The future of mass transit
August 19, 2007 11:20 AM   Subscribe

Is it a taxi? Is it a train? Actually it is a bit of both. Technically speaking it is a personal rapid transport system, a new hybrid form of transport that some have already taken to calling the podcar. Similar systems have been proposed before and failed to make it into development, despite some less-personal versions built in the 1970s in the US. But with the current desire for low-carbon transit as keen as ever, has the time finally arrived for this kind of low-emission people mover?
posted by MrMerlot (47 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Looks cool. I'm assuming these things are not going to be powered by coal-fired electricity plants?
posted by crowman at 11:27 AM on August 19, 2007


What's it called? MONORAIL!
posted by redbeard at 11:27 AM on August 19, 2007 [2 favorites]


Just another stopgap until the teleport system is fully implemented.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:29 AM on August 19, 2007


no, its not MONORAIL, although it does run on a guideway. Look again and you will see that the pods carry four people. It's like a taxi, but it runs on rail.
posted by MrMerlot at 11:32 AM on August 19, 2007


Naw, redbeard just wanted to use that because like most of us aged 18-35, there is a Simpsons reference for most any situation. Sometimes the criteria for an exact comparison don't always link up on more than a few points on the Associative Match Grid, but that doesn't stop most people from posting a YouTube clip to illustrate their point all the same.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:36 AM on August 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


This is a very cool idea.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 11:43 AM on August 19, 2007


But with the current desire for low-carbon transit as keen as ever

LOLWISHFULTHINKING
posted by telstar at 11:46 AM on August 19, 2007


You may say i do wishful thinking, but I'm not the only one. According to its inventor, Skycab compares very well with both cars and buses.
posted by MrMerlot at 11:58 AM on August 19, 2007


Well, of course the guy with a stake in the outcome will say it compares favorably.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:00 PM on August 19, 2007


Are we talking about America? Because Americans hate vehicles they can't buy and shine and rev up and zoom off in, regardless of (and, in fact, partially because of) the cloud of smoke in which they leave other people.

Automated vehicles (hands off, sensible speed, no passing, no owning, no fuzzy dice, no spinning rims, no showing off) may make a million times more sense, but the worst half of the drivers would have to be forced to switch by closing (or charging lots for) parallel car routes before they'd even think of leaving their cars at home.

Also, the taxi drivers' unions (and whatever mob forces own the cabs) would not like this. They'd probably insist that cities require a "driver" in each vehicle to operate the Go/Stop button.

But I hope some whacky city tries it. Podcars, Segway and bicycle routes, moving sidewalks, slides, swinging Tarzan ropes, buses, trams, and trains, all competing to get people out of their cars. And if you got people used to semi-private podcars, many might eventually get over their fear of using more public public transport such as buses and trains.
posted by pracowity at 12:09 PM on August 19, 2007 [2 favorites]


*sigh* I posted the above link, not only as a snarky and humorous reference (and who doesn't love a little Monorail song) but to also point out, albeit obliquely, that this sort of thing has come around before, and, unless there is a massive effort to support the implementation, it becomes little more than a technological trinket. I agree, this looks like a great successor to a booming subway and light-rail system, or, an alternative to implementing one of those in the first place. So did the monorail. The fact is, with the possible exceptions of D.C., New York, Boston (to some extent) and Chicago (also, debatable talking to folk I know who live there out of the direct way of the L), in America, no one is scrambling to support good public transit. Every system has its bus line, with varying degrees of success. And light rails are starting to proliferate, but usually only on the absoltely most well traveled commuting route. But, seriously, let's even look at some of the most progressive areas - in SF, BART only goes to a sliver of the city, and the Muni is fairly undependable. The LA subway is all but forgotten, in the North Bay Area rapid public transit is consistently blocked by the NIMBY county of Marin that doesn't want to bring in the riff-raff, and all across America without an actual incentive that is tangible immediately and on a daily basis, folk are only going to give up their cars and support a massive infrastructure project like this if you pry those dollars and vehicles out of their cold dead hands. It's way way better in Europe and other places, but right here, in the center of pollution-land, good luck as being able to sell people on this being anything but a total boondoggle. They'd be more willing to accept subway and light-rail first, and to date that's not happening.

