Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Smart Growth

Cities Skylines takes over SimCity's mantle as top city-builder

Those of you who've dreamed of having their own city to build from the ground up now have a new virtual way to make it happen: A computer game called Cities: Skylines.


Gameplay in Cities: Skylines. All photos by the author.

Like in the popular SimCity franchise, the player acts as the mayor, responsible for building the infrastructure needed for the city to work. That includes building streets, a power grid, parks, schools, public safety, and zoning land for development.

As your city reaches population milestones, additional features are unlocked. These, in turn, make it possible for your city to continue to grow.


Streets and buildings aren't limited to right angles.

Skylines comes from the team responsible for the well-received transit simulation games Cities in Motion and Cities in Motion 2. With Cities: Skylines, they've taken the step up from transportation simulation to full city-builder.

After the disappointing release of SimCity 5 in 2013, this game is a welcome improvement in the genre.

Like SimCity 5, roads are no longer bound to a strict 90-degree grid. Players can build curved roads or grids that are skewed at different angles, which helps give cities a more realistic appearance.


Bus and subway lines shown when in the transit menu.

On the other hand, one big change from SimCity 5 is the ability to draw bus lines and build subways and commuter rail. In the most recent SimCity, players could place bus stops, but buses just drove randomly to stops based on where the most people aboard wanted to go.

In Cities: Skylines, players can draw actual bus and rail lines. Buses will actually follow the lines you draw, and stop where you designate stops. One limitation, though, is that while you can set overall service levels for all buses throughout the city, you can't add additional service to any one line.

Another important change from SimCity 5 is that in Skylines, the subway is back. Many SimCity players were disappointed when SC5 came out without the ability to build subways. But Skylines does have subway stations and players can draw subway services just like bus and commuter rail lines.


The game has zones for residential, commercial (retail), industrial, and office.

Like other city-builders, Skylines includes zones. In addition to the traditional SimCity set of residential, commercial, and industrial zones, Skylines has added an office zone to the mix, which allows you to provide jobs for educated workers.

The residential and commercial zones have a low-density and a high-density variant.

Unfortunately, like the city-builders that have come before, Skylines does not have a mixed-use zone. While most cities in the real world have residential or office over retail, Skylines (and SimCity) still only recognize single-use zones.

However, it is possible to create mixed-use districts. When I build a neighborhood, I invariably put a commercial zone in the center, surrounded by residential. If demand warrants, I'll sometimes sprinkle office in as well.

That sort of development pattern does make a difference, because the sims in the game will walk or take transit when that's the best mode, and will drive when things are too far.

Of course, even when you try to build suburban-style development with far-separated uses, the buildings in the game are largely urban-format, with facades built right up to the sidewalk. You won't see a sea of parking surrounding big-box retail uses. That's not part of the simulation.


Mayors can annex additional territory as their cities grow.

Unlike SimCity 4 and 5, Skylines does not feature a region mode. Each map has just one city. However, a key improvement is that mayors can "annex" land as their city grows.

Many players of SimCity 5 were disappointed that each city was in a little pod off a freeway, with no ability to draw connections across the city limits. In Skylines, your city will start off about the same size as one of SimCity 5's individual cities.

But as your city reaches population thresholds, you can add adjacent tiles, and you can build connections across the (former) boundary. If you don't like the freeway connecting your pod to the outside world, you can annex that territory and rebuild it to suit your fancy.

You can't annex unlimited land, though. You can only add eight or nine additional squares to your city. But your city can be shaped oddly to take advantage of natural features or resources.


Players can create and name districts.

I think one of the coolest features is the ability to paint and name districts. The simplest use for this feature is just to name neighborhoods.

But there's actually more functionality than that. The player can actually define policies for each district. For example, you might make transit free in the Downtown district. Or you could ban high-rises in leafy Chestnut Hill. Or if you want to incentivize small businesses in LoDo, you can give them tax breaks.

Another use for districts is to allow industry specialization. If you have an oil field under part of your city, you can paint a district which will focus oil-specialized industries. But if you don't do that, your industries will just import the resources they need.


Every person in the game has a real home and job and can be followed.

One very cool feature, which has been carried forward from the Cities in Motion franchise, is the ability to follow sims around. And these sims are semi-permanent features of your city. As long as you don't demolish their residence, once they move in, you can follow them forever. They'll go to school or find work. They'll shop and recreate.

Following them around may help you figure out how to improve the transportation network. Or it may just give you a sense of the complexity of the simulation. You can also rename them if you want. Almost everything in the game can be renamed.

