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Using SimCity to diagnose my home town's traffic problem
by Mike Rose on 02/19/13 09:03:00 am   Editor Blog   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This post is being highlighted as one of Gamasutra's best of 2013. 

Mike Rose is Gamasutra's UK video game editor (and traffic correspondent, apparently).

After the first SimCity beta weekend had ended, I read an article by Norman Chan over at in which he attempted to discover the best suburban city layout according to the game. It's hugely interesting stuff, and quite frankly I hadn't considered the idea of putting this new SimCity to real-world use.

So when the second beta weekend rolled around, I decided to have a crack at testing some theories that I have about my own hometown of Northenden, Manchester (population of roughly 15,000, as far as I can tell).

Northenden is a pretty small place that you can drive straight through in around five minutes. The town mainly consists of residental housing, with a strip of shops that is known at the center of the town. And yet, considering the low number of people who live here, coupled with the low number of reasons to want to be driving around the town, you still wouldn't want to visit during rush hour. We're talking standstill traffic that you can sometimes expect to sit around in for up to an hour.

Look at a map of the area, and it's not hugely difficult to see why. The town features connections onto multiple motorways, plus the extremely busy Princess Parkway, which goes all the way into the center of Manchester city. To its North, you've got a straight road surrounded by golf courses, that leads to the bustling Didsbury areas.

Essentially, during both the morning commute and the drive back home from work in the evening, Northenden becomes a traffic bottleneck, with hundreds of cars either trying to get onto the motorway, or out into Didsbury. I have to pick up and drop my child off at nursery in Didsbury a couple of times a week, and quite honestly, the drive is like hell on Earth at the worst of times.

At least, this is my reasoning for the ugly traffic. In fact, I've contemplated numerous times exactly what causes the pileups in Northenden, sometimes wondering whether it's simply that the town is laid out in an awful fashion. Now, with the incredibly scientific power of SimCity, I will finally get to the bottom of what is the real cause.

Question 1: Is it the layout of the town that causes the traffic?

I began by sticking Google Maps on my second screen, and then building Northenden in SimCity as best as I could. I wasn't meticulous about the design - I mean, I'm not submitting this to the council or anything - but I made sure that the layout was roughly the same as the real-life town, especially when it came to the main through roads. At the bottom of the following screenshot you can see the town connecting up to Princess Parkway/the motorway, while at the top left, the road connects to Didsbury (or a railway track, as is the case here - more on that later).

northenden 1.jpgMy version of Northenden - click to expand

Switching to the zoning view shows exactly what types of housing you can see here. The blue indicates the line of shops through Northenden center, while the yellow to the right is Sharston Industrial Estate (I added this in since if I didn't have industrial buildings, not many people would actually choose to move into my town!). What's lovely is that my town's population appears to have peaked at around 18,000, which is only just slightly more than the real Northenden. I wish I could say that I did that on purpose.

northenden 2.jpgZoning in Northenden

There's a 4-way junction in the heart of Northenden that everyone just calls "Tesco", mainly because it has a big old Tesco store on the corner. This is one of the main areas where traffic usually builds up and causes the bottlenecking, so I decided to keep a close eye on how my SimCity traffic piled up there.

As it turns out, it wasn't too bad at all. During the morning rush hour, there was a slight build up but nothing too notable. I surely wouldn't have minded sitting in that level of traffic, and it's a country mile better than the real deal. In the below screenshot you can see the peak of the rush hour, with the robot store in place of where Tesco sits in real life.

northenden 3.jpgThe Tesco 4-way junction

This isn't hugely surprising. In its current form, the through-roads aren't really acting as through-roads, since Northenden residents don't have a huge number of places to go along those roads. No, what I really want to test is whether funnelling traffic through the center of Northenden causes jams.

Question 2: Is the issue that Northenden is used as a through-town?

The issue is that SimCity's maps are rather small - at least, in the beta - and as such, I had to improvise a bit. Where Northenden hits SimCity's outlying railway track is where a stretching single road reaches into West and East Didsbury, both very busy areas. In place of this, I built a long stretching road at a 90 degrees angle, parallel to the railway, to replicate the Didsbury area. I created a built-up area filled with shops, and dumped a large casino at the far end (there's a large casino complex in East Didsbury called Parrswood). I then stretched a strip of highway from the casino all the way round to the other end of Northenden - an extremely simple but near-faithful version of the real-world area.

northenden 4.jpgEast Didsbury and the Parrswood Casino

With this set-up in place, the hope was that Northenden residents would venture out to Didsbury en masse, and mix in with the traffic from the tourist traffic from the motorway, on their way to visit the casino. Within 10 minutes, the effects were clearly notable - as per the below screenshot.

northenden 5.jpgHow the traffic looks after adding East Didsbury into the mix - note the strips of red running through Northenden center and into Didsbury

Most areas of Northenden were fine, with green and yellow strips on the road signifying no-to-light traffic. However, much of the main road going through town is red or orange, meaning pile-ups and standstill traffic. In particular, the road into East Didsbury was red all the way down.

