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SimCity 4 Efficient City Guide - Cities need food, you know.

SimCity 4 Efficient City Guide

A guide to designing an efficient infrastracture with the least problems.

As a simulation game, SimCity 4 is full of options, but little explanation on how important mechanics work and no guidelines to designing an efficient city infrastructure. As a result, you end up having to do a ton of trial and error that involves restarting entire cities over and over again to figure out what works, which is incredibly time consuming and repetitive, especially because there is no copy-paste feature. While I see people recommend the Network Addon Mod to improve the traffic simulation, I would rather work within the limits of the game as it was originally designed, so this guide is based on the unmodded game.


The biggest challenge in designing a city is traffic. As you zone for higher density, traffic congestion becomes a major problem as more people share the same roads. A simple grid of roads will not work because it requires everyone to evenly distribute themselves across all available routes, which they won't. Realistically, no one has access to real-time congestion information, so they cannot plot the least congested route by themselves. They will always try to take the most direct routes, so they end up in traffic jams. Roads also do not have the capacity to support higher density developments, so you will need to make heavy use of the double-wide avenues.

In order to distribute traffic and keep congestion to a minimum, you have to split up the city into a grid of semi-isolated, limited-population modules connected by avenues. You can only enter or exit each module through the avenues as the streets and roads within each module do not connect to the streets and roads of other modules. Modularizing the city also lets you allocate space between each module for highways and monorails. The game does not have any planning feature, but streets are cheap enough that you can use them to draw out your city without too much expense.

Drawing out zoning modules with streets for a city quadrant For the largest map size, build the city in quadrants. Further break up the quadrant into a grid of modules with space between modules for monorails and highways. Each module is sized to fit 16 6x6 blocks with avenues running through the middle.

Block sizes and zone types

When deciding how to size city blocks, you have to plan ahead to avoid awkward and expensive demolition. While a variety of lot sizes are possible, design blocks for lots that are 2-3 tiles wide and 3 tiles deep for low and medium density, and 3-4 tiles wide and 4 tiles deep for high density. This gives you plenty of building variety, good population densities, and good scaling up with wealth. Low and medium density lots can be placed back to back so that you have 6 tile blocks. Industrial zones are different in that they do not have the level of population density as residential and commercial lots, even with high density. They also do not have defined lots like the other zone types, but individual buildings cannot be too far from the road, so 6x6 blocks are efficient. However, be careful with high density industrial when you have dirty industry demand because high density dirty industry produces a lot of pollution.

High density is to be applied sparingly because of the sheer number of people living in such close proximity that it will kill your traffic infrastructure and cause long commutes to jobs on the other side of the city. A single 4x4 high-density apartment can have up to 8000 people in it, so you need to build high density lots individually with multiple mass transit options available. Note that parks or trees (i.e. things that increase land value) are needed for high density to develop and move up in wealth, so you need plenty of free space around high density lots. Even medium density will test your infrastructure if you have too much in close proximity, so an efficient city has many low density, distributed medium density, and individual high density zones in key spots that have easy access to mass transit.

Each module should be dedicated to a zone type, and the road layout of each module should differ based on the zone. Residential modules should consist of dead-end blocks that tap onto main roads to minimize traffic running by houses. Commercial modules should have one giant loop to maximize traffic running by businesses. Industrial modules should consist of a grid to maximize development density and distribute freight traffic.

Be sure to reserve space for public facilities, reward buildings, and green space. In a residential module, you need to cram a hospital, an elementary school, a high school, and a library right in the middle for optimal coverage. A commercial module should have a big empty space in the middle of the loop to fit big structures like the university and the major league stadium, or additional commercial lots. Industrial zones need space to fit multiple power plants, a fire station, and plenty of trees to reduce pollution as well as increase desirability for high-tech development.

A developed quadrant showing differences in road layout in each module depending on zone type The layout of each module differs depending on the zone. Residents want isolation, commercial businesses want exposure, and industries want direct exits. Cutting the corners of the modules makes it possible to fit highway and monorail intersections as well as provide plenty of green space for trees. Layout for pipes that efficiently water the zones Sizing modules based on 6x6 blocks lets you water them efficiently without having pipes running everywhere and creating overlap. The only things left unwatered are public facilities that do not need water. A block that crams schools and a hospital for a residential module Cram all of your services in a central location to minimize the need for school buses and ambulances to cover the whole module. Also, notice how I distribute the medium density lots instead of cramming them all in one neighbourhood.

