Tuesday, March 10, 2015

166> Cruisin' for Burgers and Batteries

As I wrote in my last post, to pay its own way and generate additional profits to reward stakeholders, a system must achieve a certain threshold of passengers, and these are, by definition, pedestrians – a relative rarity in many (especially younger) US cities. I illustrated the problems of gaining passengers with many low volume stations with a heat map. What I left out, however, were the special cases where there are natural congregations of people for some reason. There is an obvious disadvantage in only catering to such hot spots, even if almost all cities have them. To do so is like planting daffodils too far apart. They may fill in someday, but it could take decades. Still, it is worth listing some of these “special cases” as many are actually quite common.

>A bridge – The cost of building a PRT bridge or putting track on an existing bridge is almost trivial compared to adding a lane for ordinary traffic and getting through such a bottleneck quickly can potentially create high volumes of passengers.

>A large topographical obstruction – a related issue is when a city is located on a lake, ocean or river or even against a mountain, where straight-line travel is obstructed. A good example would be a city on a bay, where the only routes are C-shaped and through highly developed areas.

>An existing, pedestrian-based transportation infrastructure. There is obvious advantage to sharing stations with other networks where possible. This includes bus stations, airports, subway stations, etc.
>Park & Ride locations - Get passengers where they are leaving their cars anyway!

>Tourist destinations and parks – It should be noted that many times parks front rivers and streams, which may even provide a ready-made route for PRT. Parks may be advantageous from the city’s point of view as well, involving less red tape and/or alternative funding possibilities.  

>Privately owned commercial real estate – this could include office buildings, strip centers, big box stores and so forth.
If I have left out any categories, post ‘em in the comments section! For the moment, though, I would like to concentrate on this last one, because it is both universal and well-distributed, and so should influence a PRT system’s design. I will skip going through multistory buildings for the moment because there is already a lot to cover.

In the US, it is common to have “big box” stores and strip centers running along freeways, accessible by the freeway’s one-way feeder roads. This tends to create elongated commercial zones … little “Main Streets.” What used to occur in the town center now often happens here. Moreover, highways reserve overpasses for only the major cross streets. This makes these overpasses the only portals between adjacent neighborhoods and stimulates commercial activity on these crossing routes as well. The corners between highways and these cross streets tend to have a lot of traffic and are eventually prime sights for multi-story buildings.

I regard these sites as extremely important to PRT design since they often have terrible traffic, both on and off of the highway, and it is a particularly difficult situation to remedy by conventional means such as road expansion or widening the roads a block over. These sites have added significance to the commuter, as they tend to occur “on the way,” and so would seem to be one way to extend PRT out from downtown areas to allow suburbanites a way to access a downtown PRT system without driving all of the way there first. They are naturally distributed in key areas. If PRT is to have a real impact it must be able to spread, to join the various hubs and trafficked areas, and so such areas are essential footholds.

One requirement that PRT should have, to service such areas, is the ability to cross the highway. Here suspended designs have a huge advantage over supported ones as they can, in many cases, simply run under the overpasses, using their ability to quickly change elevations and tilt into turns to comfortably navigate what is likely a very serpentine route. These advantages come into play even if the only route is over the highway, as this would be extremely high (supported designs would need very long ramps) and would ideally use some sort of cable-stayed or suspension design, which is also very well suited for suspended systems.

The next requirement PRT must have to service such areas takes some consideration regarding ownership of these properties. (I am not including using public easements in this discussion, for brevity.) First of all, the retail establishments probably do not own the land. Such land parcels are often owned by developers and whoever has their store there at the time is simply babysitting it… paying the bills and generating some return while the land appreciates. Therefore putting PRT stations on such land is contingent on what serves those developers’ needs. For this reason, it is worth exploring what strategies could be employed to entice these land developers to allow stations on their property and under what terms. 
One thing that needs mentioning is that these “developers” are probably not individuals but rather partnerships or corporations, often set up expressly for a particular property. As such, they may have certain bylaws, have silent and managing partners, and so forth, so any kind of agreement regarding adding a PRT “station” should be as simple as possible, as they have their own internal politics. This would involve some kind of monetary benefit for them and provisions for eliminating risk and complications. On the cash side, the solution seems easy enough. One way that a city can incentivize corporations is with a tax break, something that is increasingly done to attract new businesses. This way cities can knock down the cost of the project, at least on paper. Never underestimate a city’s willingness to “rob Peter to pay Paul!” For the landowners, they see their tax bill reduced, their tenants see higher foot traffic, so leasing values go up. Win win.

The next criteria is to make it risk and hassle free. This is where the physical PRT design comes in, particularly in regards to the matter of permanence. No landowner wants to permanently relinquish sovernty over any section of his property, nor does he want to be tasked its upkeep, utility costs, security and so forth. He also won’t want to be responsible for its removal and repair of the site if he decides to repurpose or sell the property. This means that ideally the “station” would be powered from the track and require minimal anchoring or other foundation work. For example, holes could be augered into the parking lot for subterranean concrete anchors, where removing bolt-on components leaves only small holes to fill and patch. The idea is to make the entire spur and station easy to install or remove.

Also note that many of these properties have super-sized parking lots, the owners being understandably reluctant to subdivide the land. This raises the possibility of creating a mini “park and ride” lot. It also raises the matter of ensuring convenient parking for store patrons is not sacrificed for commuter parking. This will take some creative problem solving! Luckily the system will probably know who the passengers are.

Another related instance of private ownership is the strip center. These tend to be smaller lots, and usually have somewhat less parking. They may also have vacancies, raising the possibility of using indoor space for a station. Again, this would take a PRT design capable of tight, serpentine track configurations.

Then there is great American mall…Many of these are dying and have parking galore, indoor space and so forth. These folks should jump at the chance to have PRT, and have “Park & Ride” written all over them.

The original creators of PRT envisioned a citywide transit solution, not a system designed for just a few niche markets. They also lived in a time when people believed in big government funded projects, and cities where not so spread out. These days, if PRT is to demonstrate its worth, we will have to find a formula where it can spread, station by station, by the benefits each new station brings to everyone involved, from cities to investors to passengers, to merchants along the way. One overlooked source of revenue is the immersive experience of the trip itself. After all, the pod knows who you are and where you are going, and potentially much more… It can talk to you, play games with you, even tell you about the attractions along your route.

Imagine, for instance, the pod itself offering special sales, issuing coupons, etc. for upcoming stops. “Battery sale? Next stop?” “Half-priced fries for the next 30 minutes at McDonalds? – Honey, better hit that button for station 22!” For the merchants, it’s like home delivery in reverse. It is a big machine to automatically attract and deliver customers to the front door, and at an exact time of their choosing! That item you looked up on Amazon last night might just “happen” to be on sale just a few stations down. A personalized, temporally-tuned billboard… You could hunt for (or potentially even negotiate) custom tailored deals along your way!

One thing that has, so far, characterized SMART PRT designs is that they are not cheap. The track, yes. The stations, yes – but the vehicles have capabilities that far exceed other designs. I have always considered that the vehicles themselves are best left to a deeper pocketed partner – that they should be, in the words of Steve Jobs, “Insanely great.” This business model – the intelligent delivery of customers directly to merchants – is not well supported by slower systems that need big loops, large stations, long ramps, etc. If you are going to stop at the store on the way home, it needs to be a fast, red carpet experience…which, by the way, is the same experience we need for PRT to become the long-lasting paradigm that it deserves to be.  To do this right, we really need an Apple, a Google, an Amazon -  and the right business model to get their attention. Maybe this is it. You listening, guys?.. Tim? Elon? Sir Richard?...  Call me!!