This Game Lets You Build the Transit System of Your Dreams in the Real World

NIMBY Rails is a train-building simulator that doesn't have maps and levels. There's just Earth.
January 26, 2021, 2:00pm
The New York subway of my dreams
NIMBY Rails
Screen Shot 2021-02-24 at 3
Moveable explores the future of transportation, infrastructure, energy, and cities.

About two years ago, a Barcelona-based video game developer named Carlos Carrasco had an idea that he now calls "very, very, very crazy." He had been playing an open-sourced descendant of Transport Tycoon Deluxe called Open TTD. But something about it wasn't satisfying to him. What if, Carrasco wondered, instead of having artificial maps or limited geographic areas, the game had only one map. You know, the map? Of Earth?

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That game, cheekily called NIMBY Rails—NIMBY being an acronym for "Not In My Back Yard," a term for people opposed to transportation or housing development in their area—is possibly the most complicated transit-development game ever devised. It allows users to build a transit system anywhere in the world, or even across the world if so desired, on a version of Open Street Maps, an open source version of Google Maps. Users build stations, set ticket prices, train speed based in part on the curvature of the tracks, schedules, and countless other variables. 

There's a multiplayer mode so friends can build together. The game has a somewhat crude transit demand model that Carrasco developed, with a customer satisfaction rating score per station that users cannot see but need to intuit by tweaking variables. It incorporates real-world time zones so if you want to build, say, a train line from New York to Los Angeles it is not good enough to merely have the train stop in Cleveland, it must not stop in Cleveland in the middle of the night like Amtrak currently does.

All of this amounts to a game so detail-oriented that watching someone play it is a bit like witnessing forms being filled out (presumably, like most video games, playing it is more fun). After the Youtuber Drawyah built HS2, Britain’s planned high-speed rail line from London to Birmingham, on NIMBY Rails, he commented on the video “I hope you didn't find this video all too boring.”

While NIMBY Rails has many of the real-world variables public transportation systems have to navigate, one thing the game does not currently have is its namesake. There are no NIMBYs in NIMBY Rails.

NIMBYs are among the many reasons public transportation expansion is slow and difficult in many parts of the world, but especially in the United States. Well-organized and often influential NIMBY groups can weaponize environmental impact laws and other legal maneuvers to slow or block public transit projects, a perverse outcome given public transportation is better for the environment than everyone driving their own cars. Every urbanist has had at least one quiet, peaceful moment imagining a world without NIMBYs. In our heads, that world is, of course, much better.

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Carrasco has lived his entire life in Barcelona—a city, it should be noted, with a very good transportation system—and does not have much direct experience with actual NIMBYs, although he said some have cropped up regarding the construction of a long-delayed train station in the city (the fact that the project was already underway before the apparent NIMBYs made themselves heard demonstrates just how little Barcelona has to deal with the phenomenon). He learned the term mostly from architecture forums and conversations with friends about American politics.

Although Carrasco says he came up with the name as "clickbait"—because "NIMBYs don't like trains. Rails means trains. So what does that mean? Click."—there's something deeply, profoundly satisfying about booting up a video game called NIMBY Rails that allows me to build transit systems with impunity. One can, literally, build a train through someone's backyard.

Carrasco says the game is not some political statement, and that he made it to satisfy his own programming curiosity and ambition. He approached it as a computer engineering problem. Whereas Google Maps and other types of real-world mapping software typically download small chunks at a time that are relevant to the user, Carrasco wanted the entire global map to be part of the game's software package and not reliant on an internet connection. Ultimately, he had to make some compromises like reducing the map's resolution, eliminating street names, and smoothing building contours. But the roads, streets and buildings are still there, as are forests, parks, rivers, and everything else.

"What moves me," Carrasco said, "is solving problems and making very high, technically sophisticated solutions for something."

Popular video games almost always provide the player with a power fantasy. Doom allows players to destroy legions of demons with a click of a mouse. Madden gives every player the chance to feel like a professional athlete and general manager. City builders like Sim City and simulation games like Transport Tycoon Deluxe seem like more sleepy experiences, but they also provide a potent power fantasy: the ability to build infrastructure according to the resources available in the smartest, most efficient way possible. If I want to build a high speed train from San Francisco to Los Angeles in NIMBY, I can just look at the map, figure out the best route—not the one that wins political consensus, goes through an influential congressman's district, avoids the town with an active homeowner's association, or skirts a major donor's property—and build it. NIMBY Rails feeds the ultimate YIMBY fantasy, where we get the trains we need, not the ones we deserve. 

Of course, for all the game’s complexities, this is an overly simplistic view of how the real world actually works. During our video call Carrasco couldn't stop talking about all of the features he had to leave out but hopes to program soon. He wants to add "flying junctions" that allow some tracks to go over others. He wants to allow users to program their own signal systems. He wants to refine his demand model down to simulating the behavior of individual occupants of buildings. He wants to include public funding mechanisms for projects and eminent domain for taking buildings in your way. And, yes, he wants to model NIMBYs. In a sentiment that cuts to the core of every aspiring civil engineer, whether they're dealing with a Thomas the Tank Engine playset or are neck-deep in a GIS simulation, Carrasco lamented, "I cannot do it as complicated as I want."