Zoning ratio and placement

A good city has enough jobs for its residences, and enough residences for its jobs. As such, you will need more residential zones than commercial and industrial, so I suggest an approximate 2:1:1 RCI zoning ratio in terms of number of modules dedicated to each zone. This will maintain a rough balance of RCI demands, allowing you to expand the city so that you do not have lots of underdeveloped zones. The simplest way to follow this ratio is to count the number of modules for each zone type. Low wealth will always be demanded, and people will eventually move up in wealth over time as long as there are enough jobs, which creates more demand for low wealth.

When arranging your zones, make sure to put commercial zones in between residential and industrial zones. Commercial lots depend on high traffic volume to be successful, so making people drive through commercial zones to get to their jobs in the industrial zones is ideal. Residential zones are best with as little through traffic as possible, so putting them on the map edges ensures people have the least reason to pass through them. However, this means your industrial zones will be in the middle of the map, so you will need rails and freight stations to ship goods out of the map.

You also have to keep commute times reasonable. For the largest map size, it is best to split up the city into at least four quadrants with all three zone types. You will need highways and rails to connect the quadrants because people will not necessarily move into residences that are closest to their jobs. As the city gets bigger, people will start looking for neighbour connections. If you do not have a neighbouring city, you will eventually have an epidemic of residential abandonment due to commute time. Unbalanced high density development can also create problems by sucking up all of the demand away from other parts of the city.

Zoning layout for a completed city with residential zones on the edges and industrial zones in the middle You can maintain a roughly balanced RCI ratio by modularizing the city. I dedicate a quadrant to agriculture to get the agriculture reward buildings and to keep the landfill away from civilization where it would impact high-wealth development.

Mass Transit

You need to design the city for good mass transit coverage because they take cars off of the road to reduce congestion in addition to being a good source of income. The problem with mass transit is that you need to have transit stops within walking distance to sources and destinations, and people will ignore them if they are less direct than a normal car commute. Most people prefer not to walk more than 8 tiles, so you need a lot of stops. Avenues in particular prevent people from walking across them except at intersections because of their double-wide nature, so you might need to put stops on both sides. Mass transit is also not financially viable until you have at least medium density residential zones, but mass transit is quite profitable for dense cities.

It is best to design your roads to funnel traffic into your mass transit. Since you will be making residential blocks dead ends, putting a bus stop at the only exit is a good strategy. For less flexible mass transit like monorails, you could make the exit road curve around to pass by the monorail station. Since the monorail station will likely be beyond walking distance, parking garages can be used to turn car traffic into pedestrian traffic. Deliberately making the roads winding and inefficient also encourages use of rail networks that provide a more direct path.

Monorail and subway stations should always be paired with bus stops. Buses convert pedestrian traffic into road traffic and back into pedestrian traffic, so they effectively extend the pedestrian coverage of rail stations. This also means you do not have to run rails and subways through every city block, which is cheaper and aesthetically pleasing. People will take the rails to go to the general area they need to get to, and the bus will take them the rest of the way.

Mass transit hub with a monorail station, parking garages, bus stops, and subway stations A mass transit hub that receives traffic funneled from dead-end residential blocks. Monorail station with streets running directly to bus stops Streets do not have to be for cars. Running a street from the monorail station directly to the bus stop makes for easy and compact pedestrian transfers. Also, notice the need for two bus stops on the avenue. Monorail roundabout intersection You can build an intersection for monorails by making a roundabout. Making them criss-cross does not allow trains to turn. Subway layout There is no need for subways to run through every city corner. The subways can take people to the general area people want to go to and buses will take them the rest of the way.

Efficient progression

When starting off in an empty region, it is best to boom agriculture and dirty industry first. You want to do this because no matter how negative the demand is for those industries, they will never abandon for some reason. When demand for those industries become sharply negative due to education, you can tax those industries at maximum and they will keep giving you free money with no complaints. Having enough agriculture also gives you access to the Farmer's Market and State Fair reward buildings.

