Tuesday, June 8, 2010

89> On the Road Again...

I am in the civilized world once again. Well almost. The bus I took from Dartmouth to Boston had wi-fi – just no AC receptacles. My poor old laptop only holds a charge for about half an hour these days, so the planned two-hour bloggathon had to be cancelled. That made me wonder what will happen when those upcoming electric cars start stopping on the road for lack of juice. Yeah, I know, they will be have low battery alarms, quick swap battery packs, and there will be charging stations… But that won’t do it.

With gasoline, when your tank is almost empty, you have a certain amount of time to get to a gas station, and it is a fixed amount. A limited amount gasoline will always get you roughly the same distance, even if your car is old. Not so, batteries. When they get old their performance falls off of a cliff. That means that just because a 60% charge got you home with juice to spare 4 months ago, there is no guarantee that a 75% charge will get you home today. Couple this with the high costs of batteries, people struggling to make ends meet, and human nature, and it will be roulette by the masses, with many making shorter and shorter trips, until one day it happens to them, just like it happened to my laptop on the bus. I was almost finished with my research when BOOM! Windooze lived up to its name. Involuntary hibernation. I predict that the only meaningful way to solve this dilemma will be to automatically slow the car down to walking speed before the battery is finally exhausted. That will force people to deal with the problem or at least get them on to the shoulders. Someone should patent that. Oops.

Another thought occurred to me, sitting on that bus. I was considering the effort that was taken to blast away the granite hills to make way for the road. And such a wide swath of land.  I guess the wide median is to make oncoming traffic lights less blinding. And now it will need mowing forever more. It made me consider the hypocrisy of “saving the rainforest” without starting first a little closer to home. When my computer died I was trying to learn a little something about “carbon credits”. The whole concept of paying someone not to burn to offset the burning that you must do would seem to be a concept with some relevance to systems like PRT. I wonder, for instance, about the carbon emissions of a highway, about viewing a given stretch of highway as a CO2 producing system, including factoring in the loss of CO2 sequestering forest that such a system requires. (I wish they could also factor in habitat loss and fragmentation)  Isn’t a highway a bit like a coal burning power plant? What if highway land had to be offset with carbon credits? Thought of in that way, elevated PRT starts looking pretty good.   

As I approached Boston, computer tucked away, I couldn’t help but notice how expressive cars are. These days there doesn’t seem to be much taste for expensive, formal clothes, so that leaves the car as one of the few mobile ways to resister our social status to the world. That’s a very basic primate behavior and not easy to break. And it runs so much deeper than just status. Carmakers can make us feel masculine or feminine, outdoorsy, socially conscious, sophisticated, elegant, fun loving, daring, young, reasonable, powerful. Take your pick. You’ll feel that way and project that self-image to the world. That role is pretty hard to replace with a public transit system. Even one with wi-fi and AC.


cmfseattle said...






Ryan Baker said...

I'd expect the dashboards to give a pretty accurate estimate of how many miles you can travel on your current charge, whether you have a new battery or an older one. Also, in both cases, I'd expect there is a little buffer it doesn't tell you about, just like E isn't really empty.

I don't think most people learn the range of their vehicles by driving until they stop.

On the other hand, there are some factors that could make stalled electric vehicles more likely. First, some of the initial models have fairly low ranges on a full charge. But I think that will change fairly rapidly. The Tesla has very good range for example.

Another cause might be the charge time. If you're gauge says E and you're driving by a gas station where you can fill up in a minute or so, then you're less likely to try and push on and try to make it home, than if you're in an electric which might take half an hour to charge (especially since if you do make it you can charge at home). On the other hand though, if they make charging/swapping as quick as a fill-up then a lot of that motivation goes away.

Andrew F said...

Many battery technologies are amenable to 'quick charge' cycles, where the battery can be recharged to 70 or 80% capacity in as little at 15 minutes provided adequate electrical service. So, I can see there being specialized charging stations offering this service where charging at home would require many hours, due to the limits of a 220 volt outlet.

So even for long trips, I can see electrics being practical, provided they have a range in the 300 mile or so region. If you can quick-charge a battery to 75%, that would be 225 miles between charges, which would translate to a bit under 4 hours driving time. I imagine most drivers could use a stretch, bathroom break or meal at about that frequency. And even most long-distance trips would be within a small enough radius to only require one recharge stop.

Dan said...

Dan the Blogger Responds –

Thanks for the interesting reading, CMF. The piece about the world’s lithium supply got me researching whether the lithium could be recycled, which it apparently can. The piece on the counterweight tunnel just a reminder of how fearless designers used to be. BTW I’m still wondering about what you said about emergency evacuation. You used the past tense. Does that mean that you have a better scheme for hanging “pods” or that you just prefer supported? (I’m personally leaning to dropping the whole cab, but nothing is written in stone)

Ryan and Andrew - Thanks for commenting, gentlemen. I grouped you together because my comment addresses you both. You seem to be describing newer batteries more than the troublesome older ones. Let me put it this way.

You have had your Tesla for 7 years now and the range is down from 300 miles to about 25. (Although you don’t really know) The battery costs, say, $9,000. You work about 8 miles from home, and an overnight charge these days only registers as 84%. The kid needs braces. Get the picture? Just remember, ALL electric car batteries will get these limitations eventually. And if the gauges don’t work any better than the meter on my laptop there will be real trouble. Gas goes down in a linear matter. Batteries seem to go down in a curve-linear slope. Once it hits forty percent, look out! You’ve got, like 2 minutes. (On my Chinese, Windows running laptop, it will say I have 20, but I’m sure they’ll do better than that) Also temperature affects the battery’s performance, unlike gasoline.

I submit that it will be mighty hard to give up a battery that can still get you any reasonable distance when the replacement costs are so high. Some will want to buy the used batteries and take their chances. Look at the used tire market. People buy them (priced by remaining tread) and drive them until they don’t dare take them on the freeway anymore, and then only take back routes with that car. A battery that can still get you to work and back will get used (and used up) by someone, of that I am sure.

I don’t mean to be argumentative; I certainly could have made it a little clearer that I was talking about the very end of the car battery’s useful life. I think it is informative to consider such a thing though. Everybody talks about EVs like the batteries will last forever or will be cheap to replace, when in fact a fair degree of degraded performance will be the average. Thanks for commenting, guys!

Ryan Baker said...

I'm not 100% certain on this, but no, I think the systems exist to give you a fairly accurate prediction of how degraded the battery is, and what kind of performance you can expect.

I don't know about your laptop, but I have had two laptops which both give good estimates. Both have horrible battery life, and one is from age, but the estimates are good. I've had bad ones in the pas though.

I'm not sure you'll ever get to the point that a 300 mile battery has a 25 mile charge. As I understand it, it would take as long to go from 25 miles 0, as from 300 miles to 275 miles. It's going to be pretty obvious that a replacement is needed. There's probably also a point where the voltage is affected and it just basically stops working. I'd expect the cars themselves would monitor this and have a "dummy light", just like changing your oil because if you kept driving till battery death you'd probably damage the entire electric motor in the process. Thus smartly engineered cars will simply have a point where they refuse to turn on.. maybe they'll have some kind of emergency override.

Here's an article on battery life.

Also, in terms of low temperature and battery performance, it's the voltage that's negatively affected, not the capacity. Capacity is actually maintained better in low temperatures. So once again, with low temperatures you're in a "won't start" scenario, rather than a "short life" scenario. Once the car is moving the discharge heat will probably keep temperature equal to starting temperature.. unless maybe if you start it in a heated garage and then drive into -30 degree's outdoor.