I wish this could happen in every town large enough to need cars to get from one side to another. But without a serious effort to make Americans not want to drive anymore, it ain't comin' the the U.S. of A.
posted by redbeard at 12:11 PM on August 19, 2007 [2 favorites]


csmonitor article on PRT.
posted by BrotherCaine at 12:14 PM on August 19, 2007


Is it a taxi? Is it a train? Actually it is a bit of both.

It looks like 98% rail, 2% taxi; it doesn't matter how many environmental objectives it meets if it doesn't meet the transport objective of getting you from A to B (where A and B are places you want to go, rather than places planners hope you want to go).
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 12:19 PM on August 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


hehe ... not sure what this means exactly ...

SkyCab - Theme
Listen to how it may sound in SkyCab.
Click here to listen »
posted by itchylick at 12:20 PM on August 19, 2007


The only problem with this is, of course, that you can only use it up until you're 30 years old.
posted by thanotopsis at 12:21 PM on August 19, 2007


it doesn't matter how many environmental objectives it meets if it doesn't meet the transport objective of getting you from A to B (where A and B are places you want to go, rather than places planners hope you want to go).

And thus the problem with mass transit in America. We've already invested billions (maybe trillions?) in connecting virtually every square foot of American real-estate with every other square foot via asphalt. I can literally go anywhere in the country in my gasoline-powered eco-deathmobile.

Podcar? I'll be able to go from Station A (say, 13 miles from my house) to downtown (say, 30 miles from my house). Great. But how am I going to get to station A? Walk? Ride a bus which will stop at every single stop and take at least 45 minutes to get there? Maybe I don't want to go downtown? Maybe I want to visit my friend's house in another outlying suburbia? What then?

I think podcar is cool, and a cool idea. But unless we make a huge (meaning, biggest in human history) public works project to replace asphalt with electrified rails, its not going to happen. Not in America, anyway.
posted by Avenger at 12:45 PM on August 19, 2007


Right up there with my hover-car, personal jet pack, and backyard helicopter.....
posted by HuronBob at 12:47 PM on August 19, 2007


HuronBob: Well, if you read my orignal post, the podcar is being designed only for specific communities. Like i say, airports and university campuses, small towns etc ... its not a replacement for the car, but it could replace short taxi journeys and help join up larger transport systems.

Train stations are place where planners put them too. They seem to work very well, especially in east Asia and Europe. Podcars are meant to enhance those networks.
posted by MrMerlot at 12:56 PM on August 19, 2007


Podcar? I'll be able to go from Station A (say, 13 miles from my house) to downtown (say, 30 miles from my house). Great. But how am I going to get to station A? Walk? Ride a bus which will stop at every single stop and take at least 45 minutes to get there? Maybe I don't want to go downtown? Maybe I want to visit my friend's house in another outlying suburbia? What then?

OH NOES MY SPRAWLY SUBURBAN LIFESTYLE IS UNTENABLE.

That's about all there is to it.

I read Ben Franklin's Autobiography once. Dude had to go from New York to Philadelphia and it was an epic journey. There's no sense he had any idea what day he was going to get there. Middle of the 19th century people were dropping dead trying to get across the country. 100 years of cars and we're all spoiled.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 1:17 PM on August 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


Seems a lot like the Westinghouse skybus system that was partially built in Pittsburgh in the sixties but never finished and never actually run.
Created by the Westinghouse Electric Company in cooperation with the State for the Allegheny County Port Authority, the 'Transit Expressway,' as it is formally named, is a fully automated aluminum-car railway system that can be instantaneously adapted to the passenger volume."

Here's a video
of a demonstration of it running at the county fair in 1967.
posted by octothorpe at 1:31 PM on August 19, 2007


Dunno why reinvent the wheel every time?

Most european cities have excellent public transport systems - and for short trips people should use bicycles more often. The japanese Shinkansen beats any 10 lane highway in speed and comfort. The transrapid is even faster.

Most 'waste' in public transport and traffic jams are down to bad city planning. We have less mixed areas that offer people 'local work'. So workers often have to travell huge distances for their jobs. The same applies to people who live in 'better' suburbs: longer distances, more roads, more cars and more traffic jams.

