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April 2, 2005 9:02 PM   Subscribe

Alternative Rapid Transit Looking for a funky way to get around town? Try Detroit's People Mover (warning, embedded earworm). For 50 cents you can travel 2.9 miles through 13 stops in 15 minutes, and see some fantastic art along the way. People movers and modified Personal Rapid Transit systems were built in various cities in the 1970s, such as Miami, Jacksonville, and at West Virginia University. The dream of true Personal Rapid Transit has not yet been achieved, and its viability and economic benefits are still up for debate, but the People Mover, at least, is still hanging on.
posted by livii (32 comments total)
Good post! I've been checking this site for a couple of years now. PRT is a thirty year old idea that still has a lot of allure: Imagine a bus with the service of a taxi! Unfortunately I've seen companies rise then fall trying to implement it (Raytheon even got as far as building a working test track before talks broke off with Chicago in 2000, and the company closed the division).

Too bad too, because a transit system as convenient as a car would go a long way towards reducing pollution in North American cities.
posted by Popular Ethics at 9:46 PM on April 2, 2005

BTW, If you're really interested, keep your eye on the ULTRA project in Cardiff, England (the "rise" link above). They have a working prototype, EU funding, and apparantly support from the Cardiff city council. If anyone were to finally succeed, my money's on them.
posted by Popular Ethics at 9:50 PM on April 2, 2005

This is just too cool. The Wikipedia article on PRT is also great for background information.

The biggest problem I see with PRT is the interaction with existing vehicle traffic. The system is only useful if it can utilize pre-existing bus stops. How do you construct a guideway so as to let people enter and exit at convenient access points, but at the same time protect passengers from crossing vehicle traffic? Anyone who's been on the Green Line west of the subway portals know how maddening it can be to ride three stops during rush hour when people are trying to make left turns.

The idea is fantastic; the infrastructure required to guarantee a modicum of safety is terrifying. There has to be a middle ground out there somewhere.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 9:56 PM on April 2, 2005

Where are my slidewalks? I can give up on the jetpacks (for now), but Manhattan needs some damn slidewalks.
posted by Eideteker at 10:19 PM on April 2, 2005

Ahhh...the People Mover. I always made a point of bringing out of town visitors downtown for a spin on it. Great tour for fifty cents. There's a strangely realistic sculpture at one station that takes a few loops before some folks realize it's not a real man reading a newspaper. There's also the view of a tall building with the neatly stenciled announcement: "Demolished by Neglect." Then there's the long-abandoned Statler-Hilton Hotel with new awnings over every window, something Coleman Young had done years ago when the GOP convention was in town (didn't want the place to look shabby, you know.) I remember about 15 years ago when a Detroit cop made headlines because she accidentally left her service revolver on the People Mover one Sunday afternoon. The People Mover is also a great convenience for downtown events - you can park at the cheaper, more distant garages, and for fifty cents be deposited right inside Cobo Hall.

Just some remembrances of the good, the bad and the weird of Detroit's People Mover.
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:11 PM on April 2, 2005

Some interesting ideas, but all that superstructure... seems a little retro-futuristic, doesn't it? I think an electric powered turbine-lifted pod type thing that charges wherever it lands is more likely. Unfortunately I think neat stuff like PRT and people movers will remain Tomorrowland kitsch. Cool post though. In Seattle we have our monorail... which believe it or not might actually go somewhere soon, so maybe there's hope for these things!
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 11:18 PM on April 2, 2005

More stuff: These articles explain the theory and implementation of PRT in great detai.l Their author, Dr. J. Edward Anderson, Professor Emeritus at the University of Minnesota, is a veteran, having championed the idea since 1970.

I still can't decide if PRT is the revolution public transit needs, or a holdover from modernist planning which, despite good intentions, destroyed so many american urban cores
posted by Popular Ethics at 11:19 PM on April 2, 2005

I miss the PeopleMover.

It never had a line, so you could go on it right away and rest your feet and enjoy the random sights. We used to hurl abuse at the people in the Star Tours line in the hopes they would leave and then the Star Tours line would be shorter and we'd get to go on it faster.
posted by Katemonkey at 11:37 PM on April 2, 2005

PRT, unfortunately, has been hobbled by the "true believer" types (including Professor Schneider) that think that it will solve everything. You should go to a presentation from one of these people. They dismiss any argument and have their head in the clouds. I suffered through an hour and a half harangue, walked out in the middle of the presentation and went to McDonalds to get an apple pie, and he was still talking. A lot of these people have no idea about constructability and engineering economics.

