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Why Nonstop Travel In Personal Pods Has Yet To Take Off

Sep 24, 2015
Originally published on September 24, 2015 3:09 pm

The average American commuter spends 42 hours per year stuck in rush-hour traffic, according to one recent study.

More than four decades ago, West Virginia University thought it had found a solution to urban traffic woes: It built a transportation system known as personal rapid transit, or PRT.

Instead of riding with dozens of others on a train car or bus, PRT pods carry a small number of people. And instead of making stops, PRT takes you directly to your destination, nonstop.

To its supporters PRT makes total sense, yet there are only a handful of PRT systems in operation around the world.

To find out more about whatever happened to PRT, I recently traveled to Minneapolis to meet Mike Lester, CEO of Taxi 2000, a company that designs PRT systems.

Lester's PRT system is called SkyWeb Express. He has built the software for it and a prototype of the pod it would use, and he has engineering drawings for the rest of the system. All he needs is a customer.

He takes me over to a large table where he has set up what looks like a slot car race track, which he tells me is about a 1/15th scale model. It simulates how a real system would work, including communication with a central computer that keeps track of imaginary passengers who want rides.

Lester takes several small cars and places them on the track.

Most of the time they whiz around the track, but occasionally one pulls off into a siding.

"That's on off-line station," Lester explains. "The computer said there's a passenger over there, you need to go get him. So the control system just sent the car over there."

PRT systems have lots of advantages over current transit systems, Lester says.

The pods that carry passengers are "on demand," meaning you only move a car when it's needed — no empty buses following a set schedule.

And because the PRT vehicles are lightweight, you don't need tunnels, track beds or other expensive infrastructure. Skyweb Express runs on an elevated guideway held up by nothing more than stanchions about the size of lampposts.

There are two more good reasons to make an elevated PRT system, Lester says: safety and speed.

"The automated vehicle is not interacting with pedestrians, bicycles, buses and not-automated vehicles," he says — and that avoids accidents and prevents traffic-related stops.

Lester is eager for me to take a ride in the full-sized prototype of his PRT pod. He hands me a laminated card with a magnetic strip on it: a Skyweb Express fare card.

He leads me over to a set of stairs that goes up to a small platform. In a real system, I'd insert the fare card into a display, punch in the station and instructions for the pod would be coded on the card's magnetic strip.

Waiting at the platform is a tiny, bright red, pod-like car. There's a bench that can fit three passengers. Lester tells me to swipe my card in a card reader next to the pod. When I do, the pod's door opens. I get in and sit down.

There's a button over the front window that says "go" on it. When I push it, the door slides shut and latches. The pod glides soundlessly down a track that's about 60 feet long. When we reach the end, the car stops, and the door slides open.

To be honest, I think riding to work in one of these automated pod cars would be kind of fun.

So why has PRT failed to catch on? Ken Halverson, chief financial officer for Taxi 2000, says the company's potential customers are playing a game of chicken.

"We've had 40 or 50 cities tell us they would love to be second," says Halverson. "But you can't be second until someone steps up to be first."

Halverson says Greenville, S.C., is seriously considering going first, but so far hasn't signed on the dotted line.

Taxi 2000 is headquartered in Minneapolis, so I speak with Tom Sorrel, a former Minnesota commissioner of transportation, to find out why that city doesn't have a personal rapid transit system.

He says the state considered PRT, but there was stiff opposition from backers of buses and light rail, and nothing was ever built.

"I think one of the challenges we've always had with PRT is there's no pot of money where this fits well," he says. "And that's just not Minnesota, it's nationally as well."

In contrast, tax money is already allocated for things like buses and light rail.

The other problem facing PRT is that the picture of urban transit is changing: Uber and similar services already exist, and driverless cars don't appear to be far off. Sorel wonders if PRT's time has come and gone.

"The last thing you want to do is put up some track all over the place and have it just there," he says.

But there are still many, including Sorel, who believe PRT is still a viable option. The system in at West Virginia University is still running, and people there are spending money to modernize it.

But the West Virginia system, built in 1975, has not yet kickstarted a revolution in rapid transit, as its creators and backers had hoped.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When I was a kid, we went to Disney World. We walked around Tomorrowland or rode on the WEDWay PeopleMover. Little electric cars pulled us around the park on overhead tracks.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

A real-life transit concept proposes to take that idea and make it so that individual riders can go wherever they want. It's our subject as we make transportation the focus of a new round of the NPR Cities Project.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Becoming a world-class city.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We have to find a way to move people a lot more efficiently.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Come. Take a ride of the future.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Want to go for another ride?

MONTAGNE: We have a vision for a revolutionary form of public transportation. It's under discussion in Greenville, S.C., Austin, Texas and Santa Cruz, Calif. The only place in the U.S. that you can ride it now is on the campus of West Virginia University.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Come. Take a ride of the future. But this is not the future. This is the '70s. And you are riding PRT - PRT, personal rapid transit.

