“The City & the City & the Squirtle”: What can China Miéville teach us about Pokemon Go?

Pokemon Go outside the White House. Image: Getty.

An elderly woman was walking slowly away from me in a shambling sway. She turned her head and looked at me. I was struck by her motion, and I met her eyes. I wondered if she wanted to tell me something. In my glance I took in her clothes, her way of talking, of holding herself, and looking.

With a hard start, I realised that she was not on Gunter-Strasz at all, and that I should not have seen her.

In China Miéville’sThe City & the City the cities of Besźel and UlQoma are cities with a strange attachment. The two places are intermingled; one street in Besźel and the next in UlQoma, with “crosshatched” areas where the two cities exist right on top of each other. In the crosshatch one building might be in a different city to the next, and people mingle in the streets “unseeing” their neighbours that belong somewhere else.

The book introduces us to unificationists who insist that there was no real difference, as well as nationalists of both stripes who want to annex the other side. But far more numerous than any of these are the ordinary citizens of both cities who do the work of keeping the cities separate every day, in their thousand unseeings of people and places right in front of the them, but in a foreign land.

This book works so well because of a sense that this conceit literalises something that is true of every city. There are places that are home, places that are not – and places where people walk past each other, ignoring lives that are right next door but might as well be in another country.

I bring this up because, when we talk about augmented reality games as a new way of interacting with The City, hidden inside our discussion is the idea that there is only one City to augment.

Pokemon Go in Melbourne. Image: Getty

At its most sci-fi, augmented reality can be seen in technology like Google Glass, which superimposes information over your vision to add context to the world you’re seeing. But this is just a high tech version of an old idea. A tour guide walking with you through a city’s streets is itself a form of “augmented reality”, revealing hidden histories and stories that change how you see a place. And what is a ghost tour but an AR fantasy experience, exploring a different world with different rules, hidden right beneath our own?

What makes AR games different is you can interact with this other place: your actions can change it. Niantic’s Pokémon Go is essentially a re-skin of their other game Ingress. But Ingress’ game mechanics were built around a sci-fi conspiracy story, with unseen alien intrusions into the real world, Pokémon Go has a far more appealing angle. There is a world that overlaps this one, and it’s your childhood. It’s back! In app form!

Niantic released access to a whole alternate world overnight. This action created both a distinction between players and non-players (why are all these people here and staring at their phones?), and a different set of rules on how players should interact in public spaces. And as the game requires physical presence at certain places, it brings people together in an unusual way: people walk with their phone out, a shibboleth of their membership of the new community.

Like a power cut that disrupts the normal flow of life and brings people out on the streets, Pokémon Go temporarily disrupts the idea that you don’t have things in common with these strangers. These are people who grew up to find themselves living different lives, but Pokémon Go creates a new space on top of all the different cities, based around a touchstone they all have in common.

Pokemon Go in Kuwait City. Image: Getty

But the every day world can’t be easily pushed aside with an app. In recent Pokémon games, you can set your gender and skin tone, without that setting some areas or interactions out of bounds. Dropping game rules that don’t see physical features as significant onto the real world leads to clashes between game rules and social ones. Walking back and forth on random streets looking for Pokémon might be a different experience, with real world risks, depending on the colour of your skin.

Alternatively, game rules can be manipulated for real world advantage. Players can use a lure to bring more Pokémon to an area, which in turn lures other players – great if you’re looking for people to rob.

One of things The City & the City does well is take the reader from thinking the situation is absurd – it’s all clearly one place – to believing that there is value in seeing Besźel and UlQoma as separate; that something is lost in the idea of unification. This isn’t to say that our divisions are inherently Good and Proper (which takes us quickly to “people should just know their place” and “separate but equal”): it’s simply to recognise that cities with millions of people are too big to have just one culture. The real benefit of healthy cities is constructive cross-hatching, where people exist in multiple identities at once.

Pokémon Go might not change break down social rules, or last longer than a year – but augmented reality, where people can share the same experience of a different place, will have an impact on the cities of the future. Whether this is a good thing or not will likely depend on the audience size. Will these new realities bring people together, or make the world more insular? What kind of cross-hatching does your app create?

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To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.