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Green and red are purely residential and working places, respectively. Yellow, on the other hand, is public transit gold: it is both residential and working buildings. Over the course of the many hours I have played this, I know full well that I should create fast, efficient transit in an area with dense, yellow buildings. No matter how much capacity I throw at those areas, my vehicles are always full, and the line is always well-used.

While video game simulations are not perfect (one of the biggest problems is how to deal with the passage of time), they can teach us something about what works well for public transit, and what doesn’t. This is just another indication that successful public transit and diversity of building use go hand in hand.

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