Personal rapid transit systems are energy efficient but slow in developing

There's long been a single PRT system (a last-mile form of transit) in this country, but the action now is overseas.

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A personal rapid transit system operates in Morgantown, West Virginia.

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:

  • The early versions weren’t very good. Indeed, a Raytheon stab at building one line, after Morgantown, failed the market test immediately. But this is normal with new technology. The first Toyota was not a Lexus. It was a Corona, known for its cheaply cobbled together chassis, bad seats and weak engine. Remember those first IBM personal computers? — the Intel 280 chip was so slow it couldn't keep up with your typing and it had no memory.
  • Overnight breakthroughs often take decades. The fax machine was invented decades before anyone figured out a market for it. Charles Doppert started making a special bag for grooming tools in 1919; not until World War II, when the military issued Dopp kits to soldiers, did this product find a real market. Johannes Gutenberg died destitute and disappointed, after printing 180 copies of the Bible. The Internet was born long before Al Gore noticed it or enterprises figured out how to make money from it. PRT is in a similar, murky on-deck position.
  • A bundle of barriers stands in the way. Getting right-of-way clearance from multiple land and building owners in a built environment; persuading people that PRT won't be an ugly intruder on the landscape or that pod cars running fast and so close aren’t dangerous. Finding private capital in today's market is yet another obstacle.
  • Policy and its feisty cousin, politics, are the biggest barriers (haven't we all noticed?) to doing anything new, not already proven. Transportation policy basically operates to protect existing systems — roads and mass transit. Protectors of both line up with legislators to stand guard at the gate, warding off any threat to the pool of ever-scarcer resources. Understandably, they want to add to what they have and hold on to what they've got.

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


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