I honestly believe that the age of the 'single person transport' will come to an end - hardly anyone can afford huge oil prices in the future.
posted by homodigitalis at 1:32 PM on August 19, 2007


You can only argue that this saves energy if the ecological costs of manufacturing these things on a large scale is more efficient than simply replacing current buses with more fuel efficient versions. I'm pretty sure it isn't. For one thing, in an ideal situation a large segment of the population would be using these pods, right? So, for a small city (probably a more likely target than a metropolis which is better served by genuine mass transit like subway/light rail/etc) of 300,000 we're talking optimistically at least 1,000 pods to make any noticeable difference. That's still far too few, and it means they will be overused during rush hour and underutilized the rest of the day. Now, is creating a thousand of these pods more ecologically sound? Sure, each one of them uses less fuel than buses do, but how much energy is required to make each one? How much plastic? Do they require the use of toxic metals or chemicals in the parts? If they have on-board computers, probably. And don't forget the creation of a track through the city, and the ongoing upkeep that that will require. Compare that with taking an existing bus and retrofitting it with a more fuel efficient and cleaner power source like natural gas. Suddenly, the numbers don't balance quite so well, do they?

I am all for saving the environment, but the truth is if you took the same money and directed it towards things like more concentrated planning, carpooling, better bus distribution, and incentives for people to purchase more fuel efficient cars (and, by the way, purchase cars more infrequently -- each time you buy a new car you are using up gobs and gobs of natural resources) then you'd see immediate positive effects. It might take years, assuming that they were used effectively and efficiently, for these railpods to pay for themselves in terms of carbon offsets and footprint.

Also, I have a feeling that most of the pods would be placed in areas that were already relatively built up and occupied by relatively eco-friendly people (because what other kind of community would support such a system) and all that these areas need is a small amount of work to be better in terms of the environment. The real problem area is suburbia, which cannot and will not be effectively served by mass transit.
posted by Deathalicious at 1:32 PM on August 19, 2007


The fundamental issue with all this stuff (Already being touched upon) is that prescribed routes (so anything with rails is out) suck. You totally lose any concept of convenience.

Cleaner and more flexible buses would be better, but unless people change buses massive amounts, the usefulness of the convenience plummets and journey time multiplies.

So I reckon there are three alternative ways of doing it.

1: Centralise the places that large numbers of people want to go to (back to cellular industry areas) to make the transport structure match the likely travel movements.

2: DE-centralise it all, and make the places people work near enough to pleasant living conditions that people walk or just commute less overall in their increasingly fuel efficient cars.

3: (My personal favourite) Make all cars somehow link together (magnetically, possibly) on motorways and freeways and longer roads. They would then use the concept much the same as express lanes. You programme your exit/destination into a computer that then tags you onto a long line of cars, all linked and using minimum energy to push each other along (like a better version of slipstreaming). This would mean that the line disintegrates/separates out at sections where people that want to exit can disconnect, split from the train of cars and resume under their own power. The train would then resume it's connection and carry on. Being as the whole thing can be controlled by computer, it would be able to go a lot faster, too. Reducing traffic jams at the same time by having no stop/start concertina effect either.

I know it is a bit pie in the sky, but this autopilot idea is, in my opinion, much more likely to work than a less personalised version. Kind of like making cars like conveyor belts in factories, with points style systems to divert and join/separate traffic.
posted by Brockles at 1:34 PM on August 19, 2007


Neat idea.

However, I still prefer this one, as it accomplishes many of the same things while making much better use of existing infrastructure.
posted by bowline at 1:34 PM on August 19, 2007


Oh sure, it starts with PRT, but the next thing you know we're getting convicted without trial by a Republican administration psychics in vats!
posted by mek at 1:35 PM on August 19, 2007


OH NOES MY SPRAWLY SUBURBAN LIFESTYLE IS UNTENABLE.

Hmmm, sometimes it seems like people would rather plan for what ought to be than what is. In my opinion, this is a huge problem with many planners, who base a lot of their designs around their personal philosophy rather than on human needs.

People like living in suburbia: housing is cheaper, it's generally safer (although apparently less healthy), and you generally get more bang for your buck. You can pay $800 rent and get a house in the outskirts, or pay $1000 for a cramped apartment downtown in a poorer area with a less appealing school system.

