There's long been a single PRT system (a last-mile form of transit) in this country, but the action now is overseas.
There’s always been a place for personal transit, starting with rickshaws, then small carriages. The modern equivalent: today’s taxis and limos. But technology, getting really good at upending the status quo, is poised now to deliver not just personal but personal rapid transit (PRT).
A PRT system is essentially a collection of programmable pod cars, running on linear induction motors or rail electrification. Unlike "mass" transit, you go only to your preferred destination; and you ride with three or four others of your choice — or alone.
This is a last-mile form of transit, working best in activity-rich zones with lots of desirable destinations — think airport concourses, large mixed-used districts with retail, residential, restaurants, offices, recreational theme parks, large cultural and arts districts. PRT fits best in an area where time and distances discourage walking, and public policy, along with common sense, ought to discourage driving.
So far, no PRT systems are being built in the U.S., though the city of San Jose is formally flirting with building one to connect Mineta airport to the CalTran station and the business district. From Abu Dhabi to London to Stockholm, though, big systems are planned, some under construction.
Advocates point to how little land is consumed for PRT, barely more than needed for biking or walking. They note that energy consumption is reduced by up to 90 percent compared with all other modes. That, driverless, it doesn’t require an operating subsidy. That it's quiet.
So the question must be asked: if this technology is so appealing and affordable, why so long since an early version was built two decades ago in Morgantown, W.Va.? Here’s why:
One thing’s sure: the first system had better be built somewhere that solves a real problem and adds real service. My favorite U.S. example is Anaheim, Calif., with its massive assortment of hotels, restaurants, and shops, all built around the attraction of DisneyWorld. If you've been there, you quickly recognize the circulation strategy: a fleet of diesel buses and gasoline-powered vans ferrying people over distances too far to walk, waiting for them to arrive or return, idling at the curb with engines running. PRT, with its quiet, energy-efficient, non-polluting pod cars is a perfect fit for these conditions.
Like the fax machine, PRT is likely inevitable, in time. What's less sure is whether or when a system will be built in the United States, where we seem to have lost our moonshot-mojo — the capacity to do anything we haven’t done before.
(This story was distributed by Citiwire.net.)