It seems like a lifetime ago when we could just leave the house and go places, whether on foot or bike or (if we must) car. And as much as one might long for a return to normal-times, let’s not forget that normalcy also involved such headaches as congestion, traffic sewers, long waits for buses, broken links in the bike network, and walk signals that never switch over to letting you walk.
At some point we’ve all found ourselves enduring some awful element of a commute, daydreaming, “if only the city would fix this one simple thing.” But now you’re in luck: A new traffic-simulator game called A/B Streets puts urban planning tools in your hands, letting you completely reconfigure all of our local streets to accommodate your every whim. And it’s all thanks to Banjo-Kazooie, a video game about a bear and a bird who can move quickly across difficult terrain by switching from one mode of travel to another.
Dustin Carlino is the lead developer of A/B Streets. “Back in college I worked on a simulator for autonomous cars,” he says. “I was interested in what would happen if a city had all autonomous cars one day.” Dustin was inspired to get into coding by Banjo-Kazooie, a Nintendo 64 game where you can jump and fly and swim and roll, navigating levels through a range of different forms of locomotion.
Dustin’s work, coupled with a move to Seattle in 2017, led to him becoming disillusioned with autonomous cars. Not only are cars just not necessary for many trips in Seattle, but Dustin started to see how autonomous cars could actually make cities worse, by pushing people further into suburbs and giving them longer commutes. Meanwhile, he got increasingly frustrated by Seattle’s tendency to drag its feet on implementing what should be simple improvements for non-vehicular commutes, like the Burke-Gilman Trail and Mayor Jenny’s veto of 35th Ave bike lanes.
So he grabbed some data sets on Seattle streets and some other data on traffic behavior, and started crafting a game that lets you tweak every lane, light, and parking space in the city. It’s a transportation-focused version of other simulators like SimCity and Cities: Skylines, but based on real life.
Still, the model isn’t exactly reliable, at least not yet. “I think it’s still kind of early,” says Dustin. “I’ve been struggling with data sources, like I don’t know how traffic lights are timed so I’m guessing right now.”
He’s tried to get that information from the Seattle Department of Transportation, but they apparently don’t know how all their lights are timed either. In conversations with SDOT engineers, he learned that there’s no central database of traffic light data; and what does exist is stored in formats that may be too messy for a machine to understand. For now, he’s thinking about asking volunteers to walk downtown with stopwatches, timing each light by hand.
Updates like better traffic light timing will come once a week, Dustin says. The team is continually honing and refining the software — in particular, it got a huge usability boost over the last six months thanks to the work of UW student and user experience designer Yuwen Li. The project is looking for more programmers and designers to help out, so if this sort of pastime makes your heart beat faster, now’s the time to get in touch.
The dream is to get the game to a point where it’s reliable enough to test out policies that can be implemented in the real world, like the long-overdue proposal to implement congestion pricing downtown. Dustin’s also interested in the impact of opening up private zones like Broadmoor, a gated community and golf course near the Arboretum.
But you can also just go wild with bus lanes, bike paths, or making every street in the city one-way. Seek solutions or torture your simulated humans, it’s up to you.