This definitely echoes the sort of traffic you'd expect to find during the rush hour - that latter road in particular can take a good half an hour to get down when things get particularly bad. In fact, this setup even highlights a little trick that I know of for dodging some of the traffic: when coming from East Didsbury (up at the top right) into Northenden (alongside that bright red strip of road), if you take the second left along Northenden high street, you can skim through some of the back roads and pop out in a relatively lighter area, backpassing the through-road slog. Look at the SimCity map, and it seems to work here too!

Jump ahead to the time when the real rush hour traffic starts to kick in, and that once easy going junction at Tesco is suddenly rammed with cars.

northenden 6.jpgThe Tesco 4-way junction after East Didsbury has been added

So what does this all prove? Is it indeed true that through-traffic coming from Didsbury and the motorway is causing the Northenden bottlenecks? And what can the council do to fix the issue?

Well... the answer is, of course, that it means absolutely nothing. This was but a mere video game experiment, and nothing here even closely resembles scientific evidence to support my theories, nor can it be used to diagnose the issues. Everything I did was hugely vague and nothing at all like real life.

That being said, this little project definitely gave me a sense for what could be accomplished with SimCity if put in the right hands. I noticed plenty of other little interesting takeaways from my hour of play, including the fact that once I'd built East Didsbury, the strip of shops in Northenden stopped making as much money as they once were, and some were even beginning to close down as my time ran out. Walk along Northenden high street, and you'll know that feeling.

For me personally, I can't wait to see what happens when the game is released, and people with real scientific experiments give it a run for its money.

northenden 7.jpgAnd this is what I'll have to work my way through to take my son to nursery in Didsbury tomorrow *sigh*

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Betable Blog
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This is amazing! It's fun to recreate your own home town in SimCity, but it's pretty incredible when that simulation behaves similarly to the town in real life.

Andrew Williams
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Amazing! An entire article on Gamasutra about my morning commute. I drive from West Didsbury to get onto the motorway at Northenden. Every morning I try to get to the junction before 07:10 to avoid having to queue there. Fortunately it's half-term at the moment, so it's not so critical. I'm very impressed that your simulation behaves somewhat like the real thing.

Brian Bartram
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As a SimCity developer, this makes me all kinds of delighted. Two weeks until the game hits the streets!

Keith Thomson
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Really cool. I do want to play this, but I'll hold off until you don't need to be online while playing.

Duong Nguyen
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The current SimCity is using some of the latest agent based approaches to population simulations so it isn't far off to what the researchers use.

Chris Hendricks
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Now I'm curious... do you see any relatively cheap ways to relieve this, at least in your own SimCity version? Is there an obvious fix?

Mike Rose
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Well... I can speculate on a solution, although I've no idea how it would work in real life *or* in the game. Essentially, there's not really any space at all to create more lanes/more roads anywhere in the area, so that idea is out. However, it's possible that by making more people aware of the different potential ways you could go instead of sticking to the main road (like I do when I slip down the side road to dodge half of the traffic), you could ease the flow a bit on the throughroad.

Of course, this might end up with the smaller residential roads becoming more clogged with cars, and could also potentially lead to more accidents - so that might not be the greatest idea after all!

I definitely want to have a longer think about it, and hopefully when I get my hands on the full game, I'll be able to visit the problem once more and try to come up with a solution.

Scott Petrovic
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could a roundabout( be a possible solution. Our little town recently put one of those up and it has really cut down in congestion.

Pierre Xavier
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Nice write up Mike and very interesting too! Could you do an update on this or a new article regarding the full game and your solution, that would be awesome! :)

John Flush
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This write-up almost got me excited to play this game. It looks like it would be a lot of fun to do this sort of thing. But alas, I agree with Keith - I'll wait until I can play offline or I just won't play.

Kris Vanherle
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My smile got bigger and bigger when reading this :)

Some context: I'm a researcher on transport issues; basically informing policy makers, based on quantitative simulation models what is the best way to e.g. design this or that road. Our models are "like" Sim-City, the only difference being it's focusing e.g. on transport aspects exclusively and they are not really flashy to "play" with.

