Sim Paulo

How I used SimCity to solve the world's worst traffic jam.

For a look at the unintended consequences of Brazil's emergence as an economic superpower, take a drive on Sao Paulo's ring road at rush hour, or really any time of day. You'll have a while to ponder.

With about 18 million people in the greater metro area, the world's eighth-largest city by population is often described as having the world's worst traffic jams, but that really doesn't do it justice. On a bad day, the traffic on the roads in and out of the city can stretch for nearly 200 miles. Unless you're one of the lucky few who can afford to commute by helicopter, getting in and out of the city center can be a two- or three-hour proposition.

I decided to take a crack at fixing the problem. But as I'm a video-game blogger living 6,000 miles away in Manchester, England, it seemed unlikely that Sao Paulo's authorities would hand me the key to the city planner's office anytime soon. So I decided to try out some ideas first on SimCity.

For the uninitiated, SimCity is an ongoing series of urban design games from the California-based studio Maxis. The game allows users to play mayor -- or rather a mayor with nearly godlike powers to build and demolish structures on a whim -- to manage a virtual city and be tasked with providing for the housing, health, energy needs, transportation, and entertainment of its inhabitants. Mismanage your resources and the city will eventually fall into ruin or explode into violent anarchy. Normally, there's a limit on time and resources, but you can also turn on "sandbox mode" for experiments like my virtual Sao Paulo.

This latest edition takes a far more casual approach to the genre, somewhat limiting the options that players have available in favor of focusing on making the experience as accessible and entertaining to as many people as possible. However, concealed underneath the new game is a system capable of re-creating real-life traffic layouts as well as plenty of other real-world city infrastructure services. Traffic, for example, will follow the sort of behavior you would expect to see on your own commute to work, building up at peak times in both the morning and afternoon and routing itself through alternative avenues if there's a particularly nasty buildup along the way.

By re-creating part of Sao Paulo in SimCity, I hoped to get to the heart of the traffic issues and perhaps attempt to provide a feasible solution that could bring traffic numbers down -- or at least redirect them away from the awful jams.

First, it was necessary to understand how things got so bad. Sao Paulo is Brazil's largest metropolis by land area and for decades was one of the world's fastest-growing cities. In the last 10 years, the suburbs have grown from 6.7 million to 8.4 million people, accounting for more than two-thirds of the area's population growth. And with around 6.8 million cars, the city has one of the largest vehicle fleets. But the single ring road around Sao Paulo provides the only real route into the city and is simultaneously used by all those millions of people trying to get into the center, plus those hoping to avoid going through it at all costs.


Meanwhile, only a handful of main roads cut through the city and offer real passage to where you need to be. Essentially, everyone is driving on the same small set of roads, and no one is going anywhere fast. This is compounded by the highway system in the surrounding area, which essentially forces trucks traversing Sao Paulo into the urban maze.

In recent years, the city government has put some new regulations in place in an attempt to quell the heavy traffic numbers, including caps on how many cars can drive in the area each week and a ban on trucks during the daytime on certain main roads. These initiatives have helped to an extent, but the hours-long jams are still there. Perhaps, I thought, I might have better luck.

My main focus was on a main road called Avenida dos Bandeirantes, which connects the ring road to the center of Sao Paulo. This is one of Sao Paulo's most important roads, providing five lanes in each direction that act as the main access point to the Congonhas Airport, and as such this relatively straight road doesn't throw too many sets of traffic lights at commuters. The idea is to allow the traffic to flow freely -- however, anyone attempting to get home along this avenue after a hard day at work can expect to sit in standstill traffic for hours, thanks to the sheer volume of cars, vans, and buses that pass through each day.

Building my version of Sao Paulo was simply a case of piecing it together bit by bit, using a Google Maps overview of the area as my guide to situate the roads. Once the streets were in place, I could then position housing, commercial areas, and industrial sites around them as accurately as possible, using Google Street View as my guide. Constructing a SimCity region is relatively easy going, and in no time at all hundreds of thousands of future Sao Paulo residents were arriving via the connecting ring road.

Notably, my SimCity representation of the area yielded the same results as the real-life situation. Traffic would build up heavily along Bandeirantes both in the morning and as the sun started to set, making the commute a nightmare.