I think though the main point is that an electric car will have much more sophisticated monitoring equipment than your laptop.. at the least as good as the best laptop today, and as a result you should know about how bad you're pushing the limits.

Kind of like the tire analogy. You'll have a few people with flat tires or dead batteries, but I wouldn't predict an epidemic.

Ryan Baker said...

Also, to the lithium topic. I've found all suggestion of insufficient lithium to be unjustified, as with most of the "peak-everything" theories.

Peak-oil is real, and there are a few other crisis, but there are plenty of things, such as lithium, for which we've barely scratched the surface in looking for them. I won't comment here on the others, but for lithium here's a little history.

Lithium at first was extracted from rocks.. pretty much any old rock (I think granite was best). That was feasible but it wasn't super cheap, so when the brine pool in Chile was discovered that replaced the old method. Since that pool could produce amounts astronomically larger than demand at the time no one really bothered looking elsewhere. Recently interest has been piqued and discoveries have started coming quickly. To compare it with oil, lithium is basically at the Texas-wildcatter phase, not the Deepwater Horizon phase.

To evaluate a peak anything claim the first question you need to ask is whether anyone's really been looking.

Andrew F said...

Peak lithium doesn't seem like a plausible long term problem. Firstly, lithium isn't consumed like oil. It can be recovered from old batteries, for a price. Secondly, proven reserves might look small, but that is because no one has been looking. The market for lithium has been relatively small and we've had hundreds of years of supply against expected demand through readily accessible deposits. This is also unlike oil, where we have been looking very hard for the stuff for decades.

To answer your question about old batteries: they would be replaced long before they got to the point where 90% of their capacity had degraded. There is a secondary application for automotive batteries: any application where backup power is desirable. This could be UPS for computers, an alternative to expensive diesel generators for backup power at hospitals, etc. Essentially, any application where raw capacity is desired and weight and size are not important considerations.

I've had the same experience with laptop batteries: my computer accurately projects time, even as battery capacity degrades. I think this is just a matter of decent software and battery monitoring. Also, I'm not sure the batteries would necessarily degrade as dramatically as you suggest. My laptop has seen over 3 years of hard use and the battery is still over 85% original capacity. Automotive is a more demanding application, to be fair.

I guess I would say you should not underestimate battery technology. There is tens of billions in R&D underway, going after many different avenues. Even battery-like technologies could be an option. EEStor is trying to develop a ultracapacitor that could undergo millions of charges without significant degradation and be able to store and discharge electricity very quickly. There is a lot of skepticism, but if it works, this technology is a game changer.

qt said...

Moving off batteries for just a moment, I thought I'd address that last-paragraph toss-off, about cars as personal expression. You've got a good point there, Dan. And it's a part of a larger pattern. If you're going to replace the car as a part of everyday life, you're going to have to address the ways cars address needs you don't normally associate with transportation.

Another example: In the US, at least, one of the more common ways to use a car involves running a bunch of errands. The classic "honey-do" list, for example. Say you are supposed to:

--Pick up some cereal and two cans of condensed milk for that pie she's making,

--get your suit and her dress from the dry cleaners,

--pay the water bill,

--go by the hardware store and get some fittings for the cabinet that isn't opening just right, and

--drop by the electronics store and comparison-shop wistfully in the HDTV department.

So you get in the car, head over to the supermarket, get your necessaries, get back in the car, and re-enter traffic. The dry cleaner's is just up there. You get out, pay the nice lady, get your big plastic bags with the hanger hooks on top, get back into the car, and rejoin the fray.

The water bill is just a quick stop, hop out, do the deed, and hop back in. Over to the hardware store. A few minutes in the actual hardware aisles, and you're done. And there's football-watcher's heaven, just ahead. Aah...

Now. Do the same thing with PRT. Where are your grocery bags while you're in the dry cleaners? Where are the grocery bags and the plastic-wrapped clothes while you're paying the water bill? How about in the hardware aisle? Who's watching the groceries, the clothes, and the brass hinges while you're daydreaming of Hi-Def cheerleaders?

A friend of mine remarked the other day that "we live in our cars, you know. We only sleep in our houses." And it's at least partly true. Whether it's healthy or not is a debate for another place and time. The important thing is that you're assuming people will casually change their way of life. And maybe they will. Eventually. But if you try to sell your shiny new technology to them without taking that disruption into account NOW, you're going to have problems.

It may be as simple as having some kind of really ingenious rolling cart that will hold anything you're likely to pick up at the store, and a place to lock that cart in place in the podcar. Something so simple to use people won't even realize they're hauling it around. Or maybe something better than that top-of-the-head toss-off. (I sure hope so.) The point is, you need to have thought about it. Because I can guarantee the people who'll vote on this WILL think of it.

Hope you don't mind these oddball points. My interest in things like this are philosophical as much as they are technical...

Andrew F said...


I don't think this problem is insurmountable. For one, our cities are designed to suit our transportation. If the milk-run routine for errands is inconvenient with PRT, I think you'll see less big-box in a sea of parking and more mall-oriented retail where you can do your grocery shopping, pick up your dry cleaning (I do this at my grocery store already), drop by an electronics store all in one stop.

Short of that, if people are willing to pay to hold their vehicle for an hour or two, similar to paying the taxi to wait for you while you pop in to a store to buy something on your way to your destination, I can imagine that being readily accommodated. There could be a nearby parking loop that would store the vehicle until you're ready to leave once more, where you recall it from parking. To avoid the cost of holding the vehicle, people are likelier to change their habits but would retain the option.

The bigger problem I foresee is hauling heavy, bulky or cumbersome items from the PRT stop to your home. This may be only a few hundred meters, but that can seem quite daunting when carrying 50lbs of groceries and your dry cleaning. I don't know what the solution to this should be. Certainly PRT vehicles should be designed to accomodate some sort of cart to help with transporting cargo. Another solution might be last-mile delivery services.

For instance, home delivery of groceries is quite common in some countries. You might also see a change in habits. When people don't have cars, they are likelier to buy a bag or two of groceries several times a week, which is easy to carry as the walk home. Suburbs incentivize one big weekly shop, and that was all facilitated by the car.

Ryan Baker said...

To Qt: There are a couple of things at work here, and you need to look at them as a whole.

First, roads will continue to exist. Second, yes some adaptation will occur, mostly for the better, some for worse. Third, there is a longer term vision of dual mode and robocars that is a very natural extension of PRT itself.

Your examples are interesting, and I'm sure just the tip of the iceberg, but realize there are plenty of people, like me, who live in cities without ever using a car, and very rarely a taxi.

Peapod delivers my groceries which saves me the trip to the store. For small last minute things there's a convenience store on the first floor and a couple other stores within a half mile. The dry cleaner is on the first floor. I pay my bills over the internet. The hardware store is about a quarter mile walk (though, must admit.. I don't spend much time on such things.. maybe a better analogy would be computer parts for me).

Most of these things are lifestyle improvements, not inconveniences, there are some trade-offs, but I also have a garage downstairs with a couple ZipCars I can grab anytime I want, though I don't find myself needing to.

So, a city with PRT, roads and car sharing gives most of the benefits of the two pure approaches. Fewer people would own cars, roads would need less repair and fewer lanes, less space would be devoted to parking, daily travel would be efficient, you wouldn't waste time in traffic, mobility for those who cannot drive would be improved, etc.

