Games urban planners play

UrbanSim predicts consequences of possible actions

Sometimes government research can't keep up with the demand. A number of government organizations are already using a National Science Foundation-funded planning application, even though its graphical interface is still a year away from completion.

UrbanSim, developed by researchers at the University of Washington, is in use by planners in Honolulu, Salt Lake City, the Puget Sound area of Washington, Paris and Taiwan, said university researcher Alan Borning, who along with Paul Waddell wrote the software.

The UrbanSim software, like the commercial games after which it's named, models the growth of complex environments based on user input of a wide range of factors. The software predicts the effects of a planned action in an urban area, given a series of variables in land use, transportation and environment.

Salt Lake City, for instance, used the software last year to gauge the effects of a proposed highway on traffic congestion and housing development. 'We got thrown into the middle of the maelstrom,' Borning said.

City planners and the public were embroiled in controversy over building a new highway. Through a series of scenarios, the software predicted that traffic congestion would ease if the road were built, but the edges of the city would experience more development sprawl.

Although the result was not surprising, it did show that UrbanSim could model complex conditions, Borning said. UrbanSim used existing data sets on the expected number of vehicles traveling in the city and the average number of hours motorists spend commuting during rush hours.

Borning acknowledged the software still needs polishing. Unlike commercial simulation games in which users interact with a three-dimensional world, UrbanSim's user interface is still menu-driven and is best run by systems administrators.

The research team is developing a graphical interface for less computer-savvy users. That version should be ready in about a year, Borning said.


UrbanSim's foundation is the open-source Eclipse integrated development environment. Within Eclipse, a user loads data from one or more existing databases, such as traffic levels over a five-year period. The program checks the consistency of the data and then runs it through one or more of about 10 urban planning models. These small programs predict outcomes based on accepted economic or urban planning methodologies.

The Python scripting language then passes the results to an Excel spreadsheet or a mapping program that graphically represents the generated models.

NSF funded UrbanSim with a series of grants totaling about $4 million, Borning said. The Federal Highway Administration also contributed. The open-source software is downloadable from

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.


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