Sunday, January 3, 2010

66> "Luucy! We Got Some "splainin" To Do!"

We, as a community of PRT advocates, are, sadly, a painfully small group. This blog is now quite easy to find on Google, but the fact is there just aren’t that many people looking. The collaborative design infrastructure included on this site is pretty useless if there are no engineers who are interested. It’s been forty or so years and still PRT is a curiosity that few know about or take seriously. There is no dialog, no buzz, relatively speaking, though there is a bit of a comeback underway.

In my last post I asked for nominations for best video. All of the submissions, save four, were promotional corporate videos for particular systems. These tended to portray the advantages of a PRT system as the advantages of their own proprietary solution. One of those four, posted in a comment by alert reader cmfseattle, was a rudimentary mash-up of three promotional clips. It “got me to thinkin’…”

The problem as I see it is that the case for PRT is a multifaceted one, and not well suited to sound-bite evangelism. Sure, there’s “On Demand”, “Point-to-Point”, and “No sharing, No waiting,” but that’s all true of everyone’s cars as well. The advantages of PRT, as shown in the various promotion videos, often emphasize a comparison to other forms of mass transit. The ordinary audience doesn’t care which form of mass transit is best. Many never ride it anyway. The only, (quite predictable) result of this type of sales pitch is to get the light rail companies up in arms. Because the videos try to be upbeat and optimistic, the countless negative consequences of failure to act must be minimized. (That will be a trick for any PRT video)

We need an audio/visual approach to PRT advocacy very, very badly. When someone wants to explain PRT to a friend they should be able to say, “Look up “PRT” on YouTube,” and that person would get the whole message in a few minutes and walk away a believer. I wish we could get a Michael Moore or Al Gore to do a real documentary, but that is actually “Moore” than we need. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself…) Heck, we don’t even have a generic PowerPoint presentation. A well constructed, 5-10 minute narrated mash-up of pictures and clips could do more to advance PRT than anything else I can think of. A picture is worth a thousand words and often a video is worth a thousand pictures. Every group on the planet has promotional videos except us. And it’s really not that hard.

It all starts with a great “storyboard.” The narrative is generally written below empty boxes, which can then be filled in with sketches or descriptions of what the viewer might see during those words. This is often done on a white board, because there is a whole lot of erasing and brainstorming involved. It does, however, make creating a coherent presentation much easier by preventing most effort from ending up “on the cutting-room floor…” (For you youngsters, that’s from when film was cut and spliced by hand.) Once a good storyboard is created, the “boxes” can be “filled” with specific images and video clips, presumably from the web, and the rest is relatively easy and cheap video editing. Speaking of editing, one thing I thought was a stumbling block is that the Flash file format used on YouTube. Yesterday, however, I downloaded a free program called “Any Video Converter” which makes downloading YouTube content a breeze and can convert files to any file format you can think of. This is a good thing for PC users because Windows Movie Maker (comes with Windows) seems (for me at any rate) to prefer WMV files over AVIs. (We will take a moment now to allow Mac users to smirk……. Thank you.)

Anyway, perhaps this site might be a useful vehicle for such a project to be done collaboratively. I do have, after all, the infrastructure in place. Just a thought.

Oh yeah, about that tilt wheel design…

I guess I’ll explain it later. Happy 2010, folks.


afransen said...

I agree that hammering away on its superiority in to traditional public transit in some circumstances is probably meaningless to most North Americans who don't use, and have no desire to use current transit systems. So, perhaps a pitch that focuses equally on its superiority to car transportation:
-lower running cost
-no 'jams'
-non-stop -- no red lights
-no parking -- large trip generators will have stations within the building
-reliable: no mere blizzard will impact system reliability. I imagine breakdowns will also be orders of magnitude less likely.

I don't know if you saw that Google talk given by that fellow from Beamways. While his presentation could have used some work, I feel that his slides would be a reasonable starting point.

Now, some buzzwords might help. PRT is probably too esoteric a name to mean much to people. I really do like that term, 'physical internet'. It helps to convey the power of PRT technology stemming from network effects, intelligent routing. It also ties the concept to something that has and obviously will continue to profoundly change society.

Dan said...

Dan the Blogger's back. (His computer has been away from him.)

Thanks for your thoughts, afransen. I think Bengt had it relatively easy, in that he was addressing a group who had the time and inclination to hear a lengthy presentation. That’s a lot different than trying to keep someone’s attention and influence their opinion on the internet. (The latter being more like advertising)

There is, I think, a huge market for the PRT message in the environmentalist community. After all, there are precious few things that could help out the planet more. I like, in this clip, the way they touch on the traffic and pollution issues without going far enough to make the viewer tune out…The clip says a lot in less than two minutes. I also like the “combining the convenience of a cab and the efficiency of a train” part.