However, an obvious solution presented itself in the smaller streets that weave throughout the city. There are numerous potential routes that drivers could take to skip the traffic, but these smaller roads are in disrepair and in some places can barely cater to one car, let alone vehicles in both directions.

With this in mind, I made it my mission to upgrade every smaller residential road in the area, making them fit for travel. After I made the repairs, a good portion of my SimCity folk opted to peel away from Avenida dos Bandeirantes, instead homing in on their target destinations via this series of smaller lanes and avenues. This did cause new traffic buildups at junctions and traffic crossings throughout the area, but it was nothing close to what Bandeirantes had been experiencing.

Of course, this also revealed one of the game's limitations. In the real world, many of the back roads I was directing traffic onto were in areas motorists might want to avoid. Indeed, rather than experimenting with journeying along these smaller roads, Paulistas would rather stay in the traffic jam, for fear of finding themselves lost in a dodgy part of town. Kidnappings and carjackings are commonplace in Sao Paulo.

So if this solution is a nonstarter, what about public transportation? Sao Paulo does have a metro system that ferries more than 5 million people every day. Unfortunately, it's not all that extensive -- its 194 miles of metro lines are less than half of what New York or London has in smaller metropolitan areas -- and the trams are often crowded to the point where people are regularly injured on their commute.

The city's bus service isn't really up to scratch either. There are over 16,000 buses in Sao Paolo, which may sound like a huge number -- New York City has only 5,600 -- yet for the 20 million people who live and work in the greater metropolitan area, it's simply not enough, and the buses are often jampacked. No wonder 45 percent of daily journeys in Sao Paulo are done by car.

I thought I might provide my virtual Sao Paulo residents with some better options. I started by implementing an extensive bus service, with multiple depots, bus stops on pretty much every street corner, and a large fleet of vehicles. SimCity allows me to monitor the average wait time for my bus service, and I continued to add more routes, vehicles, and services until it went below 30 minutes. At this inflection point, more of my citizens began to decide that the service was up to snuff, and usage numbers skyrocketed. Traffic on the main roads was cut back ever so slightly as a result.

I was also interested in seeing whether an extended metro system that reached the most crowded business areas would help, so I created a streetcar system running down the center of Avenida dos Bandeirantes, which then cuts onto Avenida Moreira Guimaraes and in the direction of the Edifício Copan -- the iconic Oscar Niemeyer-designed apartment building -- in the city center. (Incidentally, the Edifício is one of the pre-made monuments users can drop into their projects in the new SimCity game.) A similar project is already under way in real-life Sao Paulo, as the city looks to bolster its transport offerings in the run-up to the 2014 World Cup.

This new option clearly had an effect on my SimCity people, as metro passenger numbers rose, while traffic was cut down even further. Jams on the main roads were still quite heavy, but far from what I saw before putting these extra transport options in place. Citizen happiness, as measured by the game, even jumped up a notch as a result, and Sao Paulo residents were able to commute to work far more easily if they chose to give the metro a go.

Whether real-life Sao Paulo citizens would choose to take advantage of these extended bus and metro services is another story entirely, but it's clear that, in SimCity at least, there is a partial solution. Of course, it's also very easy to throw money around willy-nilly in a video game. The question of where the investment for such services would come from in real life is another conundrum.

Traffic issues in Sao Paulo aren't going to get better anytime soon -- in fact they're more likely to get worse as the city's population heaves. Hopefully, the problems will be addressed before it's only practical to visit the city in a computer simulation.

Screenshots courtesy of Mike Rose


Longform’s Picks of the Week

The best stories from around the world.

Every weekend, Longform highlights its favorite international articles of the week. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform's new app and read all of the latest in-depth stories from dozens of magazines, including Foreign Policy.

Boris Berezovsky, 1946-2013
Keith Gessen • n+1

The life and legacy of the world's first oligarch.