The longer term vision would be adding dual mode capabilities. If an standard (single mode) PRT system had a few dual mode transfer stations added, and dual mode vehicles had automated driving (robocar) capabilities, then you would really have a best of both worlds system.

Technically speaking, all of this should makes sense. The question's you raised in another thread of politics however are quite key to the whole issue.

Not everyone thinks about those issues, but I think most do at some point. What I can however say, is that most of the people who think about PRT start by envisioning the system that seems most desirable in the overall context, and then we start thinking about how to get there from where we are now. Sometimes this causes changes in the final goal to fit with interim compromises but we are admittedly resistant to those compromises. That would be why you see technical fixes thrown out as initial responses, we only want to compromise once all options are exhausted.

So, this is how the "visionary" works. The average person or politician has a much simpler system where they look at the next step first. Maybe they think of, after a, then b. The analogy I would apply is somewhat akin to playing chess, where in one case you plan on checkmate, and then search for a way to achieve it, or in the other case you simply try to take pieces, while losing fewer.

The checkmate strategy is harder, but ultimately more effective because it encourages you to think about position and control which would feel out of context otherwise. But either way you have to plan plenty of little steps and be prepared for the things you failed to see. No one will let you simply pick up your queen and kick over the king, you have to work very hard to get there.

(A disclaimer.. in the chess analogy the opponent is not people, the existing system or any such, but simply the needs of people and the difficulties in fulfilling them.

Dan said...

Gentlemen, Great thread! I have been wondering about some of this stuff for a while. Mostly about mobility at the end of a PRT ride, actually. The role of a car as a temporary storage locker is one I haven’t really explored. One possible way to not have to drag stuff around would be to send it “home” without you, though that raises all kinds of questions and problems. Then you could send bombs, or the stuff could end up at the destination without anyone there to pick it up. Maybe a freight license and a person who swipes a card at the receiving end… I’m just tossing out ideas…

On my computer I have unfinished drawings of mobile caddies full of Segways and regular scooters. The idea was to explore ways of getting to and from PRT stations. Many transit schemes have explored one-way vehicle rentals as a way to achieve mobility in a city without using a car. (In Europe some cities offer one-way bicycle rentals, for example.) There is always the problem getting the vehicles back to where you need them. I see PRT possibly playing a role.

Ryan, thanks for speaking up for urbanites! The only similar lifestyle I have ever experienced was a few weeks in The Village in the early eighties. It’s a whole different world. It just goes to show how varied the circumstances are that PRT must adapt to. Interesting analogy, Chess… Designing in general in calls for that kind of approach. Also thanks for reminding me about Zipcars. Sounds like they have really expanded the operation since I last checked.

qt said...

Good points, Andrew/Ryan. And I never suggested the points were insurmountable. As you, Ryan, pointed out, my main thoughts in this particular discussion are political--part of building the ideal system is getting somebody to let you build it.

In this case, I will point out that, while it is quite possible to live in the fashion you describe (I did it too, in college--I had friends who claimed I could get to Shangri-La by public transit), most people apparently don't want to. And those people will not support your effort to MAKE them live that way.

Better to think about a transit system that can adapt to the people, rather than force the people to adapt to the system. Or so it seems to me.

The chess analogy isn't bad. I would just point out that part of getting to the endgame is surviving the first ten moves. Trying to keep both things in mind at once is a real effort...

(Hope you don't mind the future silence--I'm a long-haul trucker by trade, and I'll be away from my computer for a week this time, at least...)

Andrew F said...

And speaking of zipcar, I was having a debate online with an anti-PRT transit advocate, who was advocating car-share+robocar as an alternative to PRT. I argued that such a system was essentially an inferior PRT system, and would inevitably be more costly, dangerous and slower than a well-designed PRT system could be. I'm concerned that the whole computer-guided car movement could be a political threat to PRT. It's a real shame, because it'd be a matter of taking a familiar technology, cars, and jamming it into a new role to solve a problem it's not well-suited to. I see articles in PopSci and the like about electric robocars zipping around busy pedestrian neighbourhoods, and I despair somewhat. I think this vision is basically fantasy. I can't imagine robotic cars operating in busy cities simply due to liability concerns, and perhaps even public fear of being hit by one.

By the way, those bike-share systems are here in North America as well. Montreal's system is pretty ubiquitous. They must have added it in the last two years, since I didn't notice it the previous time I had visited.

Ryan Baker said...

I'd avoid making the robocar people your enemy. There are two things you should suggest. First, you should point out that PRT can be built today, whereas robocars are indefinite (though it's not looking like all that far). The second is that PRT cooperates with robocars very well.

I'd probably stress the second point more than the first. Remember that your impression of how far off robocars are is probably less optimistic (either rightly or wrongly), than the person you're conversing with.

In the end, there's certainly no chance that you'll be able to keep robocars from being built. Like cars they have the political advantage of being mostly independent after the roads are built, which as we know, they already are. The earliest practical forms of robocar, those that require lane separation, will probably never exist, but the later forms which can operate within human traffic fully or partially will have very few obstacles to adoption after technological completion.

The key to making a really good system that retains a walkable format is getting PRT out there as quick as possible and then adapting to interface with robocars to keep the system alive, rather than letting it be destroyed by auto companies like the streetcar was.

Ryan Baker said...

To QT:

I'm not saying the system is perfect, in large part that's why I'm here trying to help design and advocate PRT.

While PRT is a solution that works in the suburbs far better than the current transit alternatives, it's valuable to remember that it is just as desirable inside a city.

Many cities with decent public transit still have the hub-spoke model. Chicago is one such example. This is very limiting, and I know PRT would make public transit in Chicago far more comfortable and require far less to operate and build (noting that some parts of the existing system are already built).

Why don't people like living in cities? Well there's plenty of answers to go for there. I'd suggest two primary things to think about here though.

The first is "the yard". Every transit system, PRT included is going to be more stressed to accommodate a housing situation where everyone has their quarter acre. There isn't any simple solution to that. I think it's reasonable to suggest people accept parks more, but that's not a substitute that rings true for most. That leaves only the argument that their current system is unsustainable and the root of all their other complaints (congestion, long commutes, no character communities). Their move may not have caused those problems, but 100 million other Americans doing the same did. Usually they complain about the new development that's coming up to their, not quite as new development.

The second is the transit systems in the city. Those we can fix or rather significantly improve via PRT. Public transit as it is today has significant advantages, but it has it's downsides. PRT would retain almost every one of those advantages while adding some new ones and addressing most of the downsides.

For that reason, it's without a doubt in my mind that the evolution of PRT will be most from within the city and then out to the suburbs, not the other way around.

What confuses many people is that what they see happening is the reverse, where PRT projects do not go after the city center first. That is because PRT is unproven, at least in an unequivocal sense that transit planners would be unable to argue against. It's easier to get a smaller area to take a bet on PRT, with some national and vendor support than to get a major city to bet their future on it.

Once those initial hurdles are bypassed though the city first development is almost certainly the model. This means in political terms, you really don't need to consider the suburbs quite as much. By the time they are asked to join the PRT system, it will be well established, and rather than PRT competing for each suburb to join, it will be the suburbs competing to join the PRT system. That is because every suburb is incredibly dependent upon the city core, no matter how much they neglect it. If PRT is what runs the urban core, and it's even remotely compatible with the periphery, it will spread.

Andrew F said...