Whatever solution we come up with, it has to be designed around how people really live, so solving the suburbia problem means recognizing that it's real and not just a case of a whole bunch of people living in the wrong place.
posted by Deathalicious at 1:47 PM on August 19, 2007 [2 favorites]


previously
posted by unmake at 2:04 PM on August 19, 2007



OH NOES MY SPRAWLY SUBURBAN LIFESTYLE IS UNTENABLE.

What is suburbia if not an expression of civil planning?
posted by MrMerlot at 2:15 PM on August 19, 2007


TheOnlyCoolTim: OH NOES MY SPRAWLY SUBURBAN LIFESTYLE IS UNTENABLE.

Note that I'm not saying "the suburban lifestyle" is the best, or even superior to the alternatives; merely that this is the way we've designed America to function, and changing that fact would either require the most massive, expensive public works project humanity has ever seen, or a Killing Fields-esque evacuation of the suburbs.

Also, to second Deathalicious: more people will move to central urban environments if urban planners and/or politicians can create low-cost, low-crime housing with good schools and public services.

Middle-class and working-class folks don't want to raise their children in a Heroin Heights Project or a 19th century Dickensian dystopia just so they can have easy access to public transportation.
posted by Avenger at 2:16 PM on August 19, 2007


people would rather plan for what ought be than what is ... People like living in suburbia

20 million people get subprime mortgages. Do you: A, realize this is a stupid idea and wait for the mortgage company stocks to peak so you can short sell them, or B, note that while stupid, this is what is going on, so you should buy up those mortgage stocks because damn they're doing well. And hey, maybe a house or two, too.

Suburbia happened. It depends directly on the ease of everyone having economical personal transportation devices, i.e., cars with gas.

20 years ago gas was a dime a gallon. Now it's $3. (incidentally, that's a 20x increase; the price of oil has only gone up about 4.66x)

When it's $10, suburbia doesn't make any sense.

And that is the reality.
posted by blacklite at 2:21 PM on August 19, 2007


I'm not sure what the Godwin-style metric is for making a direct comparison between containing suburban sprawl and the Cambodian genocide, but we apparently just reached it.

Hey, David "Patio Man" Brooks once argued at some length that the elaborate backyard grills of exurban America were portals to a higher plane of existence, so let's use that.

Like so: Avenger just Brooksed the thread.
posted by gompa at 2:25 PM on August 19, 2007


I just really doubt there's enough energy available once the gas starts getting expensive to move every 300 lb. American and ten times his weight in steel 100 miles every day. I'd say electric cars will come too little, too late, although their success is the biggest thing that could change what I see happening.

I think what constitutes a suburban lifestyle in the future will start to focus on the commuter rail. People will live close to the train station so they can walk, bike, or drive a short distance to it, & local services will spring up near these concentrations. Eventually you'll get office buildings too and people will start living & working in and around this small suburban city. You might even see a level of double suburbanization - certain people might live next to the train tracks and work in the Big City, while others might live 5 miles out and bike or drive to the Small City. I see this beginning taking the Metro-North up from NYC. Small cities like White Plains and Yonkers are booming. You wouldn't recognize downtown White Plains from five years ago, and all the development is within walking distance of the train station. In fact, both White Plains and Yonkers have recently sprung up huge apartment complexes located literally right next to the tracks.

This will keep the reasons people live in suburbia - the housing will still be cheaper, some of the same school systems, "safety." (For some cities vs. some suburbs, sure, but in other cases that just means "no colored people." In any case I think comparing the risks of death from a car accident in suburbia to the risks of getting shot in the city would show up the safety issue.) They'll still have cars, but maybe only one per family and not use it every day. I don't think the lifestyle where walking is a completely useless mode of transport and you drive 10 miles to the Wal-Mart, 20 more to the mall, and then home will last.

Over in Britain they've been dealing with gas at $5 and $6 gallons for a long time, so I just I looked it up, and somehow, they don't drive so far.

In any case, I'm not planning anything, just calling what I see happening. In 2003 I could have told you how the war was going to go too. I don't know what's going to happen to cities/suburbs that don't have commuter rail to bring people into the city or between the suburban areas.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 2:28 PM on August 19, 2007


20 years ago gas was a dime a gallon.