By the way, there is one people mover you missed, and that is Las Colinas, Texas.
posted by calwatch at 12:47 AM on April 3, 2005

No one's gonna believe me, but I was just on the damn thing. After a drink or two, mind you. Detroit, gods bless ya.
posted by joe lisboa at 12:55 AM on April 3, 2005

Lyle Lanley: Well, sir, there's nothing on earth
Like a genuine,
Bona fide,
What'd I say?
Ned Flanders: Monorail!
Lyle Lanley: What's it called?
Patty+Selma: Monorail!
Lyle Lanley: That's right! Monorail!

Ahh yes, the People Mover. Oriole Adams nailed the fun parts of it: every station is decorated by a different artist, and many of the destinations are hidden jewels of the downtown area- definitely worth your fifty cents at least once. Sadly, it's also the prototypical example of the failures of city planners in revitalizing Detroit's downtown: extremely expensive ($67 million per mile!), drastically curtailed from original plans, and in the end completely inadequate as any sort of real solution. Oriole mentions the convenience for events at Cobo Hall or the Joe Lewis Arena, which is telling about the people mover's only real success: as a high tech parking shuttle for commuters from the suburbs.

My favorite people mover story: when they blew up the old Hudson's building for no reason, they made such a mess of the demolition that chunks of it fell onto and slightly damaged the tracks. The whole people mover system was either shut down or operating in a severely curtailed manner for the next eight months.
posted by monocyte at 12:57 AM on April 3, 2005

Though it's pretty to look at, our Jacksonville "Skyway" is completely useless. It goes from one side of the river to the other. It would have to be exponentially larger to be useful in a city with our urban sprawl (land is relativelycheap here, making it more economical to build out instead of up). It doesn't even run within a mile of the downtown stadiums and coliseum.

JTA is looking at building a new high speed bus system throughout the city with it's own special (oftentimes elevated) lanes that can be converted to lite rail in the future. Though not as glamorous as Disney-esque "people movers," it is more economical and likely to be used by Jacksonvillians.

Though I also dream of a time when we can be relatively car free, that time is not now. We must adapt by not always go with the shiniest option. Alternatives like the bus system are a better step forward in reducing traffic and pollution for most cities.
posted by trinarian at 1:12 AM on April 3, 2005

Well, the point of the people mover was originally to distribute the passengers from a subway to their final destinations, much like the Miami "Metromover" does for the Miami elevated train. But they (they being the Southeast Michigan Transportation Authority) built the people mover first because it was easier, instead of the subway. So this is what you get.
posted by calwatch at 1:20 AM on April 3, 2005

The FlexiTrain from the first link seems more like an April Fool's day joke than a legitimate practical solution to congestion. The cost/benefit ratio of most of these ideas seems totally out of whack. But if anyone's planning a Logan's Run remake there are some good ideas to be had on the Innovative Technologies page.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 6:10 AM on April 3, 2005

The price one must pay for living in Detroit...nice but I prefer slower, worse in any other city
posted by Postroad at 6:37 AM on April 3, 2005

Yeah, I'm not so sure about PRT either, but I thought it would be interesting to present so that my post wasn't just the Detroit People Mover page. It's certainly an intellectually interesting idea, although by linking to Disney I am admitting it's a bit pie-in-the-sky (and that I love the WEDway!)

Sigh to the trouble of constructing a post like this though - I did see the Las Colinas one, but was trying to avoid redundant links, and I linked to the wiki on PRT but partway down the page, etc. Oh, and the first link is actually to the Innovative Technologies page, just the index page. But I admit this was really link-heavy.
posted by livii at 7:08 AM on April 3, 2005

The People Mover genesis story I heard is that it was originally envisioned to connect Detroit to the suburbs so people could actually use it to commute to work or shopping destinations, but it was blocked by hostile suburbs. Those were the Coleman Young days of course so I'm sure the hostility was mutual. But instead of just abandoning the idea for lack of support, Detroit went ahead and built it anyway, resulting in what the People Mover is today: A one-way ticket to nowhere that loses money on every fare.
posted by BinGregory at 7:08 AM on April 3, 2005

Oh, and thanks to all for the great additional info - Popular Ethics, I'm definitely going to keep my eye on ULTRA, and thanks to the Detroit and Jacksonville inhabitants for that "on the ground" information. Hard to tell what the systems are really like from webpages (though I really want to go to Detroit now to ride the system!)
posted by livii at 7:13 AM on April 3, 2005

monocyte: $63m / mile is actually not an unreasonable capital cost for rail transit, and much cheaper than a subway would have been. However I won't argue about Detroit's People Mover's lack of success.