Really all you need is for the network to reach a critical mass where each expansion leads to an increase in fare revenue that covers the cost of capital and operations. The network would inevitably explode at that point. The problem is getting to that critical mass. A lot of work should be done to evaluate what applications provide the smallest such critical mass, and preferably projects that can tap into subsidies, often by replacing other services that would be subsidized. I think Heathrow's PRT falls into this category. I'm not sure whether, when built out, that system will achieve critical mass. I think the system architecture doesn't help its case.

Downtown applications might be tricky, at least in large cities. I wonder if an ideal application would be an alternative to a LRT line, where LRT would be overbuilding for the transit requirement. I'm thinking mid-size cities of about 500,000 or so that are clamouring for something more advanced than buses but have a hard time making a case for LRT. Their LRT lines are often just an alignment connecting the small downtown with hospitals, universities and colleges and outlying malls/major employment zones. Worth some figuring, I think.

Ryan Baker said...

I've already started the process of looking at various areas and evaluating their applicability to PRT. I was considering posting this on a wiki. I think there was one Dan setup, so I didn't want to create a new one without checking that out first, but I can't find that one.

So far I haven't examined many areas, and what I have done have generally been comparison's to other transit projects, mostly because it's fairly easy to find a large degree of site data already accumulated for those projects. The downside of that approach is that probably something will get approved before we can get the right people together to put a solid PRT proposal there. So it's really more of a thought exercise at the moment.

Later on I'll probably do some more detailed site research, but the general finding that I'm making is that yes, if a spot is attractive to LRT, especially an LRT loop, then it's even more attractive for PRT.

Cities of the size you suggest are tricky. They aren't going to be able to bear the risk if they don't have state/federal support (remember this is risk from their perspective). And once the PRT rush begins, vendors are likely to go after the big juicy targets first. Cities of that size don't usually have a firm commitment to public transit too, because highways are kind of still working, so it has to be additional motivations to sustain the commitment. Find the right place and you've got something though.

My thought though is that you have better prospects in a suburb of a larger city. In that case you could get funding from a local transit agency, but they wouldn't have to commit to risk of deployment in the city core. The Rosemont project back from Taxi 2000 is a good example. Not sure how many of you are familiar with Chicago, but Rosemont is an area east of O'hare airport. It's pretty dominated by O'hare and the city. The El runs out there, and there are plenty of people arriving car less who have the option of getting a rental car, but might be open to other options if available.

Another point I've been looking at is 42nd St. Manhattan. That's obviously very tough from the risk standpoint. The MTA did evaluate "Automated Guideway Transport", but basically immediately rejected it because it would have been a new mode and they didn't want anything new. Plus, they rated it as $70mil -$100 mil/ mile because they were basically tossing in PRT with automated heavy rail and not really evaluating PRT at all.

qt said...

(The following may end up sounding more argumentative than I mean it to be. Please keep in mind that I'm trying to keep this mere comment from turning into a 50-page ebook that's more questions than answers...)

I have doubts about the "alternative to LRT" for "mid-size cities." I think you'll find a lot of those requirements would be served as well (if not better) by something like (for example) the cable-propelled transit systems the fellow on the Gondola Project blog has been advocating--a straight-line regular-service system using proven technology that costs less than the LRT it would pre-empt.. Straight-line and loop routes give PRT no real advantage. The big advantage PRT has is in the network.

This seems to me to have been PRT's big problem all these years. The aircraft, the automobile, the bicycle, the train, the steamboat--even the Erie Canal and its progeny (in the US--I know we didn't invent the idea...)--all of them succeeded by proving they were better--even in their first iterations--than their competitors. At something, at least. Even the penny-farthings had advantages over the horse--cost and convenience, if nothing else--that made them popular to the hobbyists who rode them. And the trains and canal boats had no real competitors at all.

But PRT? It's a technology that promises wonderful things--once the whole network is in place. But the first installation won't do anything you can't do as well--or better--at the same cost--or less--with familiar and well-proven systems that are already in use. So who's going to fight his way to the front of the line so he can buy the pig in that poke?
(to be cont)

qt said...

(continued from previous comment)

Dan has mentioned this document on "disruptive technologies" before. It's something I think all of us should keep in mind in any discussion like this one. In his discussion on personal computers, though, I found myself thinking about something I'd read in a similar discussion.

I've heard people argue that the spreadsheet was the thing that made personal computers more than a hobbyist's toy. Even word processing was merely convenient. But when the accountants found out this box could let them automate the making of financial projections--to the point of doing a hundred in a day, just to see what happened if you changed THIS factor by 1/2 of one percent...

Suddenly every accounting firm--and every corporation that depended on accountants--had to have one of these new-fangled things. And once the new-fangled things were out there, people started using them for other things. And all the things the hobbyists had dreamed of happened--and then some.

Right now everyone in the PRT field seems to be arguing about whether to run BASIC or go to something more advanced--like Pascal. They should be looking for Wordstar or Visicalc. Are we?

Right now, the only people I've seen who come even close to such a quest is Jpod. Their Wal-Mart proposal, for instance, shows a mindset I haven't really seen elsewhere (including in my own head, most of the time).

Where is PRT's killer app? I have no idea what this would be, but I can suggest a few characteristics:

--It can be built on a fairly small scale, but still be a network. Thus it can highlight the real advantages of PRT.

--It can be scaled up--perhaps within its own context, or perhaps by offering outsiders access to the original complex.

--When you walk up to it, you don't have to wonder why they built it.
(Think Captain Kirk and the turbolift. You only have to see it in "action" once...)

--NOTHING ELSE WILL DO WHAT IT DOES. At least, not as well.

(to be continued (again!))

qt said...

(part 3(!!) of this comment)

Can you think of something that fits this description? The closest I've been able to come have been things like:

--A variation on Jpod's WalMart proposal: The virtual mall.
Several small shopping and/or entertainment districts in a smallish suburb, linking themselves together into a single large attraction, pooling their parking lots and customers.

--On a similar note: The virtual theme park.
Several small- to medium-size attractions in a tourist town linking together, pooling parking lots, customers, and perhaps ticket facilities.

--The corporate or college campus, of course.
The fact that nothing's come of that so far suggests it's not a viable notion, for a starter system anyway. But maybe that just means nobody's come up with a good angle yet.

None of these ideas have really impressed me--even when I think I came up with them on my own . But hopefully you (and others) can come up with better ones.

So where else could you start--on a small scale, but where direct shots from "here" to "there" will open somebody's pocketbook?

Now, just to stay on topic, I'll also mention that one of the reasons I like this blog is Dan's insistence on keeping all the versatility in his standard that he can. When you don't know what your "killer app" is going to be, you'd better not design out something that may make it possible.

He's doing his part. I'm trying to do mine. I'm just technical enough to more or less follow the discussion here, but my inclinations are, as I've mentioned before, more philosophical. How would I use this thing? Where would it be worth using? And how do we persuade somebody to build it?

Perhaps another forum somewhere should be brainstorming these things while Dan leads the effort to give them a foundation to build their crazy ideas on.

Or maybe I'm just full of it. Opinions?

(Once again, I'll be safely out of town when the firestorm hits--this trucking thing can really mess up the thoughtful discussion thing, can't it?)

[Ye gods! I swear to you, I had no idea I'd run off at the carpal tunnels like that! Just imagine what it would have looked like if I'd tried to be less blunt!...)

Ryan Baker said...

A killer application is already known, it's just not an easily achievable goal. The urban environment is where PRT would truly be disruptive, and in a very good way.