This contrasts very sharply to SimCity 5, where the sims are not permanent. In that game, the sims will leave work and go to the first unoccupied residence. And then they'll cease to exist. Until the next day when they go to the closest available job (which may not be the same as the day before).


Mayors still have to manage public facilities.

Of course, managing public services is an important part of the mayor's job. Making sure that there are enough classrooms in the school district is something common to most city-builders. Skylines is no different.

The game does have one drawback over SC5, though. In the most recent SimCity, you could expand most public facilities. For example, you might build an addition onto a school.

In Skylines, you cannot do that. You just have to build a new facility to meet the demand.


Data views are well-designed. Here's the fire coverage map.

Also like in the new SimCity, Skylines has great data visualization tools. The screenshot above shows fire protection coverage. The individual fire stations are shown in light purple, and every building is colored based on its fire risk.

If only it was this easy to see data in real life!

There are two additional features that really put this game head and shoulders above the SimCity franchise.

The first is the ability to make your own maps through a map editor. The editor is extremely detailed, especially with regard to mapping water, which really acts like a fluid. This is important, since hydro power in the game depends on the strength and volume of water.

The other feature is that the game is set up for modding and asset creation. I haven't attempted to do any of this myself, but I have downloaded several mods and assets (buildings, parks, interchanges, and the like). But in the two weeks since the game's release, there are already thousands of user-created mods and assets available for download.

Many of us were disappointed at the rollout of SimCity 5, not only because it was plagued with problems, but because the actual gameplay seemed like a setback from SimCity 4.

Cities: Skylines, on the other hand, is a worthy heir to the title. If you were disappointed in SimCity 5, you will probably find Skylines very satisfying.

Tysons will get its first bike lanes this summer

Some of Tysons' main streets are getting a makeover this summer, and that's going to make them more bike-friendly.


Map of the changes coming to Tysons, including how the bike network will connect with the Spring Hill, Greensboro, Tysons, and McLean Metro stations. Image from Fairfax County.

Along with getting new pavement, stretches of Tyco Road, Westbranch Drive, and Greensboro Drive are going on road diets. That means they'll get new paint jobs that take them from being four through lanes wide to having two through lanes, a center turn lane, and bike lanes on each side.


Before and after cross sections for roads in Tysons. Image from Fairfax County.

A road diet was successful on Lawyers Road in Reston, where Virginia Department of Transportation data say car crashes are down a whopping 70%. After five years, nearby residents, people driving cars, and people on bikes are happy with the arrangement.


Lawyers Road before and after its diet. Image from VDOT.

More than in Reston, Tysons needs to plan for people on foot. VDOT gets that, so the agency is lowering speed limits to 35 mph, which fits with Tysons' urban design standards.

Depending on their widths, some roads in Tysons will get sharrows while others will get climbing lanes. On Westbranch Drive, there will be a buffered bike lane like those in Arlington.

VDOT's Randy Dittberner said his agency may consider painting the bikeway bright green so it's more visible, but it won't happen at the start.

Dittberner also said that the new pavement markings are only going in places "where we are 100% sure it won't do anything to traffic conditions."

Fairfax County is taking comments until April 1st, and VDOT will begin its final planning stage after that.

Correction: The original version of this post said Westbranch Drive will have a protected bikeway rather than a buffered bike lane.

An entire student neighborhood bites the dust in College Park

New investment is pouring into College Park, seeking to turn this town known for undergrads and traffic into an urban hub for all ages. As part of that transformation, the famous Knox Boxes student neighborhood is transforming from the ground up.


College Park's Knox Boxes are just a memory. All photos by the author unless noted.

For decades, the Knox Boxes epitomized the University of Maryland's image as a party school. The cluster of 25 low-rise 1950s-era brick apartment buildings was just south of the campus, behind the seedy bars and pizza joints on Route 1.


The same intersection (Guilford Drive and Hartwick Road) in 2006.

For many undergrads, a Knox Box apartment was their first taste of living on their own, and the small backyards and proximity to other neighbors made for comfortable college living.

But they were also cheaply built and poorly maintained. During my freshman year at Maryland, two students died in separate Knox Box fires.

As Maryland became known more for academics than basketball riots, the university and the City of College Park started looking at ways to redevelop the Knox Boxes.

Getting multiple landlords to sell was difficult, but by 2013, a single owner had purchased most of the Knox Boxes. That year, the city approved a plan from developer Toll Brothers, usually known for suburban McMansions, to replace the Knox Boxes with Knox Village, a luxury student apartment complex for over 1,500 students.


The future Knox Village (as seen from Guilford and Hartwick). Image from WDG Architecture.

