Steve Raney envisions a world in which transit riders step off a train several miles from their office, jump into a personal vehicle and quickly arrive at the front door of their office building — all without entering an automobile.
Raney is a transportation consultant and proponent of Personal Rapid Transit, a transportation concept devised in the 1950s. Personal Rapid Transit, or PRT, combines elements of an automated people mover, a taxicab and a bus circulator service to provide door-to-door transit service.
It works like this: Fully-automated cabs accommodating two to five people run in a single direction across elevated guideways, picking up and dropping off passengers at small stations.
The driverless cabs are operated on demand. Passengers enter a station, call a cab and select their destination from the onboard computers. Stations are offset from the main track, which allows cabs to bypass all stops except their destination. Once the trip is finished, the cab is routed to the next waiting passenger.
PRT proponents feel the technology is the next big innovation in mass transit.
“As commuters spread out and are going from more origins to more destinations, rather than simple corridor travel, they want something that serves a more diverse area,” explains Jeral Poskey, director of applications for Taxi 2000 Corp.
Taxi 2000 has one of the first major PRT offerings, SkyWeb Express, which runs small cabs that can hold three adults, a person and bicycle or a wheelchair and an attendant.
The system runs on a small-footprint elevated track measuring 3 by 3 feet and resting atop metal posts. Cabs enter stations in a nose-to-tail fashion. Operation and queuing is fully automated.
ULTra, a similar PRT system created by United Kingdom-based Advanced Transport Systems Ltd., has already created a 1-kilometer test track in Cardiff, Wales, with two operating vehicles. The ULTra system uses an off-the-shelf guidance system from Frog Navigation Systems in the Netherlands and can be constructed either elevated or at ground level.
“The first PRT applications will most likely be small systems that provide a circulator service and a connection to one or more mass transit stations,” says Jerry Schneider, professor emeritus of civil engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle.
PRT would compete with local bus shuttle service and personal automobiles, and current designs have it complementing rather then replacing traditional rail transit.
Proponents of PRT now see the technology as the best way to connect transit riders to their final destinations, rather than a central station.
“Riders are especially finicky about the last mile,” Raney says. “The question is, How can you build a circulator system that makes the long-haul transit system more effective?”
“The reason for PRT is really to provide district circulation so that buses and trains can make a single stop but deliver that last mile of a transit ride to a local destination,” agrees Taxi 2000’s Poskey.
Raney sees suburban office parks as the ideal initial application. Often, these office parks can house as many as 20,000 employees. In one study looking at a Palo Alto office park, researchers found replacing a bus-rail station circulator with a PRT system would remove up to 6,600 automobiles and parking spots.
Costs for most PRT systems are still estimates at best, but Poskey expects the SkyWeb Express system to cost between $16 million to $24 million a mile.
While no commercial PRT systems have yet been built, interest in the technology is growing. Developers at the Dubai International Financial Center in United Arab Emirates are interested in using the technology to assist in the creation of a high-density skyscraper business center.
But the companies are still struggling to arrange the first sale. “Until it’s proven, everyone’s nervous to try something like this. We have a number of places that have said they would like to be second. Our biggest challenge is finding who wants to be first,” says Poskey.