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Vanishing Automobile update #44

Bill Wilde

Mr. O’Toole argues that Intelligent Highways should evolve into a facsimile of PRT as a cheaper and more effective solution to the urban transportation problem. He writes that, “We already have a personal-rapid transit system. It is called the automobile”. It is true that the automobile system is already well established. While automobiles are outstanding vehicles for all sorts of trips it is extremely wasteful as the primary mode for urban trips. It wastes private and public money, energy, land, time, and lives.
The last time I had the data, 20 percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product was automobile related (approximately 2 trillion dollars annually). This includes fleet renewal (new cars), maintenance, fuel, insurance, and road construction and maintenance. To this could be added the monetary costs of congestion, taxes for police budgets related to traffic, and the cost of providing customer and employee parking. In my book that's a lot of money to maintain an existing transportation system. Some very significant portion of this total is for urban travel that could be provided by PRT.
The automobile in urban transportation is fundamentally very inefficient. How much sense does it make for a one hundred fifty pound person to use 4700 pounds of SUV to make a trip? Energy is expended to move the entire 4850-pound mass although the objective is to move just 150 pounds. 97% of the energy is fundamentally wasted. PRT is dramatically more energy efficient (lighter vehicles, nonstop travel, lower maximum speeds, and efficient propulsion).
An enormous amount of urban real estate is required to support the auto dominant system. In large parts of my area, Denver, up to half of the urban acreage is devoted to automobiles, for both parking and roads. Most of this land consumes tax dollars by keeping it off property tax rolls and for spending on roadway system maintenance. A car used by a commuter consumes about as much storage space as the average office worker's workspace. This space costs. As you drive around a city, notice how much space is required for the means (roads, vehicles, and parking) to the end of simply moving the payloads. It is staggeringly wasteful.
Intelligent highways as a fundamental solution simply aren't very intelligent. The variables that must be reliably controlled in such a system dwarf those for PRT control. The privately owned vehicles must be properly equipped, inspected, and maintained. The roadway network for automated operation would have to be dedicated to this special subset of the fleet (Lexus lanes on a massive scale). The lanes for this system would either have to be withdrawn from use by us peons or a new network would have to be constructed. Door-to-door transport would not be possible so those who are transit dependent today would still be so. Weather related issues would not change much over today's environment (ice and snow).
Automated lanes would provide headways approximating those of a well-designed PRT system and thereby provide greater lane capacity. This could avoid freeway widening in some cases. They have their place. But they are not a fundamental solution to the urban transportation problem.
Could we try to make automated highways a more universal solution? Could we try to provide the kind of coverage and service to everyone that fully implemented PRT would provide? That would require automating freeways, major and minor arterials, intersections, and many secondary streets. Essentially all vehicles would have to be capable of automated operation at all times. You would still have heavy vehicles, weather vulnerability, continuing large consumption of urban land, parking requirements, and lack of service to transit dependents. PRT is much easier and cheaper.
What about urban goods movement? PRT can handle a majority of these business-to-business trips, getting many trucks off the road and saving much labor cost.
Intelligent highway and vehicle programs have received and continue to receive generous public and private funding. PRT does not enjoy such support at present. If I could get the data I'd bet that more has been spent on automotive cup holders than has ever been spent on PRT. I hope Mr. O'Toole won't begrudge PRT the relative pittance needed to get it into the marketplace. When PRT becomes an available choice we'll see what consumers choose. If PRT makes sense in the competitive marketplace, then it will begin to take its place as a major urban mode. It is premature to worry about massive costs to implement PRT. Once it is an available choice it will grow and mature on a case-by-case basis. It will be selected after careful deliberation because it offers more for less.
Mr. O’Toole writes, “I am not convinced that PRT is superior to autos, as autos don't require a walk to the station”. There is no reason that PRT could not eventually serve all destinations door-to-door just as automobiles do. The wealthy would be the first customers, just as they were for the first automobiles.
Contrary to Mr. O’Toole’s description, a well-designed PRT system would not cruise at 70 mph but closer to 30. Four passengers is too much capacity for best cost effectiveness.
Mr. O'Toole writes, "Moreover, being privately owned vs. commonly shared PRT cars, autos provide the same sort of security provided by private property vs. the common areas in New Urban developments that lead to more crime". PRT vehicles are publicly owned but are used privately by individuals or small parties traveling together by choice. The notion of common areas only applies to the brief time one spends at the surveilled station platform. These would be safer than many parking lots or garages.
Mr. O'Toole writes about the 2004 Toyota Prius, "It can park itself. Simply drive it to an empty parking spot, and the car will use sensors and steer itself into the parking place." Automating the simple act of pulling into a parking space has essentially nothing to do with solving the fundamental urban transportation problem. If the point is that vehicle automation is making great strides, that is true and should put to rest the concerns of many that managing a fleet of PRT vehicles is too technically difficult.
If Mr. O'Toole would like to learn about well-designed PRT he could visit www.taxi2000.com. He could also read the abstract of "The Simple, Compelling Case for PRT" at www.advanced-transport.com, Vol 32, No. 1, Spring 1998, or I could mail him a copy. There is much for him to learn to become a truly qualified critic of PRT.
Let true PRT, Intelligent Highways (IH), and conventional transit modes duke it out in a free marketplace. IH has its place and will evolve. However, I’m very confident in the future of PRT.
Bill Wilde