I've enjoyed playing Simcity but at some points got annoyed by the mere intuitive set of rules that supposedly reflect transport dynamics & urban development. The thing is, "rules" that reflect real world transport dynamics and urban development, like congestion, property value, population growth rates,... aren't really that complex; it shouldn't be too hard to change SimCity gameplay rules (at least to some extend....) so it reflects what we observe in the real world.

If that can be done, all of a sudden Simcity would turn into the best possible urban development tool in the world! Policy makers would actually be able to USE Simcity to develop scenario's for urban development/infrastructure investment and select the best alternative (in the process making my current job obsolete, but ok, I'll live :p).
Even more interesting is when a gaming community while playing the game just for fun, like now, would at the same time, unknowingly, provide valuable scientific data that would increase knowledge about urban development.

The only thing hindering use of SimCity as a tool for policy support is that the "calibration" of the rules isn't based on scientific findings but simplified intuitive interactions. All in all, this isn't a difficult hurdle to overcome...

I think it's time the research community and game developers come together to explore this kind of application.

Our company has tried to push this idea and we are looking to get in contact with game developers. For us it is hard, as an outsider, to get in contact with the right people to further explore this idea. Hell, we're even trying via online forum now (I only just signed up to react to this post) :p

So, if anyone know who we can contact, mail/pm me :)

Todd Boyd
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But would that remove the enjoyment from playing the game? If it's a true-to-life simulation, rather than a simulation with some fudged rules for gameplay/experience improvement, the life could be sucked right out of it.

Kris Vanherle
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It doesn't necessarily have to affect game experience; it's probably in many cases just a recalibration of existing interaction in the game parameters so game observations fit with real world observations...

Anyway, I just browsed Simcity5 teasers; on some aspects, the game simulation mechanics look reaaaallly sophisticated and are getting scarily close to simulation models we and other policy researchers use (at least in terms of complexity of mechanics, not graphics...).

I think at least some researchers must have been consulted to construct the rules in this virtual world. I think it's really only a small stap further to develop a usable policy tool based on Simcity...

Ben Reichert
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Thanks for reaching out to this community Kris! I've been working on ways to try and bridge this particular gap. AASHTO has been using Sim City in their educational outreach program for some time now and in December I submitted a proposal with them and Arizona State University to the NSF to identify how to move forward on a game like you mention for middle school students that would incorporate STEM and common core curriculum.

I would love to speak with you more!

Peter Mulders
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An interesting article and I'm eager to see the follow-up.
Also, I'm wondering if a change from left hand drive to right hand drive would have any impact on the traffic (if there's even such an option)? And looking at the irregular road layout of the town, is there any way to implement a one-way street system? Or perhaps swap some stop signs with traffic lights? Those are some of the most basic ways to improve traffic flow that I remember for high school geography.

Scott Canoni
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I registered to share this link of this exact location posted to

Now that you have SimCity to back up the problems of this area, now a petition can be created to fix the problem.

Attila Bihari
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Great article, loved it!

David Dougher
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I would be very interested in seeing what happens if you replace the Tesco intersection with a traffic circle. The bottle neck here becomes the fact that only one lane can move at a time. A traffic circle MIGHT allow the traffic to flow more easily. Many people dislike traffic circles intensely, but in some situations they can relieve congestion by allowing a fairly constant rate of access.

Just a thought.

M Hemming
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You mean a roundabout?
They're in wide use in the UK and no-one has any issues with them, but yes a roundabout sounds like a good idea.

Andrew Nash
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Fascinating article. I've been working on developing games to help educate people about transport concepts. The first one is called Bus Meister (, it's a strategy game that's pretty detailed. The second is called Grr-Grr-Bike ( it's a simple swipe game that we are trying to get funded now via crowd sourced funding. Anyway, thanks for the article.

Kris Vanherle
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Wonderful!, @Andrew Nash @Ben Reichert thx for your reactions; at least it proves I'm not completely insane ;)

Looking at your work, it seems the idea is somewhat more developed in the US; as far as I'm aware, only some small experiments with serious games have been done in Europe. I wonder if your tools are being used by researchers and/or policy makers...

I'll contact you directly to see if we can build on this.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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"For me personally, I can't wait to see what happens when the game is released, and people with real scientific experiments give it a run for its money."

Yes, we finally saw after the release the fantastic simulation potential of SimCity (TM)(C)(R), it sure gave real traffic sim tools a run for its money with fantastic things like:


Chris Nash
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Regarding the "traffic loop bug". If that road system was actually created in real life, you'd probably see people reacting in much the same way as the simulation. This isn't a bug, its a feature.