Image credit ULTra PRT
In my post Podcars Running At London's Heathrow Airport I wondered how Personal Rapid Transit could possibly solve the "last mile problem", particularly in low density suburbia. I received a tweet from Nathan Koren, an American architect who until recently worked in London with ULTra PRT, builders of the Heathrow system, offering to explain how they could work in cities. He is a committed urbanist who doesn't drive, and sees PRT as a tool in the creation of car-free cities.
Nathan Koren, "Making the world safe for Personal Rapid Transit."
But he agreed that PRT was not necessarily the answer for low density suburbs, that "what really solves the last mile problem is good urban design."
The beauty of PRT in medium density environments is that it actually improves life for the pedestrian; it is the most economical method of separating them. It is very efficient and effective at 2 to 10 kilometer ranges, when there is a "broad demand peak"- where demand is spread symmetrically through the day. it is terrific off-peak but is "not ideal" as a commuting system with huge rush-hour peaks.
Then there is the issue of the politics of PRT, the name-calling and abuse among the players and the opponents. (See my award for life here) As one PRT consultant recently wrote on his blog, "there is just too much testosterone in this business!" Nathan noted that light rail and PRT serve different functions, that their proponents should not be at war but should be working together.
And this is where it all breaks down, and how I got into the middle of this name-calling mess in Minnesota. A lot of people hate streetcars and light rail; where I live, in Toronto, Canada, a new right wing suburban mayor just got elected and immediately cancelled all of the above-grade streetcars because they slow down cars. He proposed instead a suburban subway that nobody wants and that he knows will never be built because it is too expensive. Result: no streetcars or subway, but nothing blocking the car. One couldn't help but think that the same thing was happening back in Minnesota, that PRT was being used as a way of opposing light rail. That's what's crazy; Nathan sees PRT as a way to achieve car-free cities; others appear to promote it as a way of maintaining transit-free cities.
Nathan has convinced me that there is a real role for PRT, and that it is not, as I wrote a few years ago, always "a Cyberspace Techno-Dream". But it is still not a solution to the last mile problem, and it is still not an alternative to light rail, but complementary to it. If we are going to get rid of cars, we need both.