Feb 15, 2016

Cities: Skylines: Walking around Jericho

In Ahab’s time, Hiel of Bethel rebuilt Jericho.
- 1 Kings 16:34

When I finished my master's thesis last fall, I took the plunge and got a new laptop. This led to not only an obsession with Crusader Kings II, but also to finding Cities: Skylines on the Steam black Friday sale. I've loved citybuilding games ever since I started playing SimCity back when it came out, so having had a look at Cities: Skylines before, getting it was a no-brainer.

Here's my first successful city:

And a more panoramic view:

I'll try to give you some idea how we got there.


Getting started

Then Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two spies from Shittim. “Go, look over the land,” he said, “especially Jericho.” So they went and entered the house of a prostitute named Rahab and stayed there.
- Joshua 2:1

Fundamentally, Cities: Skylines is a citybuilder in the classic mold. You start with a patch of land connected to a highway, you zone it into residential, commercial and industrial zones, and build service buildings and traffic connections for them. Where you build stuff does matter, though. For starters, each map has a distribution of natural resources, which you can see in the map mode below. The yellow patches are agricultural land, the green is forest, and the large grey area is underground ore resources. You can have your industrial zones specialize in making use of these resources.

Or just build a whole bunch of offices if you like, those are jobs too!

I wanted to make use of our natural resources in my city, so on the left, you can see ordinary unspecialized industy, and on the right farms.

Below, an area of timber industry.

Farming and forestry, which my city has specialized in, create lots of low-education jobs and don't pollute (no, I don't know how they farm), whereas unspecialized industry buildings can level up and provide more skilled jobs, generating more taxes, but also more pollution. Through the early years of my city, we were basically a farming community.

In addition to providing your citizens with jobs, shops and places to live, some basic services are also a requirement. The two most geography-dependent are water and power. Below are my sanitation plants, working almost at capacity to dump our sewage into the river in a form that doesn't transform it into a giant stream of shit. It's considered advisable to have your water pumps upstream of the drains, especially before you unlock sanitation plants.

As for power, Cities: Skylines has stayed true to the environmentalist ideology of the Simcity series, and the most effective form of power generation in the early game is wind. Obviously, for turbine placement, prevailing winds matter a great deal, but the game is fairly generous with those. The highway in the map below is where my city started out, and I was lucky enough to find some strong winds right next to it that powered our initial growth.

With these basic elements, you can put together the kind of city you want.


A walkable city

March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days.
- Joshua 6:3

Inevitably, most simulated cities will run into the same problem that bedevils real-life ones: traffic.

You can, of course, try to mitigate this by connecting highways everywhere and building the most complex freeflowing interchanges you can, but I wasn't really interested in solving my problems with motorways.

Instead, in keeping with the Simcity heritage of New Urbanism, I didn't just want to build a particularly efficient city, but rather one where people would walk as much as possible. The simulated citizens of Skylines, called cims, will walk very long distances if you give them the infrastructure to do it; someone's even managed to create an entire city where nobody drives. My goal wasn't that lofty, but I did want to put some effort into promoting walking. That starts with the layout of the residential areas.

Above is a fairly typical residential neighborhood in my city. The traffic view, below, makes it easier to see the road layout. The neighborhood consists of three main roads, with residential streets branching off them, which connect to a central roundabout, from which a broader street connects to the arterial road outside. A proper road hierarchy is key to a functional city!

Having only a single road connection to the arterial road eliminates through traffic from the neighborhood completely, as there's nowhere for it to go through to. To minimize the rest of the traffic, the whole neighborhood is connected to a network of footpaths, which you can see on the map as the grey lanes. While you can get to, say, the commercial zone on the extreme left of the picture by car, it's going to be easier and faster to just use the footbridge to walk across.

The footbridge below connects the commercial zone on the right to the residential area and metro station on the left; the footbridge coming toward the camera on the left connects to the industrial zone where many of the cims from that neighborhood work.

With this kind of infrastructure in place that promotes walking, lots of your citizens will use it. We know from studies that people are healthier and happier if they can make their commute on foot, but I'm not sure if the game models that, and anyway if the only thing you care about is optimizing traffic flow, every cim crossing that bridge on foot is one less car on the road. I've found that even from a purely gameplay-utilitarian perspective, putting some time and effort into incorporating walking infrastructure into your city is well worth it.


A growing city

When David was told about this, he sent messengers to meet the men, for they were greatly humiliated. The king said, “Stay at Jericho till your beards have grown, and then come back.”
- 2 Samuel 10:5

As your city grows, it becomes bigger and more complex, and so do the traffic problems. As you provide more services, businesses will need more skilled workers, meaning people traveling across the city to get to high schools and universities. More people need more healthcare services, and as they age, deathcare. Basically, for most cities, when a city expands in one area, traffic goes up everywhere.

My biggest problem spots in Jericho were my commercial zones; several people work there, and almost everyone occasionally wants to visit them. Alexandria, below, had the biggest traffic problems.

It's easy to find congested sections of road in the traffic view, which color-codes heavy traffic as red.

Right now, one of the few read areas is an intersection outside Alexandria, leading to the commercial district, a residential area across from it, and the highway interchange at top right.

Ordinarily, I've preferred roundabouts; this was my first really high-traffic intersection:

In his seminal Cities: Skylines guide How to Traffic, real-life traffic engineer drushkey wrote:

Roundabouts are indeed pretty sweet. To be honest, you can ignore almost everything you just read and plop roundabouts everywhere.