First, in reading the rest of this post, do your best to approach it from the perspective of someone who has already accepted of the trade-offs of urban living. For example no backyard vs. ready access to many cultural elements.. museums, theaters, non-chain restaurants. Or privacy vs. a constant social connection. Some of you are bound not to be urbanites, it might be because there isn't a vibrant city center near where you work, or it might be because you balance these trade-offs differently. If you want to understand my arguments you have to look at it form essentially my perspective, because while I may hope a PRT system in the city will enhance a city in a way that draws more people in from the suburbs, ultimately it's not those new arrivals that will get the system built (or force it not to be built), it's those of us that are already here.

What PRT does for a city is to bring it even closer together. PRT provides faster trip times, even for "corridor" travel because there is no waiting and no stops. However, cities need a lot more than "corridor" travel, but that's all that existing public transit systems can accomplish. PRT breaks that barrier and provides not just improvements but a whole different transit paradigm for that type of travel.

Those effects are immediate benefits, but they have developing benefits as well. There are plenty of places in Chicago I don't go often because they are hard to get to.. they aren't necessarily all that far away, I go to farther places all the time. That disconnects me from that part of the city, and as I mentioned before, one of the things many city people are looking for is greater opportunity for connections (and no I don't just mean dating, it's much more subtle than that).

Breaking down those barriers helps develop the city. Usually those areas benefit from greater economic activity, but the entire city benefits as well.

Another developing benefit is that if it reduces the number of cars, and as a consequence the amount of space and infrastructure devoted to them. It's not just roads. Look at a dense city in Google Maps, and look for the amount of space devoted to parking.. You can't even see all of it since it's often in the first floor or basements of mixed use buildings. The point is, it's a huge amount of space, space that is essentially waste to me. It restricts the number of business I can have within walking distance, it restricts the amount of space for residential buildings, thus raising my rent, it restricts the space available for parks.

Since a city is all about bringing people close together, taking out those parts that separate them has synergistic effects that emphasize many positives while diminishing many negatives. If those let a city grow up and reach a level of completeness it would have struggled to do otherwise, then that's another positive.

I'd be happy to find another killer application for PRT, one with smaller hurdles, but because I already know of one, I'd be content in finding a incubating zone, much like the hobbyist trends you mentioned that were present in both the development of the automobile and the computer.

Ryan Baker said...

In regards to LRT, PRT and Gondolas in corridor competition, here's how it appears to me. Couldn't find a lot of details about Gondolas though

Top speed: 15 mph, separated from surface traffic
Network expansion: Via Transfer
Non-stop: No (unless the route has only a start and end!)
Price: Dunno.. guess it's inexpensive?
Visual effect: A few towers, a wire, some passing cabins, elevated stations.
Operational Examples: Yes

Top speed: limited by surface traffic
Non-stop: No
Price: $30-70mil / mile
Visual effect: At level stations, some track, passing trains.
Operational Examples: Yes

Top speed: 40mph, separated from surface traffic (probable optimum for this application)
Non stop: Yes
Price: $10-$30mi/ mile (2-way)
Visual effect: A few towers, a guideway, some passing cabins, elevated stations.
Operational Examples: Kind of.. ULTra, Morgantown (not really)

So.. seems to me even in the corridors the downsides to PRT are visual effect and operational examples. I think if we solve the operational example problem more fully the visual effect (assuming a well designed system is used) will be less of an issue than commonly regarded. Initially it will be a huge obstacle, but if a place actually needs one of these three options, I don't think the visual effect will cause them to settle for LRT once they have confidence in PRT. I do however believe that the visual effect will be a huge obstacle in places that haven't convinced themselves they need something more than more roads.

qt said...

This is a quick toss-off before dashing out to my car(!) to run a bunch of errands(!). Maybe I can think a little better in a bit...

Ryan, I agree with at least half of what you say. Atlanta is one of those places that doesn't have a vibrant inner city, but I did live the way you do, sort of, for nearly ten years. And I enjoyed it, too. And I have no trouble seeing PRT the way you describe it as a wonderful addition to either city.

But it's not a killer app. The killer app would be the one that made PRT such an easy sell that you'd hear everybody agitating to build one in Chicago after they'd seen that thing in Oakdale.*

Like the killer app that put a PC on 10% of the desks in the country, and got everyone else thinking about what *they* could do with one. In a very real sense, the Internet was the product of Visicalc and Lotus 1-2-3. The idea had been around. There were even some people playing with it. But for the Internet to become what it needed to be, something had to make computers ubiquitous.

Similarly, space travel could be said to have been made real by satcoms and weathersats. The moon race wouldn't have done it.

It might be that the "inner city solution" could be that app for PRT if you could find the right place for it. But so far it hasn't been.

For heaven's sake, keep looking for an "incubation zone" for that app--the fact that you're passionate about it might mean there are enough others somewhere. Meanwhile, let's keep looking for others. If we can find ONE that somebody will build...

*Oakdale, TX is the idyllic suburb where Wishbone and his friend Joe live. Seemed like a proper imaginary place to put such a thing...

qt said...

As for the gondola comment, I was mostly talking about the futility of competing with established tech in areas where said tech appears "good enough." The gondolas are a better competitor to LRT in most of the proposals I've heard than podcars would be. PRT doesn't have a real advantage in a straight line or a loop.

Part of the "killer app" aspect I've been trying to describe is the search for an environment where "direct to the destination" is an OVERWHELMING advantage. Where they wouldn't even THINK of LRT because it simply wouldn't work.

Dan is correct when he says PRT's most direct competitor is the car. But again, you need a place where, for some reason, the car isn't really a viable alternative. Or where more cars just won't cut it with the locals. Then PRT has a chance of selling itself.

The way Peachtree City, GA became (to some extent) a "golf cart city." Nobody planned it--I gather the golf cart paths were an afterthought. They had to keep the power, water, etc., rights-of-way clear anyway--why not make them bike paths? And some people started using their golf carts on them to run errands, and the whole thing snowballed.

If the fellow in that paper I referenced earlier is right, any real transportation revolution is going to happen more or less that way. You may start out with a Governor Clinton (of New York, not Arkansas) digging a "big ditch," but then everybody sees the advantages and piles on.

We shouldn't be looking for a place we could squeeze PRT into. We should be looking for a place where it's needed, desperately, and nothing else will do. Then let it flow back into the apps you want.

In other words, where are the crazy ideas, one of which just might work?

Ryan Baker said...

Be careful in assuming that such a thing exists. Perfect can be the enemy of good enough.

Lets try two angles here. PRT is adaptable, but it's not as adaptable as a computer. I think we can fathom the full range of possible use cases since it's pretty much limited to transportation, and we basically know every applicable origin and destination.

We can throw out the very simple case, of just generally leaving and arriving on the basis that you already can get from any origin to destination if you've got the time and some working legs. So for there to be a case where PRT is the only thing that will work, you'd need some second order scenario in which something valuable cannot exist without one of the efficiency improvements (time, cost, energy, safety) offered by PRT.

What would demand one of those to exist? If it doesn't require large amounts of space, then it would usually be more efficient to compact it close and offer walking and biking as they always provide direct to destination service. Only when distances become larger can there be an order of magnitude difference between the speed of walking vs. PRT.

If the space is larger and there is disposable space and money, then roads and cars can be used. It's more expensive, but often there's some justification for roads anyhow, plus in general they're mostly built today.

It's only when there is a fairly large area, there is relatively little disposable space and a any origin to destination capability is required that PRT could be the only possible option, rather than simply the best option.