I like the “physical internet” metaphor as well, even though not everyone “gets” the internet or the power of networks. I would also be inclined to compare the efficiency of automation with the road raged, texting, makeup applying, drunk or sleep deprived drivers who currently control our commuting experience. This could even be comic relief, with candid clips of people doing stupid stuff or it could be serious, showing accidents or mentioning statistics. This could even transition into how PRT can move so many people so quickly on such a small, inexpensive track.

Anyway, as we agree, the challenge is to create a stream of sound bites and images that the viewer would find interesting, informative, and persuasive. We need an epiphany machine!

akauppi said...

This is not connected to the particular blog entry.

One benefit of PRT that hasn't gotten much focus yet, is their inherently more weather tolerant design, compared to existing transport systems.

I *thought* we have a winter-proof public transport system in Finland. Maybe we did, but this winter is way too much for it. Let me sum up a week:

- Four intercity train cars get loose and crash into Helsinki railway station. No casualties. Millions of eur damage to the cars, and the hotel they crashed into. Reason: breaks didn't work in sub-zero conditions (gosh!)

Essentially that kind of technical issues could plague PRT as well. But let's continue...

- Buses are sliding all over the city. They don't have winter tires, nor ABS systems (I guess they cannot be built into such heavy equipment?). The end result is bad for pedestrians, buses, private cars all alike. One could skate on certain parts of the streets.

And notice this is not ice. It's snow packed together by buses themselves, at uphills and at each and every bus stop. Buses start braking 20 meters before the stop and "slide" to it... Maybe we just had better drivers in the 1970's or so?

From the PRT perspective, replacing such city bus traffic with a separate rail-based system would not only empty driving space for the cars (this is why also car enthusiasts should like PRT) but it would also enhance the quality of the streets considerably.

But at least light rail would be weather proof, right? Wrong.

This midday coming to work, there were surprisingly many people at the tram stop (Sörnäinen, if anyone cares to be specific). The traffic screen was showing trams 8 and 6 to arrive in 1 minutes. But there was no sight of them.. Then a bypassing van driver shouts "all the trams are stuck, you know". I took a sliding bus, instead.

Honestly, this cannot get much worse except for completely stopping the public transport. We don't have a working, weather proof system. Not any more, at least, because of the government downsizings since the 90's. We need a cheap, but dependable system that does not hick up in the case of blizzards, snow piling, floods, typhoons, whatever. Predictions say extreme weather conditions will be more commonplace in the future. Currently, Helsinki is not that well prepared even for the traditional snowy winter, it seems.

cmfseattle said...

the enviromental communitay likes subways, light rail and buses.
How to Go Green: Public Transportation
(try to overlook the erroneous statements in the first paragraph)

however, i noticed that the APTA includes AGT in their list of FACTS.
What is Public Transportation?
so, maybe your suggestion of GRT that can be converted to PRT is a way in (risk mitigation): "it's like the JFK Airtrain, except with smaller cars off-peak."

also, it might be worthwhile to mention that PRT stations could double as energy storage locations, which may make green energy systems more practical (e.g., neighborhood solar PV); emphasize PRT's potential/benefits. both the interstate highway system and the internet produced benefits which have more than paid back their initial costs.

p.s.: as much as your comments about certain motorists resonate with me, singling them out may do more harm than good.
Dialing and Driving

akauppi said...

I like subways and light rail (tram). I don't extend that liking to buses.

Reasons being:
- subway and light rail are comfortable (least surprising accelerations, good seats, space to read a magazine or paperback book)
- subway and light rail are run with electricity (better control of how the energy is produced and of particle exhausts).

The dispute between light rail and PRT is alien to me. It only exists within the US and hopefully does not spread out from there. Imho, PRT and light rail make a perfect combo, together. They answer different needs.

ps. They actually use fairies for transport :) (in your first link, "fairies or boats"). This one is golden!

pps. "If 1 in 5 Americans took public transportation, we'd reduce carbon emissions 20%" Isn't that like, if everyone used public, you'd reduce 100%! And it does not say carbon emissions of what (of traffic, or of the whole country). *sigh*

Dan said...

Being a guy who winters down south, something I never really think about is road salt pollution. My son, who lives near Canada, recently mentioned that they were cutting down on the amount of road salt used this last winter. I haven’t really read up on the subject yet, but it looks like another reason for PRT. (Or fairies)

About subways, I think people who live near an old, extensive system must be true believers. I sometimes use Boston’s “T” and it works really well. But it is a true network that really extends to a lot of destinations. Compare that to Houston, where billions spent has basically bought us a straight line between two points about 5 miles apart. Now there is a traffic problem where the roads were narrowed to make room for the tracks. The system (when I have observed it anyway) is largely empty and always in the way. We have had train/car collisions. I guess every great mass transit system has to start somewhere, but it sure seems like it can have a “useless waste of money” phase on the way. Never the less, plans are for expanding the routes. The effected neighborhoods are up in arms. Maybe someday it will be seen as a great asset… Maybe.

cmfseattle said...

in seattle, for the at-grade segments, they've built curbs around the right-of-way. they planned for an average of 21 days between collisions (automobile and/or pedestrian).

support posts for the overhead wires

SeaTac airport, 1997

SeaTac airport, 2009

don't like to talk/think about it too much--not good for the blood pressure.

cmfseattle said...

i think we should call it LGT instead of PRT or anything else.