Like most of the new student housing going up in College Park, Knox Village's apartments and townhomes will have gourmet kitchens and amenities like a pool, gym, and covered parking garage. The complex will have a series of courtyards with a grand staircase (which Toll Brothers compares to the Spanish Steps in Rome...), and two spaces for shops and restaurants.

Mayor Andy Fellows called the vote a "landmark occasion." Construction began last summer, though a few of the Knox Boxes whose owners didn't sell remain.

Change in College Park goes well beyond the Knox Boxes

Knox Village is just one piece of a bigger plan to recast College Park as more of a college town, hoping to attract post-graduates or even families. The university and the city recently opened a charter school to keep more faculty in the area. In a reversal from 10 years ago, when the administration opposed the Purple Line running through campus, president Wallace Loh has been a strong supporter.

More high-end student apartments are going up on Route 1, and last week Target announced plans to open one of the nation's first Target Express stores inside one of them. The university itself has been buying up properties in downtown College Park, and they're partnering with developer U3 Advisors to buy a former bar and turn it into a branch of Milkboy, a Philadelphia music and art venue. Even Ratsie's Pizza, a longtime favorite of the drunk and hungry, will become a Nando's Peri-Peri.


Even as new development comes to College Park, bits of the old remain.

Not even six years since I graduated from Maryland, much of College Park is unrecognizable. Having lived on Knox Road as an upperclassman, I admit I'm a little nostalgic about losing the Knox Boxes. It's also worrisome that so much of the new student housing is very expensive and might make the already high cost of attending college even higher. On the other hand, thousands of new student apartments are coming in, and as the supply increases, rents are likely to fall.

When I lived there, College Park could be frustrating if you weren't into the party scene. There wasn't even a grocery store within walking distance of campus. It's exciting to see College Park develop into more of a college town. That's not only great for students and faculty, but also for neighbors who aren't even affiliated with the university.

Check out these photos of the Knox Boxes in 2006 and today.

People are healthier, wealthier, and happier when cars don't come first

It'd be pretty tough to read through everything on our list of the best planning books. But if you have 16 minutes, author Jeff Speck shares the basic arguments of his book Walkable City in this TED talk.

Speck's argument for walkable cities appeals to what just about everyone wants: more money, better health, and a cleaner environment.

In cities that require more driving, residents spend far more of their income on transportation. Physical inactivity, which suburban design encourages, has grave health consequences. And the farther away households are from cities, where it's easier to share resources, the more carbon dioxide they produce.

Speck acknowledges that it's hard to challenge people's established ways of life. But at the same time, there's good reason to think we'd all be happier if we didn't view car travel as the norm or spaced out living as what's best.

"I'd argue that the same thing that makes you sustainable gives you a higher quality of life," he says. "And that's living in a walkable neighborhood."

Walkblock of the Week #3: L St NW between 6th and 7th

Construction is certainly a part of life, but when it closes sidewalks, it can make walking more difficult and dangerous. DC's policies require keeping a safe passage for people walking and bicycling, but that doesn't always happen.

Nearly an entire block of sidewalk is closed a block from Mt. Vernon Metro station, on the south side of L Street between 6th and 7th. With the sidewalk closed, the most direct walking route for many pedestrians is in the street. That's avoidable.


Pedestrians walking in the street, after DDOT gave permission to completely close the sidewalk. All photos by the author.

The sidewalk is closed because Douglas Development is constructing a building that will add offices and new retail. But construction is still in its early stages, and it may last for another year. Meanwhile, two car travel lanes are open.


The purple line shows the closed sidewalk on L Street NW. The red lines show other nearby closures. Base map from Google Maps.

DDOT granted permission

DDOT's online system shows that the construction site has the proper permits, and it appears that the construction company has the appropriate signage necessary to close the sidewalk. The current permit expires on August 9th, 2015. But does this sidewalk really need to be closed?

George Branyan, DDOT's pedestrian program coordinator, said that when demolition is still going on at construction sites, closing nearby sidewalks is the preferred route.

"This closure should have relatively little impact on pedestrians accessing the Convention Center Metro station since it is located at 7th Street and M Street, a block north of this development," he said. "Additionally, with the entire block face being developed and no pedestrian generators on the block, fewer pedestrians are attracted to the south side of the street."

It's amazing that while DDOT's policy is for sidewalks to close only as a "means of last resort," Branyan called this particular instance "preferred." He didn't discuss whether or not anyone at DDOT ever considered alternatives to closing the sidewalk. "Means of last resort" looks like a catch-all for any sidewalk closure in the city.