Huh? 20 years ago the price of gas was around $1.10 a gallon.
posted by octothorpe at 2:29 PM on August 19, 2007


What TheOnlyCoolTim describes is not only already happening, it is also the explict goal of the "Transit Oriented Development" (and/or its cousins New Urbanism and Smart Growth) that is fast becoming the rage in every enlightened city planning office in North America.
posted by gompa at 2:36 PM on August 19, 2007


"20 years ago gas was a dime a gallon.

Huh? 20 years ago the price of gas was around $1.10 a gallon."


Forget it, he's rolling.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 2:59 PM on August 19, 2007


We've got the artificial spy insects. We've got the iris scanners.

Now if we can just get the pod-cars straightened out, we can finally live in a futuristic authoritarian dreamland!
posted by Western Infidels at 4:04 PM on August 19, 2007


bowline, I've been looking for that post for about a year now, thanks!
posted by greatgefilte at 6:22 PM on August 19, 2007


Hmmm, sometimes it seems like people would rather plan for what ought to be than what is.

And sometimes by planning for what ought to be, you can make it reality. That's the whole point of planning.

If you build a new rail link in the U.S., it might not benefit as many people as you'd like to start. But combined with good city planning, people will soon move to the area and it will get the sort of density needed to sustain it. Otherwise, why would someone want to move to a dense area with crappy transportation links?
posted by grouse at 6:29 PM on August 19, 2007


Also, to second Deathalicious: more people will move to central urban environments if urban planners and/or politicians can create low-cost, low-crime housing with good schools and public services.


or, conversely, to really reflect the actual costs, including the externalities we're all presently panicking about, of suburban living (which also isn't going to happen).
posted by pompomtom at 9:11 PM on August 19, 2007


I've read about PRT five years ago, and was so intrigued I've been checking up on its progress since. Unfortunately I've seen at least four companies go belly up in that time (Raytheon, taxi2000, skytran, austrans), so I'm a little more jaded about how marketable PRT is.

One bright note: ATS in England are on the cusp of rolling out their ULTRA PRT at Heathrow airport, and have support to build a network in Cardiff.
posted by Popular Ethics at 9:29 PM on August 19, 2007


Wow... I always knew ruby was special, but this puts it on a whole different level.
posted by B(oYo)BIES at 3:03 AM on August 20, 2007


A similar project proposed in germany: The railcab, developed in the University of Paderborn.

Apparently these are funded by the European Union's "Citymobil" project.
posted by kolophon at 3:45 AM on August 20, 2007


have support to build a network in Cardiff

From the ATS website FAQ:

Isn’t this the same scheme that failed in Cardiff?

Cardiff County Council remains committed to the use of PRT for the city. For a variety of political reasons it became impossible to establish long-term funding.


It ain't ever gonna happen, and never was. The main reasons for failure were financial, not political. Cardiff and the WAG invested £4.5m in brand-new "Bendy Buses" last year. Four buses have been dedicated to the Cardiff Bay route, which was the focus of PRT in Cardiff. The savings are huge.

That ATS are clinging to the idea that PRT will come to Cardiff seems suggestive, and not in a good way.
posted by howfar at 3:58 AM on August 20, 2007


But it is coming to Heathrow, the lines bieng built and the podcars are in production
posted by MrMerlot at 4:00 AM on August 20, 2007


Which is great, I hope it works well. However, the transit demands of an airport are much better defined and more easily predictable than those of a city. The Terminal 5 pilot looks like it might well be a good idea, but to extrapolate from that to the "future of mass transit" seems perhaps a little hopeful.
posted by howfar at 4:22 AM on August 20, 2007


who's going to be the suburb's equivalent to Haing S. Ngor?

it would seem, if we're looking for a technological answer to reduce car use, mandatory carpooling would be greatly assisted by all these great social networking sites. When the MTA went on strike, carpool nodes sprang up overnight. Just mandate that driving between certain hours requires x people in the car or you get a whopping fine.
posted by dubold at 10:52 AM on August 20, 2007


and changing that fact would either require the most massive, expensive public works project humanity has ever seen, or a Killing Fields-esque evacuation of the suburbs

I would pay good money to see that. Soccer Moms are New People, get those fuckers out into the rice paddies and digging irrigation canals.

This comment provided for infotainment purposes only, the views expressed are not necessarily those of Mefi's own Meatbomb.
posted by Meatbomb at 12:11 AM on August 21, 2007


« Older Frozen Smoke   |   The coming of the tiny cheap computers Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments