Monday, February 20, 2012

137> Playing Monopoly

PRT is a confusing soup of construction, computing, vehicle manufacture, public works, system maintenance, and a bunch of other stuff. It is a complicated business model and it is difficult to estimate costs. What is worse, there is a tendency for would-be providers to estimate costs on a per mile/kilometer basis, which further confuses things. After all, vehicles, track, stations and control each have their own costs, lifecycles, and logic. Building vehicles, for example, has very little in common with building track or stations. The “per/mile” estimate is especially problematic in view of the landscape we face in the US. Here, our cities have grown into a suburban sprawl that has little consistency in terms of the placement of destination-rich areas.

To help the reader understand how this came to be, let me recount what was told to me, back in the seventies, about a little “up-and-coming” real estate developer, Trammel Crow. His formula for success, I was told, was really quite simple. First, find a growing city. Take the main road out of town until the land is sold by the acre, instead of by lot, and by some frontage. Build a tilt-slab office/warehouse on it, put it up for rent, and wait. It reminds me of playing Monopoly. Instead of using all of your money to buy Boardwalk, you can buy the cheaper Baltic Avenue, and “develop” it with houses instead.  In either case, though, you buy and hold, while investing as much as you can afford to make it into an income producer in the meantime. This is instructive in understanding how cities develop such dysfunctional layouts. Land developers are, underneath it all, land holders, and often simply have something minimal on that land to pay the taxes and generate a little income while they wait for it to appreciate. This also helps to explain the vast parking lots that take up so much of our cities. Only at Christmas are they anywhere near filled. The land owners simply don’t have the money to build and maintain anything more ambitious. Even if they have the cash they are more likely to buy additional land and do the same thing elsewhere with those funds instead.  Anyway, this has helped contribute to retail outlets that are big and far from the road, and getting from one such store to another is often not a walkable distance. This effect is also coupled with the effect of freeways, since freeway frontage offers an ideal place to exercise that Trammel Crow model, except the lease is to “big box” retailers, who have discovered that economies of scale are more easily exercised away from the expensive downtown areas.

When it comes to walkable, integrated urban/suburban environments, it is usually the old parts of town that shine. Little towns that get absorbed by cities usually retain their main streets and hopefully a bit of their charm. But these, too, are “destination islands” in a sea of sprawl.

For a PRT system to be a viable way to get around, it has to go to these important destinations. If they are in clusters separated by substantial distances then this strongly suggests a PRT design that allows more than a single speed. It suggests a design that is similar to how freeways work, where there is a slower feeder that runs parallel to the faster main highway. This is because the deceleration and turning are disruptive to the faster, distance-oriented thru-traffic. In the case of PRT serving disparate, clustered destinations, it is possible that the best design might be for the local, feeder system to be quite slow. This would allow an absolute minimum of the double track required for off-line stations and allow for extremely tight turns. Faster track would connect these destination clusters.

This ties in with the discussion of land development and PRT cost estimation in the following way: First, it is important to get some kind of handle on the costs of running track alone. The downtown PRT models tend to assume blanket coverage for a pedestrian rich area. In the case of destination-rich freeway frontage, the proportion of stations and vehicles per track distance would seem similar, being based on walkable distances, although it would be linear, rather than based on loops covering city blocks. The “old town” destinations, referenced above, are classic downtown loops, just scaled back to one or two. But connecting all of these (and the actual central business district) is fast track. So when figures like ten to twenty million dollars per mile get tossed around, it is highly misleading. I would guess this stationless track, on public easements, would be more like 2-3 million per mile. This fast track could easily pay for itself, it would seem, by virtue of the fact that it would cut through so much traffic.

Those “big-box” destinations tend to have that extra parking lot space, and this would seem to be a great place to put PRT stations. But the land is rarely owned by the retailer, and therefore it makes little difference if that retailer wants to provide PRT access or not. The land owner has his own agenda, and understanding his wants and needs is what counts.

The first thing to consider is that he won’t want to give up sovereignty over a single square inch. That means anything permanent is problematic. At present, the advantage of hosting a PRT station is only theoretical and it cannot be expected that this is all a landholder would want at this time. This is especially true if there are excessive requirements for utilities, permits, digging and the like. On the other hand, the land in question is often of very little immediate value to the landowner, since building anything large on it would block their main tenants’ visibility from the street. So it comes down to that ultimate grease to getting things done – profit. How can the land owner directly make money by having a station? It is pretty obvious that in an ideal world, the pedestrian traffic generated by the station would be coveted by the tenants to the point that they would pay greater amounts to lease their stores. The landowner would therefore willingly give up the rights to enough space for a station. Let’s keep our optimism in check, at least for now, and say we have to sweeten the deal.

In theory he could get a small piece of every transaction, and there is also the potential for parking revenue. The amount charged couldn’t be much, because otherwise people would park for free in the guise of being store customers, a potential problem with almost any good transit system that is close to retail outlets. But if the parking is right next to the station, and the station is easily removable, and there is nothing for the landowner to do but collect money, I think there is potential. Electronic payment means can integrate parking fees and PRT fares into a single transaction.

What is good, though, is that this helps solve a major problem of transitioning from a car-based to a pedestrian based cityscape. Absent a real “last mile solution,” PRT could still make a huge contribution to traffic reduction. If the system doesn’t get to your door, it should at least get to your grocery store.

