Are Podcars The Future of Transit?

Over at The Transport Politic, Yonah Freemark notes that it is a slow week in the blog world, so he wrote a post about Personal Rapid Transit, or PRT, sometimes called Podcars. Nothing outside of Obama vs Palin gets people so riled up; he has 91 comments already. I had the misfortune to step into this territory a year ago and even won a prize for writing fishwrap. I came from a position that PRT was a particularly American invention, designed to placate people who think that everyone on a bus is either poor, deranged or both; others think they have a role.

But now the first large scale demonstration of podcars since the Nixon era is about to open, and it isn't even in America, it's in the UK. And it looks very cool.

Freemark thinks that the system holds promise:

Its use of batteries installed in each vehicle rather than an electrified third rail or catenary makes the corridor easier to maintain and cheaper to build -- an advantage that will soon be replicated in the implementation of similar technology on tramways. The use of electricity rather than diesel motors (as in the existing buses used by passengers) will eliminate local-source pollutants and decrease noise levels. The elimination of human drivers will improve travel times by 60% and reduce operating costs by 40% -- if initial estimates prove accurate. Passengers will get direct and instant access between parking lots and the terminal; plus, they'll eventually be offered similar service to surrounding office buildings and hotels.

This may well be a great test of the technology- it is a secure and relatively protected environment compared to an open city, and the cars are travelling between nodes of some scale, like each parking structure and terminal. While I have not found the automated trains in Paris and San Fransisco to be a problem, the idea of going directly to where you want to go with a little privacy after a long flight sounds like a nice idea.


Abu Dhabi to Debut Personal Rapid Transit "Podcars" Later This Year

Freemark also notes that they have great promise in cities like Masdar, which is being designed to be car-free. TreeHugger's Jesse Fox described it as "system of transportation which combines the sustainability of a light rail with the convenience of the private car."


A schematic representation of a PRT system vs. monorail. Image courtesy of Systematica. From Jesse's post. .

Freemark writes:

For airports and new cities, PRT could supplement other mass transit systems rather effectively and encourage people to live car-free lifestyles by providing them destination-to-destination service with minimal walking to and from stations. In newly built environments, PRT could be constructed cheaply and it could be installed in such a way that does not disrupt its surroundings.

But then he goes on to discuss how they really don't work well in denser cities; they can't handle the crowds in rush hour so they can't replace light rail and buses, but they don't work at very low densities very well either, given the millions of acres of suburbia. Freemark concludes that they are pretty much an automated car on a separated right of way, and we might as well wait a couple of years until we have automated cars that can work on the roads we already have.

Stations wouldn't be needed for such a system -- people could simply call an automated service, and a robotized car would arrive in front of the house. This is no less a fantasy than the installation of hundreds of miles of PRT tracks above city streets.

Personally, I already have pretty effective carbon neutral PRT, my bicycle. Where I live, they can barely scratch up the money and political will to paint in a bike lane; every one is a battle with storekeepers over parking, with suburbanites calling it a "war on the car". If those are the kind of wars that happen over bike lanes, I wonder what the fights will be like over elevated PRT networks. Or where the money will come from to pay for them. But fortunately, even without a separate infrastructure, my bike still goes right to my door.

So in the end, don't get me wrong; I think PRT and podcars are a wonderful solution. I just haven't figured out what the problem is yet.

More on PRT and Pod Cars:
The Podcars Are Coming
Richard Nixon Proves Personal Transit Actually can Work
Personal Rapid Transit "a Cyberspace Techno-Dream"
Can PRT, or Podcars, Replace the Automobile?
Abu Dhabi to Debut Personal Rapid Transit "Podcars" Later This Year

Tags: Buses | Technology