Remember that government services are a luxury, not a necessity. Only introduce services when you need them for further growth. Early on, give residents health care to keep them alive and a small fire station in the industrial zone to deal with fires that pop up, but do not educate them because agriculture and dirty industry will no longer be demanded as education increases, preventing you from milking them when you introduce education. Introduce water when you are ready to move up to medium density residences. Introduce landfills when you have a lot of commercial developments and about half of the city built. Introduce police and full fire coverage when you have developed the city and have excess cash flow to burn.

Schools and hospitals

When building schools and hospitals, always use the large versions because you only pay for what you use and they have larger base effect radii than the small versions. Avoid funding school buses and ambulances because there are no fixed fees per building that would justify spending extra to fill up capacity, so you can just put many schools and hospitals in close proximity. Remember, monthly income matters more than upfront cost even though your finance advisor will keep complaining about your spending (she sucks at her job).

Since you will be splitting up residential zones into separate modules, you can give each module its own school and hospital. However, the large elementary school has a smaller radius than the large high school, so you may need some school bus funding to ensure full coverage of a residential module. Of course, place them as close to the centre of residential modules as possible to avoid needing excess bus funding.


Landfills have an unusual behaviour when you introduce them. They will incur extremely high monthly cost to clean up the garbage existing in the city, but it will go back down to reasonable levels once the garbage has been cleaned up. To avoid destroying your budget, you need to keep the landfill zone small at first, wait for it to fill up, and gradually expand it until the garbage graph levels off. The visual appearance of the landfill will also bug out if you do not create the landfill left to right, top to bottom.

You should also put landfill zones away from civilization and in rural areas because landfills lower high-wealth and high-tech desirability around a large radius, not to mention landfills take up a lot of space for a large city. While landfill zones need to touch road to work, they do not need a path to your garbage-generating properties as garbage will magically teleport to landfills. Note that you cannot bulldoze landfills. If you want to move a landfill, you will have to cut off road access to it and plot a new landfill where you want. The garbage will take a long time to gradually disappear, but once it does, you can dezone the area.

Wealth transitioning

When zoning for higher density, note that higher wealth developments will obstruct lower wealth development regardless of demand. Even if you zone for high density, if a mansion is built on the lot with only a couple dozen people living in it, it won't ever be replaced by a low wealth skyscraper with thousands of people. This can create demand imbalances and hobble development, so you will need to manually demolish high-wealth buildings to make room. Abandoned high wealth buildings do not get automatically replaced with low wealth buildings, so you need to manually demolish those as well. However, demand naturally fluctuates over time, so abandoned buildings might get repopulated on their own.

Lastly, even though dirty industry generates a lot of pollution, resist the urge to demolish them until you have more than enough demand for manufacturing and high-tech to completely replace them. High tech does not want to be in pollution, so it is unwise to mix high-tech and dirty industry. This is especially true near your polluting power plants because you will not be able to transition to clean solutions until very late in the game and you absolutely need power. If you demolish dirty and manufacturing buildings near the power plants, the zones will not be replaced by high-tech. If there is no demand for dirty or manufacturing, they will be left as dead zones that generate no jobs and income.

Advanced research center generating radiation pollution Leaving plenty of green space allows you to place reward buildings and plant trees to increase land value. Green space is especially important for the Advanced Research Center because it generates radiation no one wants to be affected by.

Final words

An efficient city is an egalitarian one, not in the sense that everyone is given equal outcomes, but in the sense that there is no reason to deliberately make the infrastructure inefficient for some people. It is just easier to repeat the same efficient pattern over and over again than to discriminate according to social status. On the flip side, an efficient city keeps population under control by excluding the countless number of poor people lined up outside the city wanting to get in after seeing how everyone living in it is wealthy and comfortable. What no one realizes is that the residents are only wealthy and comfortable because of a careful balance of residents and jobs with respect to limited capacity infrastructure that discourages excessively dense development. Maintaining green space is also important for the environment.

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