Games like SimCity are helping us build the cities of the future. Here's how

A visitor plays SimCity 2000 in New York's Museum of Modern Art. Image: Getty.

By 2050, the United Nations predicts that around 66 per cent of the world’s population will be living in urban areas, with the greatest expansion happening in developing regions such as Africa and Asia. Cities in these parts will be challenged to meet the needs of their residents, and provide sufficient housing, energy, waste disposal, healthcare, transportation, education and employment.

So, understanding how cities will grow – and how we can make them smarter and more sustainable along the way – is a high priority among researchers and governments the world over. We need to get to grips with the inner mechanisms of cities, if we’re to engineer them for the future.

Fortunately, there are tools to help us do this. And even better, using them is a bit like playing SimCity.


A whole new (simulated) world

Cities are complex systems. Increasingly, scientists studying cities have gone from thinking about “cities as machines”, to approaching “cities as organisms”. Viewing cities as complex, adaptive organisms – similar to natural systems like termite mounds or slime mould colonies – allows us to gain unique insights into their inner workings. Here’s how.

Complex organisms are characterised by individual units that can be driven by a small number of simple rules. As these relatively simple things live and behave, the culmination of all their individual interactions and behaviours generate more widespread aggregate phenomena.

For example, the beautiful and complex patterns made by flocking birds are not organised by a leader. They come about because each bird follows some very simple rules about how close to get to each other, which direction to fly in, and how to avoid predators.

Similarly, ant colonies can exhibit very sophisticated and seemingly intelligent behaviour – but this sophistication doesn’t come about as a result of a good leader. It is the result of lots of ants following relatively simple rules, without any regard for the bigger picture. It is easy to see how this perspective could be applied to human systems to explain phenomena like traffic jams.

So, if cities are like organisms, it follows that we should examine them from the bottom-up, and seek to understand how unexpected large-scale phenomena emerge from individual-level interactions. Specifically, we can simulate how the behaviour of individual “agents” – whether they are people, households, or organisations – affect the urban environment, using a set of techniques known as “agent-based modelling”.

Using The Sims to build your own city. Image: haljackey/Flickr, CC BY.

This is where it gets a bit like SimCity. It’s apt that the computer game was originally based on the work of Jay Forrester, a world-renown system scientist with an interest in urban dynamics. In the game, individual agents are given their own characteristics and rules, and allowed to interact with other agents and the environment. Different behaviour emerges through these interactions and drives the next set of interactions.

But while computer games can use generalisations about how people and organisations behave, researchers have to mine available data sets to construct realistic and robust rule sets, which can be rigorously tested and evaluated. To do this effectively, we need lots of data at the individual level.


Modelling from big data

These days, increases in computing power and the proliferation of big data give agent-based modelling unprecedented power and scope.

One of the most exciting developments is the potential to incorporate people’s thoughts and behaviours. In doing so, we can begin to model the impacts of people’s choices on present circumstances, and the future.

For example, we might want to know how changes to the road layout might affect crime rates in certain areas. By modelling the activities of individuals who might try to commit a crime, we can see how altering the urban environment influences how people move around the city, the types of houses that they become aware of, and consequently which places have the greatest risk of becoming the targets of burglary.

To fully realise the goal of simulating cities in this way, models need a huge amount of data. For example, to model the daily flow of people around a city, we need to know what kinds of things people spend their time doing, where they do them, who they do them with, and what drives their behaviour.

Without good-quality, high-resolution data, we have no way of knowing whether our models are producing realistic results. Big data could offer researchers a wealth of information to meet these twin needs. The kinds of data that are exciting urban modellers include:

  • Electronic travel cards that tell us how people move around a city.
  • Twitter messages that provide insight into what people are doing and thinking.
  • The density of mobile telephones that hint at the presence of crowds.
  • Loyalty and credit-card transactions to understand consumer behaviour.
  • Participatory mapping of hitherto unknown urban spaces, such as Open Street Map.

These data can often be refined to the level of a single person. As a result, models of urban phenomena no longer need to rely on assumptions about the population as a whole – they can be tailored to capture the diversity of a city full of individuals, who often think and behave differently from one another.

Missing people

There are, of course, serious practical and ethical considerations to take into account when integrating big data into urban models. The volume of background noise in new data sources can make it difficult to extract useful and reliable information. For example, it can often be difficult to distinguish Twitter messages posted by bots from those by real people.


We must also make sure that we understand who is well-represented in our data, and who is not. The digital divide is alive and well, and research suggests a class divide separating those who do and do not produce digital content. This means that there are probably large sections of the population missing from data sets.

We also need to find new ways of making these methods ethical. Traditionally, consumer and research ethics have been structured around informed consent: before taking part in interviews or surveys, participants need to sign consent forms that give the researchers permission to use their data. But now, individuals are digitising aspects of their lives such as moods, thoughts, feelings, and behaviours that have historically gone undocumented. And, importantly, these are often released publicly on the internet.

What's more, while an individual might have ticked a box that gives permission for their data to be used, that’s no guarantee that they’ve read and understood the terms. iTunes' June 2015 terms and conditions, for example, are more than 20,000 words long (20 times the length of this article). Researchers and service providers need to ask themselves how many people really get to grips with these documents, and whether their agreement fulfils our idea of consent.

We may never be able to simulate every individual in a city, and we’ll probably never want to. But we are getting closer to being able to simulate the richness of the fabric that weaves together to shape our cities. If we can do this, then we will be able to provide useful input on how best to shape cities in the future – perhaps even down to the last street light, bus and block of flats.The Conversation

Alison Heppenstall is an associate professor in geocomputation, and Nick Malleson a lecturer in geographical information systems, at the University of Leeds.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.