I think PRT is different than the automobile or PC. That doesn't mean it's not going to be successful and certainly doesn't mean it's not valuable, but it does mean it's probably not going to emerge in quite the same way.

PRT is more like a water system than cars. People lived for thousands of years, generally without running water although much of the technical capability existed for most of that time. It was always possible to have running water and sewage lines, as evidenced by Rome, but most societies never got around to actually creating those systems until they'd gone through numerous outbreaks of water borne disease.

Cars are the sewage running through the streets of our modern day cities. The basic need exists, and so the question is how best to manage it.

The reason I find the most promise in looking at areas where other options are already challenging the car rather than looking for some novel way to challenge the car is that it is very difficult to challenge something individualistic like the car, with something not so individualistic, and those opportunities only present themselves when the problems are abundantly clear. And of course when those opportunities present themselves others will try to present their solutions as well.

Ryan Baker said...

By the way, one thing I realize you might easily misinterpret is that I'm not suggesting the right application of is to simply run it in a corridor configuration as a competitor to LRT.

What I am suggesting is that where an LRT corridor makes sense then PRT run in corridor configuration is usually going to promise more for less. In most such situations a PRT network makes even more sense.

The reason PRT has to primarily compete with LRT, BRT and normal bus service is for two reasons.

One is the source of funding/approval. PRT has a lot of promise to be more self sustaining than existing mass transit, but public investment seems very probable to be very important. More importantly, PRT needs right of way grants in order to build the elevated track. Even if you could somehow buy that on your own, you'd need zoning changes and such.

That ties into the second reason, which is that approval is only going to come from people who are either already committed to public infrastructure, or have just recently come to the conclusion that the automobile system is no longer functioning. To succeed in an area dominated by a system so different in the way it gains funding requires that system to be in crisis. There is quite simply too much inertia within those who are currently profiting.

Andrew F said...

I think the reason why there is skepticism toward gondolas, even in applications where they might be well suited, such as a few large trip generators in a corridor, is that a system based on the technology is not readily scalable. It's all too easy to imagine it as either an orphaned system that is underutilized because it doesn't work well with adjacent systems, or it becoming a victim of its own success, leading to a overwhelmed system that can't readily shed demand to adjacent systems.

So, even though a gondola might be superior to PRT between a handful of large trip generators in a corridor--and I'm not convinced of this--the flexibility and modularity of PRT ought to make it more appealing. New stations can readily be added without impacting operations, as well as branches and loops on the original corridor alignment.

I still think a killer app would be a small city. The one I have in mind is Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario.
It has a metro population of about 400,000 to 500,000. It has two urban nodes, two universities, two regional malls, Research In Motion's campus, a large farmer's market, a number of large hospitals, etc. all along the 10 km stretch of King St. With a few loops, this area would provide a large number of trips from diverse origins to many destinations, be used on and off peak, and it has a captive market of some 35,000 students, most of who do not use a car, and rely on transit to conveniently reach shopping and entertainment.

The region is currently looking at investing $790 million in a LRT line to serve this corridor. Or course, with PRT, that kind of money would go a lot further, allowing several parallel streets to be served, and loops created to pull in nearby demand that is not directly served. LRT is causing a lot of controversy due to the high cost and the removal of traffic lanes on King Street, which is not especially wide, being never wider than four lanes.

Andrew F said...

More broadly, I think airports are actually a pretty good place to start. They need people movers, and PRT has great potential there. They are tend to be the centre of their own little node of economic activity, with nearby logistics firms, convention centres, hotels, office parks, etc. Unfortunately, it may be hard to expand these networks beyond these nodes, depending on the surrounding urban fabric. A sea of low-density housing would tend to make things challenging.

The example I used above of small cities with high proportions of students and that are beginning to experience traffic constraints that can't be solved with normal surface bus service are pretty good targets. You can hit a large portion of the region with a moderate initial investment, the system is likely to see high, consistent usage, and the surroundings aren't challenging from an engineering perspective.

Ryan Baker said...

Interesting Andrew, I'm assuming the proposal for the LRT is for it to run down King all the way? The lines you drew make it look possible you intended Webster for part of the route.

How would you envision configuring PRT there? It seems probable you'd have a line going down King since almost all the cities commerce (that's the impression Google Earth gives me) is located along that route. Webster seems less commercial but would be a decent companion to King, especially if King was one way as the more conventional PRT designs go.. though maybe in this case you'd break that convention. Webster is about 3/4 miles apart at the farthest.

You could run a line across Erb going as far west as University. A line down University could give access to the golf course and the university. On second thought, this seems University looks like it's very non-pedestrian friendly. Looks like Erb and Fish-Halina may be a better way to the University because that passes by some apartments that could benefit alot more from PRT than the golf course (the clubhouse is way on the other side hidden inside some semi-private roads anyhow.. I guess they were trying to keep people out, how nice of them ;p).

Belmont might be another good side line to King and maybe Highland as another connector?

Hmm.. hard to tell from just satellite. Hard to find the walkable areas. Going by big box stores doesn't really seem to worth it to me unless you can also swing by plenty of apartments at the same time.

A lot of the city is that obnoxious curly cue street junk, and it seems to me like that's going to be a big obstacle to penetrating any of those enclaves.

Ideas? Maybe take a look at Columbus, Ohio. It's a bit bigger than Kitchner-Waterloo, something a bit over a million. It has no transit now except for a low quality bus system. The downtown has languished for years, but a insurance company headquartered locally, Nationwide, has done a lot to develop a new Arena, restaurants and such in an area just north of downtown, and if you follow High St. a bit farther north you hit OSU, the largest University by population in the entire U.S. There's an interesting area east of downtown called German Village which could benefit from some campus links. North of campus things trail off into lots of housing without much commerce, but it still may be worth running a line all the way up and down High to reach a two north end areas, called Polaris and Easton. Both have big malls, Easton is a little more attractive to PRT because it's a mostly outdoor mall that encourages walking just a little. And the cities airport is over on that side which you could put at the center of a connector from Easton and one running along Broad through Bexley.

West of downtown you could loop through Grandview Heights and some of Upper Arlington before looping back through campus.

You know by the way... we need a way to share pictures here.

qt said...

(I've been in town longer than I expected, this time, but I'll be gone for a week when I'm gone--which is likely today. The trucking life is a wonderful thing...)

Ryan, I'm not looking for perfection. Just something that investors will see as far more than an incremental improvement in what's already in place. Investing huge amounts of money in a completely unproven technology isn't something that will happen unless the return is commensurate with the risk. And it isn't me you'll have to convince--it's the people with the money.

For that matter, "Perfect is the enemy of good enough" is exactly what they--and the other systems' lobbyists--will be saying to you. And unless your proposal really is orders of magnitude better than theirs, it will be something you can't answer to their satisfaction.

As to your analysis of the requirements for a PRT "killer app," I more or less agree. Just remember that your idea of "disposable space," for example, might not be somebody else's. Just because you like the kind of close quarters that mark an inner city doesn't mean this other group does too. Maybe they don't want to "compact" their campus, or village, or whatever. I think you may be eliminating opportunities a little too quickly.

I suppose that's what I'm actually trying to say here. You (each of you) have a picture in your head of what PRT (or what-have-you) will do for you. Don't rule everything else out, dazzled by the blinding purity of your vision.

