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    Not Your Father’s Public Transport

    The future of sustainable motorized transportation may resemble
    a driverless fully-enclosed golf-cart zipping 16 feet above the
    streets of North America’s cities. Known by lots of names — Skyweb
    Express, Taxi 2000, MicroRail, Higherway, and Skycab — personal
    rapid transit (PRT) is a system for moving people in a way similar
    to how networked computers move bits of information around the
    Internet. PRT developers envision a system that combines the
    automobile’s direct destination-to-destination convenience and
    privacy with public transit’s capacity to reduce pollution, unclog
    traffic, and serve low-income communities.

    The PRT idea has been around for decades, but now modern
    computer power is bringing it closer to reality. One prototype
    being demonstrated in suburban Minneapolis by the Taxi 2000 company
    features Jetsons-looking PRT cars that travel on narrow elevated
    ‘guideways.’ If a full system was built, the guideways would
    criss-cross a metropolitan area giving commuters a direct route to
    their destination. Though some cars are designed to hold as many as
    six people, PRT at heart is a private form of transit. A rider
    finds a station, selects a destination, and enters a car, leaving
    it to the computers to weigh the options and determine the best
    path. Route maps and schedule tables are unnecessary; the entire
    operation is designed around individual demand. Proponents say
    there will be no traffic jams, no gridlock, and no accidents
    because merging to and exiting to and from off-line stations will
    all be controlled automatically.

    Because the cars are simple and lightweight, the guideways can
    be small and cheap and installed with minimal disruption. According
    to J. Edward Anderson, CEO of Taxi 2000, guideway systems can be
    built for $10 million per mile, an exceptionally low cost when
    compared with highways ($20 million) and light rail ($70 million).
    (A University of Washington study has estimated an even lower price
    tag for a metropolitan PRT system-about $5.5 million per mile.)
    Supporters note that PRT’s lower cost per mile allows it to better
    serve spread-out communities. The higher cost of conventional rail
    means that subways and light rail serve only narrow corridors while
    PRT can fan out through a region.

    PRT does have its critics, including those who question its
    basic feasibility and voice concerns about safety at stations and
    the aesthetic impact of building overhead guideways throughout a

    PRT supporters respond that in a current design, the elevated
    PRT guideways are three feet square and can be built on streets and
    alleys and even through buildings. As a result, the system eats up
    less real estate than our current automobile infrastructure, which
    now accounts for more than half the land in many city centers. It’s
    predicted that a single narrow PRT guideway could carry roughly the
    same capacity as a four-lane highway.

    For more information on personal rapid transit, contact
    Citizens for Personal Rapid Transit

    Michael Fraase is Utne’s Webmaster.

    Published on Sep 1, 2003


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