Why Aren’t More Cities Embracing PRT?
Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) is an innovative transportation system that has the potential to meet on-demand and individualized transportation needs. As we increasingly recognize the impact that mobility has on our cities, why aren’t more cities turning to PRT as a viable solution to their transportation needs?
PRT vehicles are essentially autonomous train cars that carry individuals or small groups of people directly and around-the-clock to their destination upon request. The pods travel on interconnected tracks and provide both small- and large-circuit accessibility depending on the characteristics of the service area. PRT pods can transport cargo and are also very amenable to those with disabilities. Importantly, they are powered by electric motors and charge while stopped at stations which means that they are incredibly energy efficient.
Perhaps the most notable of PRT in action is at West Virginia University. Here, the system has moved students efficiently around the hilly campus since 1975 at a competitive price. The PRT is free for students, and only costs 50 cents for the general public. London’s Heathrow Airport also has a reliable PRT system in place, but on a much smaller scale. The LHR system provides travelers with a smooth transition between the airport terminals and parking lots. The service is open around the clock, and boasts a 99% reliability rating with an average wait time of under 10 seconds. Despite these extraordinarily successful examples, there are only three other PRT systems in place today.
So why isn’t PRT more prevalent in today’s urban areas? Like any public transit system, PRT has its drawbacks. In general, it seems that these drawbacks have more to do with the cost and politics of implementation rather than from flaws in the design of the system itself. Because there is little precedent for PRT in the world today, the work required for technical feasibility studies, tailored design, technological development and guideway design is costly and time consuming in comparison to well established forms of public transit. The lack existing permits and regulations surrounding accessibility, safety, and financing also pose as a barrier. This, again, would be a time-consuming and labor-intensive task. In cities and suburbs with already overwhelming needs and not enough staff or funding, the execution of this novel system may not be realistic.
With these challenges in mind, PRT takes advantage of an unrealized opportunity in the transportation market, striking a fine balance between the strengths of private vehicles and public transit systems. Private vehicles, though more flexible, and efficient than most public transit options, are not exempt from flaws. They are expensive and inequitable, they contribute to traffic and congestion in addition to being massive energy wasters. Public transit, though more socially equitable and sustainable than private vehicles, often lacks in time efficiency, service frequency, and reach in terms of first/last mile accessibility. PRT serves as an answer to all these points while also maintaining the strengths of both current systems, offering time efficiency, privacy, a sense of agency, around-the-clock availability and overall flexibility of use.
It seems that there is a fair amount of untapped potential in PRTs to solve first- last-mile issues in and around our cities in an environmentally friendly and equitable manner. Perhaps public transportation agencies should further investigate this system in order to understand and weigh its many benefits against its potential obstacles.
Rachael Alberts is studying Urban Studies & Planning and Cognitive Science at the University of California San Diego. She is a Transportation Planning Intern at IBI Group San Diego, and hopes to work in the field of transportation planning upon graduation.
Lead image by Ildar Sagdejev.