When Wehrner von Braun dreamed of space flight, I'm pretty sure he never imagined that it would be sustained by television networks and weather forecasting agencies. I've read a lot of the visionary stuff from that period. Satellite communications came up precisely twice--both times in fiction. Weathersats never showed up at all, in the stuff I was reading. But they're the backbone of the space industry--because there isn't anything else that can offer what they offer.


Andrew F said...

Sorry, Ryan. I updated the map to be closer to the actual alignment. There is some talk of using a disused rail ROW that lies west of King along part of the route.

You're right that a lot of the city is just an ugly suburban mess. It ought to help that we'd not be despoiling an attractive urban streetscape, at least in the eyes of detractors.

I think a parallel line on Webber and perhaps Westmount would work well, with loops on University/Columbia, and several loops along King. Nonetheless, it could be done for a few hundred million initially, less than the cost of the proposed LRT. It would require a much smaller or zero operational subsidy, and could displace some existing bus service.

But, I think this is a story you can tell many times in small cities across North America.

qt said...

part 2
By the way, Ryan, I agree that the final iterations of PRT will likely be in inner cities.* I'm just not sure if it will start there. Cost, inertia, and a lack of overwhelmingly obvious benefits (from the builders'/investors'/etc.'s point of view) make it a really hard sell on that scale.

The model I have in my head for PRT is one I mentioned in the first of these too-long posts--the Star Trek turbolift. Step in, say "Shuttle bay," wait for it to stop, and step out. As completely transparent a form of transport as we can manage.

The first uses I see for it involve situations where the "last mile" problem and the "first mile" problem are the same. SHORT distances, in other words. Maybe no more than a mile or two. A large college campus, for instance. Too big to conveniently walk across, with no convenient central corridor that'll get you to any classroom building you need to reach. Where getting from the southwest corner to the east-side admin building is exactly as important as getting from the center to the north gate. Where the only thing bicycles will do is cause quiet traffic jams. Where podcars might let students and faculty alike think of the huge campus as one big building that looks a lot like a park.

This particular picture has the advantage that a workable system could be built on a fairly small scale, where the learning curve wouldn't bankrupt the builder OR the investors. And if it worked, it could be repeated. And people might talk about it. And two such campuses (or some such) might build a linking line, starting a citywide network.

I'm not saying this is a better scenario than some of the ones I've been reading, here or elsewhere. Just that it is another scenario. And that a good way to find a scenario that works is to look at a lot of scenarios.

I tend to think of small-scale systems, partly because of the picture in my head, partly because they let you start small and work out the bugs before you show up on the big boys' radar, and partly because they take advantage of one of PRT's more interesting advantages--its huge scalability.

The city scenarios you and Andrew have been discussing are intriguing. And they just might work. Do keep looking at that. Just don't get fixated on a particular scenario or scale, that's all I'm saying.
*(If something like PRT comes out of the suburbs, I suspect it's more likely to be some form of dual-mode--I don't really see a good answer to the "last mile" problem in a low-density community.)

qt said...

(part 3, sort of--aagh!)

Andrew: Just for the record, I'm not really a gondola fan--I only ran across the blog/site I've referred to a few weeks ago. I do think he's got a point about cable's advantages compared to light rail.

As for the advantages/disadvantages of gondolas or cable cars vs LRT, you'd do better to listen to his arguments on the subject. He has both more time and more interest in the subject than I do. One thing I'll toss off for the moment is that he claims cable-propelled transit is

a) more scalable than you think, and

b) actually is generating a fair bit if interest and several thriving applications, especially in developing countries where its price advantages can be decisive.

But that's for him to argue. If you're interested, check him out yourself. I'll warn you, though, his opinion of PRT will get your back up.

My point throughout all of this has been to warn you not to put too much energy into fighting LRT, etc., on their own ground. If the LRT types can make any kind of a case for their system (and they usually can, on a corridor or simple loop), you're at the bottom of a really big hill. You've got a lot of neat ideas and absolutely no track record.

In the long run, I suspect both your Kitchener-Waterloo scenario and Ryan's Columbus proposal have a lot going for them. But remember you'd have to sell them in the short run.

Maybe that's why I like the small-scale pictures. PRT is at its best when it can saturate an area, and going from anywhere to anywhere is just a matter of stepping in, sitting down, and saying "Home, James." And the magic of it is, PRT can eventually do that for whole cities.

But until you've saturated the whole city, it doesn't really look that impressive. And most proposals I've seen don't seem to think that's important.

To sell this to the people who will actually shell out the money, you're going to have to impress them. Not "make the balance sheet look a little better," IMPRESS THEM.

And it's easier to look for a customer you can impress than to try and impress somebody who isn't listening.

Over the past 40 or 50 years, PRT advocates have signally failed to impress much of anyone, even with such an impressive product to represent. I'm just suggesting it might be time to look at another set of sales techniques. Or another set of customers. Or something.

Ryan Baker said...

Well I agree that you need to start small but I find more promise in the idea of selling someone on the possibilities of a large system and then getting funding for a smaller demonstration from that. I find more obstacles to a system that is in a place not already committed to some form of public transit.

The idea isn't to fight LRT, it's simply not to concede all the good spots before we even try. It's not like the absence of an LRT proposal means there's no competition, there's always the existing car infrastructure (well.. almost always only a handful of counterexamples worldwide).

It would help a lot to get your proposal in the door before the LRT proposal because it would allow you to get them thinking about the network rather than approaching someone who already has a tunnel vision of a straight corridor.

Most of the systems I've seen tend to follow a pattern of oasis's. For example, in Columbus, I don't see there being one long line through campus and downtown. I envision a network going throughout these areas, but then being connected to other networks at the airport, Easton and Polaris.

qt said...

I have only one problem with "the idea of selling someone on the possibilities of a large system and then getting funding for a smaller demonstration from that."

PRT advocates have been trying it for decades.

And it doesn't seem to work.

And when something consistently doesn't work, the thing to do is figure out something else to try.

It can help sometimes to make some guesses as to why what we're doing doesn't work. In my case, I've borrowed my guesses from Nathan Koren's essay on PRT activism, recommended by Dan the Blogger and mentioned by me in my first comment on this SubThread from Heck. Here's the link again, in case someone's coming in late. He explains the problems in much greater detail than I ever could in a set of post-comments.

As to possible solutions? I don't know, really. All I can do is guess. My guesses so far have been built around the two biggest advantages I see in PRT:

1) Transparency
Cars took it all away from other forms of transport largely because they were orders of magnitude more convenient. No waiting with a crowd of strangers for a train (or bus, or...) they said would be here in "x" minutes. No hoping that guy in the next seat wasn't really drunk and about to spew. Etc.

Modern traffic jams have taken a lot of that inconvenience away. But not enough of it, as the rail, LRT, gondola, and what-have-you advocates have learned over and over. But some. The environmental concerns are bothering other people, such as city planners and government types, but to little avail. The ordinary citizens won't give up that convenience except at gunpoint.

But the podcar, in certain environments, can be even more transparent than the car. As I said in a previous post: Get in, sit down, wait 'til it stops, get up, step out. And work on your novel while you're waiting. Star Trek's magic elevator.

2) Scalability--in BOTH directions
The unique thing (in my mind) about PRT as a form of public transit is that, in a properly laid out system, it keeps the transparency described above on just about any scale. The only reason you'd have to get out of your podcar would be to use some other form of transit that was faster for the long haul in the middle. With the right podcar, you might not even need that.

In theory, you could use the exact same procedure to comfortably go a hundred miles that you'd use to go one block. The convenience of an automobile, without the auto's demands on your attention (lest you run into your neighbor), among other things.


qt said...