Unfortunately, I find myself having to agree with his esteemed Japanese colleague, who's also written an excellent traffic guide: roundabouts don't solve everything, and if traffic becomes too heavy, they actually clog up much worse than signaled intersections ever can. I wish I had a screenshot of the time one of the roundabouts outside Alexandria was in total gridlock. Every incoming road was jammed full, and no-one could move. I actually fixed that problem by demolishing the roundabouts and replacing them with regular signal intersections of much lower capacity. This made the traffic jams go away, because counterintuitively, more roads means more traffic. This is a phenomenon you will experience in Cities: Skylines!

What is traffic? Luckily, in Cities: Skylines, we can find out. Click on any vehicle or person in the street, and it'll tell you who they are and where they're going.

Here, rounding a corner in Alexandria in her hatchback, we find Amanda Davies, a highly educated young adult. She lives at the Moore Residence; creepily, clicking on the name takes us to her house.

Zooming out, we find that she lives in the suburb of Cedar Forest. It's fairly well connected to the rest of the city by public transit, but she's still driving. Why?

It's unlikely to be her job, as she works at the Cedar Forest fire station, which is within easy walking distance of her home.

It's the last piece of information that's crucial: she's headed to the Gigastore to do some shopping.

The particular Gigastore she wants to go to, it turns out, is clear across town in Gethsemane.

That's going to be a long drive, and one where she's crossing some of the densely populated areas of the city. I have no idea why she's not taking the freeway; maybe she visited another shop or a park in Alexandria first.

So if Amanda wants to go somewhere that's too far to walk, how do we make her and everyone else stop congesting our roads? The answer is public transit.

One of the busiest walking areas of my city is on the south side of Alexandria, and not just because the footbridges there connect a high-density residential area with the commercial zones.

It's also the meeting place of no less than five metro lines. If everyone wants to go to Alexandria, the least I can do is get them there.

Cims really, really, really like taking the metro. The clumps of colored figures in the mass transit view are passengers waiting for a particular metro line. The white figures in the image below are pedestrians getting off a train.

This is what it looks like on the surface:

If not for that subway line, every single person in that veritable flood of commuters would be driving a car. Sure, you can create a massive network of high-capacity roads connecting every corner of your city. My aim has been to create a city where people can walk and take a train where they can't walk.



Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through.
- Luke 19:1

An interesting feature of Cities: Skylines are monuments, which are unique special buildings that provide a service for the whole city, rather like wonders of the world in the Civilization games. Each monument requires you to build certain unique buildings to unlock it, and both these buildings and the monuments themselves attract tourism, which brings income.

Since this was my first proper game, I decided to try unlocking as many monuments as possible. Since this meant building some potentially spectacular unique buildings, I got my Le Corbusier on and planned out a monumental ceremonial center focused in my city hall. After all, if you think about it, citybuilding games more or less are totalitarian regimes.

Tourists will use outside connections to enter your city; at first, this will mean the highways, but if you build train stations, airports or harbors, they'll arrive on those as well.

This all entails a pretty sizeable investment in infrastructure, and paying for its maintenance afterward. Unfortunately, even in a city with several monuments and a whole pile of unique buildings, all connected to each other and the external connections by rail, the number of tourists arriving by sea was a pittance.

Rail tourists are even worse: the game generates a seemingly endless number of trains going to every station you have that's connected to the outside line, all carrying as many as a couple of dozen passengers. Unless you completely separate your external rail links from any internal traffic, as I had not, the nearly empty tourist trains will totally jam your rail network.

At the end of the day, the tourists don't even produce enough income to pay for the infrastructure they need to get there.

So sadly, I'd say tourism seems to be a complete waste of time. The only reason to have external connections is cargo:

That constant traffic of trucks between the rail terminal on the right and the cargo harbor on the left means imports and exports for my commerce and industry: both less trucks on the roads and higher-level industrial and commercial zones, meaning more and better jobs and bigger tax incomes. As near as I could tell, a cargo harbor was an excellent investment, and cargo trains do seem to make life somewhat easier. Tourism, though, is much more trouble than it's worth.



At that time Joshua pronounced this solemn oath: “Cursed before the Lord is the one who undertakes to rebuild this city, Jericho: “At the cost of his firstborn son he will lay its foundations; at the cost of his youngest he will set up its gates.”
- Joshua 6:26

Cities: Skylines is a really good game. This is pretty much the citybuilder that Simcity was always supposed to be, but never really got around to actually being. The level of detail and the way the city lives is simply entrancing. I must've spent hours staring at traffic and mass transit, working out who was going where and how to make the system work better. The info screens are admirably clear, while the general view is genuinely beautiful, both in the intricacies of the details and in the wide sweep of the whole cityscape.

Not everything is perfect, of course. The disappointing tourism mechanic was already mentioned; it sort of destroys the point of many of the unique buildings when they don't seem to be worth building at all. Similarly, the sheer railway chaos the trains can generate, and the lack of tools to deal with it, are a little disappointing. The building interface can be a bit fiddly, especially when building footbridges. These are fairly minor quibbles, though. The only larger shortcoming I think we can fairly lay at Cities: Skylines's door is that while it succeeds at being the citybuilder that we always wanted Simcity to be, it never really makes an attempt to be anything more. In a sense, it's like you're playing a perfect version of Simcity 2000: fun, satisfying, but you can't really help thinking that there's more to citybuilders than this.

Imagine a citybuilder game that made a real, intelligent effort to address the politics of developing cities, and the various economic and social problems in them.

Having said all this, the curse of Cities: Skylines is how damn good it is. Hours will vanish; days if you're not careful. I swear I had dreams about playing it for months. It's a wonderfully engrossing experience to design your city and start laying it out on the map, and so very rewarding to see it come to life. There's alwys time to do just one more thing before you take a break. If you've ever felt the slightest twinge of interest in Simcity or anything like it, it's a fair bet that you'll love Cities: Skylines. I highly recommend it.

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