This all begs a bunch of questions that need to be addressed in a future post. Specifically, we need to examine further the issue of decoupling the stations from the track, from the vehicles, from the control. Each has its own rate initial costs, rates of depreciation, etc. Varying the ratios between them greatly influence the profitability of any venture. Can a bunch small stations be used in place of a bigger one? If we are going to bridge a bunch of destination clusters, how far apart is too far? Can the business models for each be separated and therefore simplified to be made more attractive to investors? We’ll get back to this. Stay tuned!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

136> Hot Rod

My Pappi said, "Son, you're gonna drive me to drinkin if ya don't stop driving that HOT ROD LINCOLN!"

As long as people build and ride vehicles, there will be those of us that want to soup them up - to push the limits of acceleration, climbing power, or, more often, just plain speed. Personally, I am a student of structural geometry. From crystal lattices to geodesic domes, I have always been intrigued by the myriad ways shapes can placed and connected to swivel, slide, rotate, hold, reinforce, depress, hinge, stretch, bend….you get the idea. I just can’t look at a mechanism without dissecting every component piece to understand exactly why each surface and dimension is as it is. So when confronted with PRT, I really just can’t help myself – especially when that geometry limits practical functionality – even to the point that the whole concept struggles to find acceptance.

It is a fact that whatever form a new technology first takes becomes the de facto standard. Currently that PRT standard is the robocar model, and so cities considering PRT are looking at those requirements and limitations and making decisions accordingly. Road racing pushes the limits of automotive design and the military pushes the limits of aviation. If I don’t push the limits of PRT design, who will? And how will anyone ever know what PRT could really do for society without someone figuring out what the technology is really capable of?

In my quest to push back PRT’s limitations, I have made the following observation. PRT has been generally designed with the assumption that the track or guideway is continuous and equal throughout, except where it forks. 

It is easiest to conceive these systems from a head-on view of the track’s running surfaces and corresponding wheels, as shown in this patent illustration. (Anderson 1985)  The parts get arranged to enable the greatest capability possible. Job done. But wait! Those capabilities can be exceeded, and this is how.

The track’s running surfaces can have variations of all sorts for different purposes. Furthermore, the vehicle or bogie need not use the same wheels or guides for every purpose either. When you combine those two concepts, a lot of limitations fall away and new possibilities arise. You can turn that stuffy old PRT design into a real hot rod!

Let’s start with some main drive wheels and some guide wheels to keep them on track. This bogie is for a suspended system, so it is upside down from the bottom supporting design shown in the Anderson patent. This triangular geometry is designed allow for a  minimum number of the larger, longer wearing wheels that are much preferable for high speeds. (The guide wheels in the Anderson design are limited in size to one half of the track width.) There is an unfortunate side effect however. Those angled guide wheel running surfaces are cumbersome to work with in curves, especially the serpentine routing that would enable system designers maximum flexibility in tight spaces. This is where it pays to remember that the track can transition. Here is a simple transition from double angle iron to pipe. There are many other ways to accomplish the same thing.  

If the whole system used pipe, like on roller coasters, the wheels would wear in the center first, and more quickly need to be readjusted or replaced. By using the first configuration for straight runs and only using the pipe for curves, the wheel life can be maximized. After all, we hot rod guys know a thing or two about going through tires! I know that some of you are thinking that some miracle plastics out there can last a very long time anyway, and so this is all a wasteful complication. The problem is that noise and vibration are (roughly) inversely proportional to wheel hardness. Softer, quieter materials will always wear more and rob a bit of mechanical efficiency but that’s just a compromise that we have to live with. I suggest making the architecture capable of whisper-quiet operation first and then going with the hardest wheels that we can get away with.  

Below is the concept adapted to ride on half of the track, which avoids the notorious “frog problem.” (unsupportable track area that results from “Y” interchanges) The additional bottom wheels (shown simply floating in space) in this position must be smaller and so would be the first to wear out but for the fact that they are not needed continuously. Then there are the upper wheels, which are designed for continuous contact, but are under minimal load, and so can be relatively skinny in profile. There is a pair of retractable upper guide wheels that, like the middle bottom ones, are only used for switching. A couple of notes: The top section shows a bogie that is not in an interchange. The bottom two show the running surfaces having split further apart, as would happen in a “Y.”  The sprockets shown are for climbing, cog railroad style, not for driving the wheels, which drive themselves. The wheels are all independent, including the middle flanged wheels. As always, click image to enlarge.   

The point to all of this is that there is a much higher inherent speed limit to such a design. Using wheel/hub motors there is room for over 300 hp worth of pure hot rod power, and these direct drive axial flux motors are what is used to win those solar car races, being over 97% efficient. Not only that, but since electric motors only draw as much power as their task requires, there is no compelling reason to keep them small and underpowered like their gasoline driven counterparts. 

This picture shows an entirely different problem. Here the bogie is making a very tight turn, far too tight to take with ordinary rigid bogie designs. Here the turn is being accomplished “skid steer” style with the middle guide wheel keeping everything centered. This is would be extremely wearing, but for the slow velocity involved. 

This picture illustrates the problems with tight radius vertical turns. The height of the bogie, relative to the internal structure of the track, changes completely, being too loose in one case and too tight in the other.  Luckily this is not quite as difficult to work with as one might think. During assembly, a collapsible fixture is dimensioned to match the desired internal spacing. The precut and bent steel is clamped to this for welding. Oddly shaped and unwieldy pieces are routinely clamped for welding anyway. Like I said, there’s no reason why the track has to be uniformly dimensioned.

This little design exercise is obviously about more than speed. It is about having mobility capabilities that are closer to a personal helicopter than anything else. It is my belief that such capabilities are not that complicated or expensive. I also believe that integrating PRT infrastructure into an existing (mainly privately owned) cityscape is enough of a challenge to warrant exploring these solutions sooner, rather than later. So, if anyone calls, tell them I’m in the garage – workin’ on the hot rod!