While there are places in the city where keeping sidewalks open would require difficult trade-offs, this site isn't one of them. Its sidewalks are relatively wide, and its vehicle volumes low. The sidewalk here could easily and relatively inexpensively occupy the parking lane, with scaffolding protection like in other locations around the city. This is a case of a clear violation of DDOT's policy for safe accommodations.

The cost of making that happen would be a drop in the bucket considering that this is a multimillion-dollar construction project. This area could be a lot safer and more convenient for people on foot, but DDOT staff and leadership are not making that a priority, and it's not clear why.


There is plenty of space to accommodate people on foot.

DDOT can accommodate walking

The sidewalk at the site looks wide enough to accommodate walkers during construction. Within DDOT, there is the technical ability, creativity, and political will to keep sidewalks open; You can see it in action on nearby 5th Street.

Unfortunately, making excuses for closing sidewalks seems to be a higher priority than finding ways to keep sidewalks open. Doing so directly conflicts with DDOT's policy of allowing sidewalk closures only as a "means of last resort."

A priority shift toward keeping sidewalks open would make DC an even better place to walk and send a clear message that pedestrian safety is a priority here.

Is there a blocked sidewalk near you? Email the location and photos to allwalksdc@gmail.com or tweet them to @allwalksDC with the hashtag #dcwalkblock.

All Walks DC is a 501(c)(4) non-profit organization, advocating for people who walk in the District of Columbia. To get involved, email allwalksDC@gmail.com.

DC proposes an incentive for three-bedroom apartments

With so many new one- and two-bedroom apartments under construction in DC, how can officials guarantee the city has enough housing for families that need bigger homes? One idea they're considering would give developers permission to build more units in new buildings, as long as some of the added units contain at least three bedrooms each.


Image from the DC Zoning Map.

The Office of Planning submitted the draft amendment for the Southeast Federal Center Overlay Zone, which covers about two blocks west of the Navy Yard. The proposal would let developers make buildings taller and with a higher Floor Area Ratio (FAR) as long as that 8% of the "bonus" area were three-bedroom units.

Awarding bonus density can make a project more profitable because the developer gets more space to eventually lease or sell.

A provision specifying the number of bedrooms in each unit is unusual for zoning in DC. Zoning regulations typically limit the number of units on a site or the total floor area of housing, but not the size of individual units or the number of bedrooms in each unit.

Adding density means meeting community goals

The Office of Planning added this three-bedroom bonus at the urging of ANC 6D, which wanted to make it easier for families with children to stay in the neighborhood.

The best part of this proposal is that it encourages a variety of housing sizes while expanding the overall housing supply. That's something that needs to happen in a city like Washington, where the demand for housing is so high.

More supply is good because when there's a low supply of any product, the people making it will produce what's most profitable before producing something that's less profitable. In other words, developers want to construct more lucrative housing before constructing less lucrative housing.

In DC, there's still more demand for smaller housing than there is supply. Until developers meet that demand, there's not much reason for them to build large, three-bedroom apartments. The ongoing controversy over converting old, single-family row houses into two-unit buildings, as well as over building pop-ups, stems from the strong demand for smaller housing in the area.


Household composition and housing stock data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Graph by the author.

Further, there's an imbalance between our current housing stock and the city's demographics: Only 20% of DC households are families with related children, yet 60% of the housing stock has two or more bedrooms.

But that's what's happening city-wide. If we want individual neighborhoods to be diverse in family type, we need housing that is diverse in size.

In this particular zone, the Office of Planning's proposal calls for 8% of the bonus density to go to three-bedroom housing. Could other density bonus ideas work for other neighborhoods in the city?

Here's how density bonuses could work elsewhere in DC

Creating incentives for three-bedroom housing doesn't need to be complicated. One method could be to award any developer bonus density as long as they use the added floor area for three-bedroom units.

A lot of the city's zones limit building sizes by height and by FAR based on how they're being used. A building that has both apartments and ground floor retail, for example, might be be allowed 3.0 FAR for the residential space and 1.0 FAR for the commercial. In such a scenario, the FAR in the biggest mixed-use building you could build would be limited to 4.0.

But the city could target zones that need housing diversity and add a bonus, like an additional 1.0 FAR devoted to apartments with three or more bedrooms. The building's FAR would increase to 5.0, and developers would profit in building units for families.

If the choice is between slightly less profitable housing and no additional housing, the developer is probably going to choose to build the three-bedroom units.


Diagram by the author.

The ongoing zoning rewrite saga is enough to tell us that even the most modest of density increases can be controversial. Awarding bonus density is a good tool for encouraging the private sector to build housing that's both profitable and welcoming to families of all sizes.

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