Recently I had the chance to visit Taxi 2000. This Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) company is based just minutes from my office in Minneapolis. I’m no expert on rail systems, but I’ve always believed that an elevated system that can run freely over existing right-of-ways makes more sense than an antiquated system based on nearly 200 hundred year old technology.
Since we plan new neighborhoods and cities, I saw a great opportunity to design a new town with an elevated PRT system as a major design influence, not as an afterthought. A perfect combination: a new age city based upon the latest methods, with a convenient way to access most of the region, based on a 21st century design, not an 18th century one.
I typically investigate the products and companies that I’m about to meet. I’d heard about PRT solutions for well over a decade and assumed there were many examples of installations. After searching the internet I found not a single installed PRT system serving a city.
I’ve never been a fan of light rail for a variety of reasons. Human beings are smart enough to explore space, extend life spans for decades, and remodel genetics. Yet all we can come up with is a slow (and often unsightly) train that runs on tracks conceived in the 1800s that now cost billions of dollars to implement? We are told that building a light rail line spurs economic growth. Even if true, typically only a minor portion of a town benefits because the system is linear. Most are designed to be functional, not beautiful, and most light rail trains are not inspiring.
I used to drive in Minneapolis, but now train tracks intermix with the driving lanes in some areas of town. I avoid those sections, and now do my spending in the suburbs. I’m sure I’m not the only one. This brings me to my final opposition to light rail: Because it’s typically ground-based, it’s obstructive to implement, and often requires the demolition of buildings and the acquisition of right-of-ways. All of this costs plenty.
On top of this, many businesses suffer during the construction of light rail, while it interferes with their access. Sure, they might ultimately get additional business, but first they must survive a period with reduced access.
Mike Lester, CEO of Taxi 2000 demonstrated the prototype of SkyWeb Express along with its technologies to us. Over a period of three hours, Mike proudly showed us what they have accomplished.
First, this is an on-call system. This means that you do not have to wait for the next train. Cars located only a minute or so away await your command. No more missed connections while waiting an hour for the next ride.
It is elevated far above ground — 5 meters — using existing right-of-way on posts spread far apart. In an urban area such as Minneapolis which already has a skyway system, this could coincide with existing access points on the second or third floors. It’s non-linear, and able to easily turn corners and access much of a city, not just points along a single route.
It maintains a constant rate of speed; no stops needed until you reach the destination. About 30+ miles per hour might not seem fast, but a mile every two minutes in an urban environment is indeed impressive. It’s limited to 3 persons per vehicle with plenty of extra space for luggage, boxes, or even a bicycle. No more crowding. It goes where you want, not only on a preset route. In theory it’s safer because you can access it alone, not with strangers. And one car needing maintenance does not shut down the system.
The big issue that all transit needs to address is the cost. The light rail transit in Minneapolis costs somewhere around a billion dollars. PRT cost studies show a savings of 60 to 70 percent could have been realized along the same line. Even if the estimates are wrong by double, that’s over $200 million that could have been spent elsewhere, or to make a quite comprehensive PRT system for the same dollars.
I’m not easily convinced when someone tries to “sell” me on new technologies, but that common sense meter in my brain was at 100% as I learned about the PRT possibilities. I was not sold that this will get everyone out of their cars, but it’s a solution that would be more effective than a rail system.
So why no installations?
PRT companies have been around for a while, continually upgrading and perfecting their systems. While I’m not sure how they get funded, I can tell you that cities have a hard time spending hundreds of million dollars on systems developed by small firms. As a software developer of Geographic Information Systems in the 1990’s we constantly lost sales to larger companies, even though our product was superior. It appeared that cities were more comfortable buying from companies with hundreds of employees working in tall impressive buildings than from smaller firms. It was natural to think a firm that appeared quite large had staying power compared to small companies with a handful of employees. But in the dot-com bust we learned that size does not guarantee longevity.
I’ve written this before, but it bears repeating: On August 1st, 2009 President Obama addressed the nation with: “Future economic prosperity depends on building a new, stronger foundation and recapturing the spirit of innovation .... Innovation has been essential to our prosperity in the past, and it will be essential to our prosperity in the future”.
Small PRT firms have risked everything, adhering to a belief that it is a viable solution for urban transportation problems today and in the future. How have we rewarded these innovators who certainly have the spirit? We continually invest in the most non-innovative, obtrusive, and expensive solution: Light Rail. We reward large corporations who take no risk… What happened to us? Let’s see if this new Administration can stand by the President’s words and invest in the pioneers who can create that strong American foundation.
Rick Harrison is President of Rick Harrison Site Design Studio and author of Prefurbia: Reinventing The Suburbs From Disdainable To Sustainable. His website is rhsdplanning.com.