Before everyone gets too bummed out about automated transit, check out Vancouver's SkyTrain. It carries as many people per hour as a subway, cost less than street-level rail, and was recently extended. Similar success stories can be found in Lille France, East London UK, and Kuala Lampur Malaysia.

The biggest hurdle facing these technologies is the size of the unit of purchase. Unlike roads and private transit, public transit isn't much use unless it serves hundreds of thousands of people, meaning purchase prices in the billions. As a result, the market is extremely small, and even the big players have trouble turning a profit
posted by Popular Ethics at 8:31 AM on April 3, 2005

There is also the Rapid Urban Flexible system (RUF) claiming to 'combine the best of cars with the best of trains'. And it still has to be realized somewhere.

Note: Bevare of clonky web-page design.
posted by AwkwardPause at 8:34 AM on April 3, 2005

Dig that funky music. So do they pipe that tune into the cars as it zips above town...?
posted by twsf at 9:16 AM on April 3, 2005

The Portland Streetcar seems to have a lot of the same qualities as these people movers, except, you know, it’s on the street and has a driver.
posted by Staggering Jack at 10:29 AM on April 3, 2005

Great post! I've got some friends that run Austin Citizens for Personal Rapid Transit. They're very serious about making this happen, and I'm rooting for them. It sounds like a really cool alternative to traditional rapid transit. The site has some great resources and images, if anyone's interested.
posted by blendor at 10:30 AM on April 3, 2005

The PRT idea has been around--formally--since 1968 at least. There are still those trying to figure out a way to make collector-transportation work for SoCal.

imo, one of the best reads on how NOT to make a PRT system is Bruno Latour's Aramis, or the Love of Technology. It is a sociological study undertaken a couple of years after Paris (and France) gave up on the Aramis project.

the VAL concept, which was one of the original inspirations for Aramis, was successfully used in Lille, and is similar to the U-WV system.

I remember the Detroit genesis differently. Coleman Young, iirc, wanted no part of anything that would share his UDAG money with Oakland County. Most everyone wanted (still do!) a collector line that would run out Woodward to Pontiac. The rumors at the time were that GM (et al) wanted to suppress viable public transportation, much like they crippled the trolleys in L.A. back in the 20s(?)-30s(?).
posted by beelzbubba at 10:55 AM on April 3, 2005

Great post. This is the way it should be, in my less than humble opinion...
posted by apocalypse miaow at 12:08 PM on April 3, 2005

Since moving from Morgantown, WV. One of the things I miss very much is the PRT.

I could get pretty much anywhere I wanted on it, and it was *always* on time. It was extremely cost-effective. And hell, it was just plain-ole fun.

I love the PRt!
posted by punkrockrat at 5:41 PM on April 3, 2005

I remember reading an article on MeFi about PRT in France, and a great abandoned project... Hmm... Wish I could find it.

I do remember Pope JPII's visit to Detroit in the, what, '80s? '90s? He rode on it, to a spate of "Papalmover" jokes. Which still bring down the house in Hamtramck.
posted by klangklangston at 5:56 PM on April 3, 2005

On Hong Kong Island, in the mid-levels, there is a really long escalator. With the peak being what it is, it sure beats walking up the hill.
posted by taschenrechner at 7:45 PM on April 3, 2005

I loved riding on that escalator in when I visited Hong Kong a few years ago. It felt crazy.

I was just in Detroit last night to see Jon Stewart at the Opera House. The god-forsaken roads in that area make one want to seize any opportunity to take the People Mover. Anything to avoid driving on the suspension-wrecking rubble that passes for pavement.
posted by apis mellifera at 10:27 PM on April 3, 2005

Popular Ethics: I'm not sure about the other projects, but you really don't want to cite PUTRA as a success story, although for operational reasons. The thing is not neatly integrated with the rest of the system, so if you're changing lines, you'll have to get a seperate ticket, for example. We found it easier to take KL's numerous dirt-cheap cabs while we were there.

Singapore's mass rapid transit system, on the other hand, is a much better example.
posted by the cydonian at 3:18 AM on April 4, 2005

KL mass transit is terrific compared to Detroit (I know, that's not saying much), though I haven't been to Singapore. Here's the full transit map for KL as of this year. Maybe you were there before the new Sentral Station?
posted by BinGregory at 4:29 AM on April 4, 2005

Cool stuff, thanks!
posted by carter at 10:46 AM on April 4, 2005

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