- it's similar enough to LRT, and some current systems (e.g., SkyTrain) can help with the definition; PRT2000 was smaller, lighter and therefore, more cost-effective than Morgantown (ULTra is likely to strengthen this argument)

- in the future, "automated" and "grade-separated" may not be mutually inclusive. as ULTra and 2GetThere have shown, even devices embedded in a running surface can constitute "guideway." Shweeb is guided but not automated.

- "light" emphasizes the fact that systems should be designed and implemented as an elegant solution.

we would like to see truly improved transportation systems considered, equally. we need to agree on a simple, constructive method for conveying what needs improvement and how LGT can get us there.

example: "an LGT feeder system could extend the current radius of Transit-Oriented Development by offering rail/bus riders an affordable alternative to long walks, inclement weather, parking, etc."

Dan said...

I prefer PAT to PRT, since I don't view 20-30 mph as "rapid", however renaming the concept further just muddies the water, IMHO. Consider Anderson's ITNS. Any traction there? Actually it's hard to tell because Google seems to cater my results to me... Anyway, it's hard to promote an idea with a bunch of competing names- especially with the importance of search engines. Also "light" to me means multi-ton, as in "light rail" (LRT) which is anything but. "personal" I think, is descriptive, because PRT/PAT will custom deliver a single individual.
You never said what the "G" stands for... Normally this would be "Group" but I think you must mean guided or something..I mean a group can be any number over one... so it's both wrong and ambiguous. Personally I wish PRT stood for "Personal RAIL Transit" because the ONLY advantage of non-rail PRT is dual-mode compatability. It can never be very rapid, as our recent icy spell points out. It would be nice, in a perfect world, if the word "network" could be fit in somewhere.
P.S. butt ugly overhead wires. The new system looks massive.

Bruce said...

I prefer the term "podcars", or "podcar transit", if you want to be more formal - mainly because if you type "podcars" in Yahoo!, Bing or Google, the right stuff comes up, but if you type "PRT", or any of the other acronyms that have been proposed, you just get random stuff.

Dan said...

By God you're right Bruce, I think they've been multiplying since I last checked. I guess the term isn't going to go away...I better get used to it. I feel so.. old-school...

Ryan Baker said...

My vote for a video would be a three way comparison of a day in the life of the: car commuter, PRT commuter, bus/train commuter. Here's a sample script for a dense urban group.

All three wake up, a tally next to each person shows a dollar amount. For the PRT, conventional transit it's $0. For the car commuter it's their daily share of the car payment ($25?). Zoom through some morning stuff for color (not too much detail) and out the door all three go.

The car commuter starts walking to the garage and waits for the valet to bring his car. The other two start out the door walking to the local transit. The PRT rider arrives at the station just a little as the car rider is exiting the garage (1/8 mile walk, 3 minutes). The train rider had a longer walk (1/2 mile) and opted to wait for the bus, which shows up at 5 minutes and arrives at 8 minutes.

After pulling out of the garage the car driver, makes slow progress, going stop and go between stop lights and traffic. Lets make him kind of aggressive, changing lanes a lot, very intent on traffic, honking the horn, etc. (very typical for an urban driver)

The PRT rider of course sits down in the PRT (don't overemphasize the station.. really the details and mechanics there are unimportant, it's pretty easy to get stuck trying to explain how PRT works.. don't try)

The train rider is also on the train but standing. As the PRT/train riders go through the station tick their fares, but for the car driver have a running counter ticking off the cents for gas.

The PRT rider pulls out a book.. or maybe a laptop.. or maybe even better, a cell phone (because this will encourage car advocates to make the totally indefensible argument "oh I could talk on the phone in the car", and the train rider pulling out a cell phone is going to look kind of rude.

Anyhow, the PRT rider arrives first, 10 minutes before the train rider (5 minute lead to get to the station, plus the train rider spent another 5 minutes waiting for the train.)

You could give the car driver the benefit of the doubt and have him arrive before the train, depends on the urban area whether this would be true or false.. but at least 5 minutes after the PRT rider.. and of course he has to park (+$25).

Do the same thing for a suburban commuter in a mid size city, and then for a suburban commuter in a metropolis (drive to park-n-ride, commuter train, walk from downtown depot, vs. walk to PRT, PRT at destination, vs. drive to highway, fight highway traffic, get to downtown, fight downtown traffic, and park.

Basic idea here? Try and make sure someone sees a scenario that makes sense to them, and then keep them from using the double attack (where they first tell you why cars are better.. and then when you point out why not, they tell you why conventional transit is better, and then get you stuck in between where you're trying to prove PRT is better than both in all ways, rather than simply proving that it's better overall than either of the alternatives.