INSKEEP: This is the '70s. That is a 38-year-old promotional video for the personal rapid transit system in Morgantown, W.V. Cars on a track make nonstop trips to their destinations. Just tell it where you're going, and you're off. PRT is a big idea. And since NPR's Joe Palca is all about big ideas, we asked him to investigate.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: I decided a good way to learn more about PRT was to go to Minneapolis...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Over loudspeaker) Green line train to downtown Minneapolis is due in two minutes.

PALCA: Where I could meet up with Mike Lester, CEO of Taxi 2000, a company that designs PRT systems. To get to my downtown meeting I took light rail, and my trip turned into an unexpected lesson in why PRT might be a good idea. Things went smoothly at first. But when we got to the West Bank Station, the train stopped and sat.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Over loudspeaker) Once again, I apologize for the delay. We are continuing to hold here at this station until further notice.

PALCA: Apparently, a train up ahead had struck a car at an intersection. I'm running late for my appointment with Mike Lester. So I abandon the train and get in a cab.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

PALCA: Hello?

It's Lester, asking if I'm OK. Hi, I'm fine. But (laughter) there was an accident on the green line. And I had to jump in a taxi to get over to you.

The irony here is that one of the advantages of the PRT system Lester wants to build is that it runs on an elevated guideway. So it wouldn't run the risk of hitting cars or pedestrians.

And there's the station.

I asked Lester to meet me downtown so he could show me some of the advantages of PRT in a crowded urban setting.

MIKE LESTER: One of the things I wanted to point out to you is - see the buses?

PALCA: Yeah, a lot of buses.

LESTER: Empty - but they still need to circulate.

PALCA: Lester says in a PRT system, the pods only run when they have passengers.

LESTER: One of the benefits of having an elevated system that only moves when somebody's paying is you're not in traffic. And you're not running empty buses.

PALCA: Another advantage is the elevated guideway doesn't take up much space. He points to a lamp post.

LESTER: That's the post we need, right? And then you come up with a 90 feet piece of guideway. And you set it on the post.

PALCA: So you only need a post every 90 feet. And Lester says you can install a PRT system for about a quarter of the cost per mile of a light-rail system. Now, there are a multitude of studies, reports, assessments and reviews of the PRT concept. And many say PRT will relieve traffic congestion and move people efficiently. There have even been a few small systems built. There's one at Heathrow Airport Terminal 5, and there's one at Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. But these are the exceptions. For the most part, PRT has gone nowhere. This hasn't fazed Mike Lester. And he's eager to have me visit Taxi 2000's headquarters so I can see a concrete example of his vision for the future. Headquarters is off a busy road in a small industrial park in the Minneapolis suburb of Fridley.

LESTER: This is where we have our full-size operating prototype.

PALCA: And Lester wants me to go for a ride on it. To start, Lester hands me a laminated fare card.

LESTER: You go up the stairs. There's a station platform when you get into the second level.

PALCA: Waiting at the platform is a bright red, tiny pod-like car.

LESTER: Walk up. Swipe your card.

PALCA: OK.

LESTER: And the door will open.

PALCA: To the roof and the side just sort of slid back. And what I see is a three-passenger bench.

I step in and sit down on the bench. A button over the front window says, go.

So I'm going to press go.

LESTER: Yes.

PALCA: The door slides shut and latches.

I'm moving. It's pretty smooth. It's not going very fast, but we're only going about 60 feet I think. And we've arrived.

The door glides back, and I step out onto another platform.

That's pretty cool.

LESTER: There you are, 10 seconds into the future.

PALCA: To be honest, I think riding in one of these automated pod cars to work would be kind of fun. So why has PRT failed to catch on? Ken Halverson is chief financial officer for Taxi 2000. He says the company has been getting a lot of inquiries lately.

KEN HALVERSON: We've had 40 or 50 cities tell us they would love to be second. But you can't be second until someone steps up to be first.

PALCA: Halverson says Greenville, S.C. is seriously considering going first. But they haven't yet figured out who's going to pay for it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Over loudspeaker) Green line train to downtown Saint Paul is due in two minutes.

PALCA: To find out why Minnesota never built a PRT system, I jumped back on the green line and headed over to Saint Paul to speak with Tom Sorel. He was formerly the state's commissioner of transportation. He says the state did consider PRT, but there was stiff opposition from backers of buses and light rail. And nothing was ever built.

TOM SOREL: I think one of the challenges we've always had with PRT is there's no pot of money where this fits well. And that's just not in Minnesota. It's nationally as well.

PALCA: There already are pots of tax money for things like buses and light rail. Sorel says the other problem facing PRT is that the picture of urban transit is changing. Uber and similar services are already here. Driverless cars aren't far off. Sorel wonders if PRT's time has come and gone.

SOREL: Because the last thing you want to do is put up some track all over the place and then have it sit there.

PALCA: The PRT system in West Virginia is still running. But it didn't kick start the revolution in rapid transit people had hoped for back in 1975.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Personal rapid transit, a ride of the future.

PALCA: Well, not yet anyway. Joe Palca for NPR's Cities Project. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.