Transparency and scalability. Two of the biggest advantages PRT has. And yet most of the proposals I've seen don't really demonstrate either, in their early stages. Even the Heathrow system doesn't really do anything a good tram system couldn't.* And the Masdar system strikes me as a cute gimmick, in a city that is itself basically a cute gimmick.

Morgantown has been around for decades, and hasn't sold anybody on the idea. I have a nasty suspicion that everyone except PRT advocates sees Morgantown as a nifty but overpriced LRT and doesn't really get what the fuss is about. What does it do that a few shuttle vans couldn't? they ask themselves...

A real PRT demonstrator, to my mind, would show how small-scale the convenience would reach. Stops at a quarter-mile spacing or less, where there was a good excuse for them. Saturation of the area the system covered. Along with just enough range to make it clear the system could be easily scaled up.

UP. LRT and heavy rail already have the citywide scale covered, however badly. Hit where they ain't.

Show that going to the corner store for a pizza is actually easier in a podcar than it would be to get the family dreadnought out of the garage, back it down the driveway, make sure you don't run over the little girl in the scooter as you make the first turn, cruise slowly through the parking lot looking for a space less than a quarter-mile from the front door, etc., etc., etc.

Sell the strengths.

To me, that means a small demonstrator, with no attempt to sell the big system first. Thirty to fifty years of bitter experience has shown that the big system doesn't sell. Not yet. So don't try.

Find someone who'll build your demonstrator because it would be handy for THEM. A college or corporate campus. A theme park. A group of smaller campuses, or shopping districts, or attractions or what-have-you, that could benefit from being linked into a single unit, sharing students or customers or tourists.

Then you can go the the bigger people and say "What would it be worth to you if we could make your LRT (or downtown business district, or whatever) as easy to get to as stepping into an elevator?"

(Part 2 of 2)

Like I said. I don't know that this would work either. But it might. And it might lead more or less directly to the kind of systems you're looking at. I hope so. I live in a city, too.
*It does it more quickly and more comfortably. It might be more convenient. It might show up enough of the advantages to get someone's attention--I hope so.

Andrew F said...

qt: You're missing in your caveat that ULTra is a lot cheaper to operate than a shuttle service. And this is important. If a PRT implementation can plausibly be self-funding, it removes a lot of the hesitation. I could also see a PRT firm building out a small network in a 20 year lease back arrangement in exchange for the fare revenue and cooperation in getting the system built. If the PRT maker can convince itself and its backers of the business case, they can assume the financial risk as a proof of concept.

I'm curious as to the details of BAA's ownership stake in ULTra. BAA has deep pockets and an interest in the success of the system not only in their application, but elsewhere.

qt said...

You'll notice I said "even the Heathrow system." I'm impressed with the mere existence of the system, and I hope it does a job of proving the concept. I'm all the more optimistic because one of the people behind that system is the fellow who pointed out the problems I've described earlier. Nathan Koren seems to know what he's up against.

My main concern is that the ULTra implementation at Heathrow might not be enough of a network to properly highlight the advantages that have to be highlighted. Mr. Koren seems to think it has a chance of doing so, and I hope he's right. We'll see.

In the meantime, it seems that everyone else (except possibly JPods) is still trying to get entire cities to (from their point of view) dump all their existing infrastructure and blow off their established relationships in the transportation industry, to bet a large part of their budgets that an untested system will work over a whole city the way it does in computer sims and on ten-meter test tracks. And that it will someday demonstrate capabilities that the present systems don't have.

I know that's not what you're saying. But that's apparently what they're hearing. If it weren't, somebody would have taken the chance already.

Mr. Koren and his associates are hoping that airport parking-lot integration is going to demonstrate the good stuff about PRT in a way that others will want to emulate. And he seems to have a more reasonable idea of what might work than most of us seem to. As I said, I do hope he's right.

And that maybe the rest of us should be looking at what they're doing and why.

qt said...

I do get talking. In this case, I forgot to mention a point Koren made in his essay that seems especially relevant to your comment: That in a situation like PRT's, offering lower operating expenses and self-sufficiency can actually be a point AGAINST your proposal!

I won't go into the argument here. Read it yourself. But it's painfully valid, in both economic and political terms.

You have to be careful what you're selling...

Andrew F said...

I agree with you to the extent that transit authorities and existing transit manufacturers cannot be counted on to get the ball rolling. It needs to be an outside actor, at least until the ball is rolling, when the incumbents will start snapping up the most promising PRT firms or developing their own systems.

So, I could see this working where a PRT firm can go to a city, or an organization with some desire for better transportation but no vested interest in the industry, and offer to finance a system. I know PRT firms are not generally interested in operating their systems, but it might be necessary to get the ball rolling.

Andrew F said...

Also, what I gathered from that paper is that the best transit mode to try to compete with is the bus. Buses don't have as much of a constituency as rail since they are relatively light on infrastructure. So, you're left with bus-makers and bus-operators. Most bus-makers are specialists and do not also make other transit equipment. More importantly, many transit manufacturers have little stake in the bus paradigm, except where they rely on buses to feed into the networks that they provide, whether that's heavy rail transit (ie. subway) or LRT.

To the extent that PRT feeders improve the use and utility of these rail networks, they could make these rail systems more attractive and speed their deployment, and it will increase the upfront capital cost of such a line while taking business away from their bus-making competitors.

Ryan Baker said...

Looking at all those niche areas is great but doesn't need to be exclusive at all. I think you write off the city project a little too easily too.

First off, taking the last 50 years and counting them against PRT is quite an overstatement. The first 20 years the technology didn't really exist. Around the 70's there was a short window of opportunity, but it evaporated fairly quickly and was replaced by a climate very hostile to not just PRT but all forms of transit other than cars (and that included walking and biking!).

The climate is becoming more favorable for PRT (though less for the current crop of humans, plants and animals). There also isn't much chance of this evaporating any time soon, the basic underlying problems aren't going away.

Even if a project isn't won, a look at how PRT would fit into an environment like that is very valuable so I'm not going to stop thinking and plotting along those lines.

I know from my experience with change efforts in the software world it helps to have a long term and a short term plan, and usually it's the long term plan you start on first and finish last.

So the ideal for me is to find a number of places where a full system would make a lot of sense then start looking inside those areas for really great short term opportunities.

In Chicago here, we often remember Burnham, "Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably will not themselves be realized."

With a great plan it is possible to get things done you could not have done otherwise. Cities are not going to bet their whole system until they see something proven, but they will make it possible to take much larger risks than you might do entirely alone, and thus have the opportunity to reach a critical point at which the network effects are greater than any one shopping center or airport might accomplish.

The ULTra project isn't a bad example of this. You are all talking about the Heathrow system but there is a backstory and a larger plan outside of Heathrow alone.

Andrew F said...

This is another good point. I was trying to examine the area around Heathrow (thank you google maps/streetview!) and it seems like trying to extend the ULTra network there might be a bit of a tough slog, given that the area seems fairly low density despite the number of tube stations in the area.

And now that it seems Masdar as a PRT city is dead on the table, Heathrow is the only nascent system we have left.

Dan said...

Dan the Blogger Responds -
This thread has played out. It's gotten long enough that it's kind of hard to wade through, though the ideas are important enough to pursue further. I'd like to weigh in with some ideas of my own but I think I'll make a post of it, referencing back to your comments. That way the subject will get the attention it deserves and maybe we'll get some new blood into the mix.