He may not have been the best of this generation, morally speaking, but he may well have been one of the brightest (for a Jew of that generation to have made it as far as he did in Soviet academia was a tremendous accomplishment), and in certain important ways he believed what they believed: that capitalism was virtuous; that because capitalism was virtuous, those who succeeded at capitalism were the elect, and those who failed at it were the damned; that, politically speaking, all that was required for the liberation of the Russian people, after three hundred years of oppression, was to open the windows and let the free market in. What all this led to, in fact, was the enrichment of a very few and the immiseration of the populace, the reduction of life expectancy for Russian males by nearly a decade, and, as of last year, nearly a million suicides. And now it seems possible that Berezovsky is one more.

Cate Gillon/Getty Images

Of Mammoths and Men
Brook Larmer • National Geographic

In Siberia, the lucrative trade of mammoth tusk ivory has turned many residents into hunters of the ancient creatures.

Nobody, not even Gorokhov, imagined that mammoth tusks would become an economic lifeline for a region that had been largely abandoned after the shuttering of Soviet-era mines and factories. (The population of Yakutiya's Ust-Yanskiy District, which covers a swath of tundra three times the size of Switzerland, has dropped from 80,000 to just 8,000 in the past five decades.) Now hundreds, if not thousands, of Yakutiyan men have become tusk hunters, following their ancestors' routes, enduring the same brutal conditions-and chasing the same Paleolithic beasts.

As primitive as it may seem, the tusk rush is driven not by ancient callings but by powerful modern forces: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing frenzy of frontier capitalism, the international ban on trading elephant ivory and the search for alternatives, even the advent of global warming.

Tim Boyle/Getty Images

The Dwarves of Auschwitz
Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev • The Guardian

How the Ovitzs, a family of Jewish dwarves from Transylvania, survived Auschwitz.

On the night the Ovitzs arrived, Mengele was asleep in his room at the nearby SS headquarters. All the troopers on duty at the ramp, however, knew well of his passion, of his collector's mentality. To gain favour with the freak-hunter, they were always on the lookout for new specimens to enrich his "human circus". While a lone dwarf did not provide reason enough to knock on Mengele's door in the middle of the night, seven dwarves, along with their tall siblings, seemed good cause for disturbance.

While the SS were brutal towards the newly arrived, they were cheerful with the dwarves. Realising this, two families from the Ovitzs' village approached and told the officer they were related. The Ovitzs kept silent and did not prove them wrong. Now they were 22. Mengele hurried out to see his new acquisitions. He was delighted: "I now have work for 20 years," he exclaimed.


Welcome to Cocainebougou
Yochi Dreazen • Foreign Policy

Mali's drug trade illustrates why fully defeating the north-ruling Islamists seems almost impossible.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that more than $1.25 billion of cocaine, hashish, and other drugs bound for Europe travel along smuggling routes which pass through Mali and other West African nations each year, and former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo described northern Mali earlier this year as "a den of drug trafficking, extremism, and criminality." Even a tiny sliver of the drug money which pours through the region each year would be more than enough for a local kingpin to build a nice house in Cocainebougou.

And there are many here. But now, mostly, they sit empty. The Arabs who owned and lived in many of the mansions in Gao fled a few months ago, when French forces ousted the Islamist fighters who had controlled the city, fearing reprisals from locals who saw them as de facto allies of the extremists.

During a recent visit to the neighborhood I asked my translator, a sweet-natured soccer fanatic named Ibrahim, what would have happened to the Arabs if they had stayed.

"They'd have been killed, of course," he said matter-of-factly.


Afghanistan After the War
Ahmed Rashid • The New Republic

An argument for making peace possible in a country that has been at war for over 34 years.

The debate in Washington about troop numbers is misplaced. It has nothing to do with the major issues facing Afghanistan, which require a transition to a peace plan rather than an exit. The first part of such a plan is the urgent need for talks for a negotiated cease-fire between the Taliban, the United States, and the Afghan government, so that NATO troops can exit with dignity and the horrendous levels of violence can be reduced. Afghanistan cannot be stabilized by fighting to the very last day. And this first negotiation needs to be followed by further talks between the Taliban and Kabul over a political power-sharing arrangement that will enlarge the space for the cease-fire, integrate the Taliban into state structures, and produce an ultimate political agreement to end the conflict.

Aref Karimi/AFP/GettyImages