New Software Lets You Virtually Stroll Down Streets That You Design

Folks across the blogosphere are geeking out over this new software created by Spencer Boomhower at the Portland firm Cupola Media. “Unity3D Visualization” lets users manipulate the features of a street and then evaluate the changes in an immersive animated display.

The software uses video game technology to help people understand how different designs will “feel.” Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns and Michael Andersen at People for Bikes think it has the potential to revolutionize the public planning process.

In the past, Boomhower combined his background in video game design and interest in transportation issues to create this amazing video explaining the folly of Portland’s CRC highway boondoggle. Boomhower told Streetsblog that the video game model can let people visualize transportation decisions in meaningful new ways:

Before this I had done a number of animated videos explaining issues relating to transportation and how it impacts places, but what I always wanted to do was make it interactive. When I build a virtual place in a 3D application I want to explore it, not look at it in a pre-rendered video. And I want to see it come to life with people and vehicles in motion. These are things you can do with video game tools.

Boomhower said he hopes the technology will enable people to become more engaged and empowered in the public planning process:

Game engines are designed to make dynamic places that can be explored from any point of view. Apply that to a street redesign: Want to see how a new curb extension will feel from the perspective of a slower-moving person on foot making that crossing? It’s just as easy as showing the perspective from the person approaching that intersection in the driver’s seat of his or her city bus.

You can try it out for yourself here. Right now the program is still in beta, Boomhower says, so you might encounter some glitches.

Happy Thanksgiving from Streetsblog Capitol Hill. We are off to enjoy the holiday and will be back publishing regularly on Monday. 

  • alex

    this is such a cool tool. it would be nice if i could drop in my own buildings from sketchup or rhino and edit the parameters of the lots and and such

  • Andy

    It took 10 minutes to load, and the only controls were to change the width of the street, or put a bike lane in the middle of the sidewalk. Very buggy and not useful from the link given. But I’ll be interested to see if there’s a user interface to create new streets.

  • Spencer Boomhower

    Sorry it took so long to download! Yeah, it’s not at all optimized, and weirdly big. I’d suggest anyone who wants to check it out without having to venture into unknown software territory take a look at the embedded video above.

    The controls are a bit more extensive than that – you can change the right-of-way, sidewalk width (which you should adjust to be really wide before turning on the bike lane), stripe for 1-4 lanes, turn the trees on and off, and jump around between five cameras with varying level of interactivity.

    But I’ll certainly admit it’s more about the promise of things to come at this point than an actual self-contained product. A proof-of-concept, to spark the imagination on the possibilities around what I see as the immediate goal: to plug proposed street designs into this thing and let people explore options from various POVs within it. Like a virtual charrette.

  • Spencer Boomhower

    Thanks! Glad you like it. Yeah, it’s going to be all about getting the custom work in there, though at this point that’s a less-than-automatic process.

  • Andy

    Right. Clearly this is not a product worth people using at this point. It’s far too buggy, in that you can make a street narrower, and then watch cars just pass through each other. It will be neat to see a later version where you can really modify the landscape and use it as a virtual playground to model a street. As it is, the applet is just not worth the time it takes to load, because once the wait is over you find out that nothing much happens or can change.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    A related thing I’d love to see is simulations of streets with a given number of people traveling by foot, bike, car, and bus. People tend to think that there’s “no one riding bikes” in an area, but you can have 10% mode share while bikes are still basically unnoticeable, simply because bikes don’t cause the same sort of congestion as cars.

  • Gezellig

    Very cool concept! When fully fleshed out it really could help with community input into the planning process.

    Also, it might even slake my thirst a bit for Simcity-style play (ever since the latest and very disappointing SC came out). 😀

  • Nathanael

    Doesn’t work on Linux. Oh well, can’t try it!

  • Spencer Boomhower

    Sorry about that. It’s definitely far from a mature app (busted it out the first pass in about three or four days of fiddling with mostly off-the-shelf elements), but better accessibility is an important goal. I have a Linux-using buddy who 1) is way into the idea, and 2) not able to use it either. So if nothing else there will be continual pressure applied to me to make that work. 🙂

    In the meantime, I highly recommend that if people want to try this but can’t get it to run (or aren’t sure it will run), just check out the video embedded in this article. It shows all that there is to see in the app as of this writing. And I’ll try to keep the video up-to-date as I make changes to the app, changes that will appear automatically in the app if you follow the link included in this article.

  • Spencer Boomhower

    Yes! Fleshing out the various modes needs to happen. Just a matter of finding the time to make and implement the assets. I’ve got a couple bike riders I used in this other project: http://www.cupolamedia.com/foster-road-redesign-in-unity3d/ and I could plug them into this simulation pretty easily. But I need more bicycle riders, and waaaay more pedestrians.

    What would be really cool is to see the mode usage respond to the changes in infrastructure, i.e. more people out walking as the sidewalk gets bigger, more people biking as the bike infrastructure is added, and more children on bicycles appearing with the addition of protected bike lanes.

  • valar84

    I’m late, but I wish to point out that it seems to be lacking a major feature to really show how the street feels like: first person camera from the POV of the pedestrian. The camera as it is seems to have a bias for bird’s eye view, and this bias is a major issue in urbanism. Streets and cities need to be built to be livable from the point of view of a pedestrian, not from the point of view of an architect looking down at his tiny model.

    It would also be nice to have first person view of the car driver, so people can see the difference between what a street feels like from behind a steering wheel or on your own two feet.

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