"Incredibles"-style invention or incredible sham? Readers debate the merits of Taxi 2000's Personal Rapid Transit system.

By Salon Staff
Published November 23, 2004 8:00AM (EST)

[Read "Car Ports" by Priya Jain.]

Personal Rapid Transit does sound neat, and here in Seattle, those of us who lived at one point in the University District have been hearing about it for years. However, I'm actually in favor of getting on a bus with a hundred smelly strangers. We've become more and more atomized over the years, such that knowing more than one set of neighbors' names is practically miraculous. My husband owns a car, but I prefer riding the bus. I run into other carless friends. I've met new and interesting people, some of whom were very different from me and we gained some insight into each other. It's not all good, of course; I've nearly gotten into fights and encountered loud drunks. But overall, I think I prefer being among the masses. That's one of the reasons I moved to the city.

-- Gitai Ben-Ammi

Your article on PRTs was really an extended advertisement for Taxi2000, wasn't it? It even read like a press release: the unproven cost comparisons, the trashing of the current old-fashioned competition, the hand-wavy "expressions of interest" from major players. If one mile of this system is in place in the next five years, I'll eat my hat.

-- Anthony Zacharzewski

In the "Car Ports" article, you said, "because the system is powered by 600-volt DC electricity, it produces no emissions." It may be that no emissions come from the vehicles, but in our current situation, all that 600-volt DC can't be made without causing emissions at the electric plant. I haven't done the research to determine if the electricity to run a pod will create more or fewer emissions than running that same pod on propane, or even gasoline, but moving the location of emissions from the tailpipe to the electric plant won't clean up the planet.

-- John Seiffer

Arguments for PRT would be much more convincing if proponents didn't rely on highly distorted numbers in their cost comparisons. For example, Taxi 2000 claims construction costs of $10 million per mile for PRT. This is impossible to validate as PRT remains a mythical system. We do know that in 1999 Raytheon and the Chicago Transit Authority walked away from a $66 million investment in PRT in suburban Rosemont when construction costs approached $50 million per mile.

Furthermore, a PRT guideway is just one direction. Light rail systems almost always have tracks in both directions. So if you hope to get back, PRT is really $20 million a mile. Complete light rail systems in such cities as St. Louis, Denver and Salt Lake City were all built for $20-$23 million per mile. In reality, then, LRT construction costs can be very close to those projected for PRT, not five times higher as Taxi 2000 claims.

Taxi 2000 projects that PRT will cost 38" per passenger mile vs. $1.42 for LRT. But the National Transit Data Base maintained by the Federal Transit Administration shows that, for 2002, the average operating cost for LRT systems nationwide was just 50" per passenger mile, about 1/3 of Taxi 2000's claim.

Furthermore, again according to the National Transit Data Base, Bi-State in St. Louis and Tri-Met in Portland, Ore., reported light rail operating costs of 29" and 33" per passenger mile respectively. Both cities demonstrate that reported LRT operating costs can actually be less than the unvalidated projections for PRT.

With real-world verifiable numbers this badly distorted, it's worth asking if Taxi 2000's in-house unverifiable projections aren't even more fictional.

-- John DeWitt

Thank you for your clear and fair presentation on Personal Rapid Transit. I hope it jogs a lot of interest; we have been interested in Santa Cruz, Calif., since Dr. Ed Anderson spoke here in 2000 to the city's Transportation Commission.

I would add one feature your presentation did not cover: PRT's capacity. Because they can run at 0.6-second intervals, at full capacity they run 100 riders a minute, 6,000 an hour, which theoretically adds up to 18,000 riders an hour, equal to a three-lane freeway. And they run 24 hours a day.

-- David H. Walworth

We in Minnesota are quite familiar with these lightweight loads of crap. The claims of zero emissions, no government subsidies, superiority to all other forms of transportation, little visual impact, and easy and cheap construction are standard issue in these glorified marketing brochures posing as articles.

All claims are based on the conjecture and "estimates" of the corporation that hopes to sell its "vaporware" product. And, of course, comparisons to actually implemented and operating transit systems invariably show the superiority of the Taxi 2000's SkyWeb Express "system," which has been built nowhere on the planet.

The reality here is that Taxi 2000 has been unsuccessful in securing a government subsidy to build a multimillion-dollar testing facility in Minnesota. "SkyWeb Express" exists only in the heads of its acolytes, on paper, and in a single pod on a 60-foot indoor track in an industrial park in Fridley, Minn. It's hardly a scene from "The Incredibles."

-- Russell Raczkowski

SkyWeb (PRT) sounds like a great idea! Think of the possibilities: If someone wants to bomb a building, they can put it in a "skypod" and send it into the building. If someone wants to shoot up in privacy, they can hail a skypod and lock themselves in long enough to do the job. It would provide shelter for drunks to ride the skyrails and leave vomit-covered seats for thrill-seeking families to find. Not to mention the ice building up on the skytracks and pylons all winter, and big blocks of it falling on pedestrians to mark the spring thaw. Prostitution of all sorts in the privacy of a skypod. Peeping Tom perverts get to ride the skypod around and look into window after window ... after window. And what better place for a quiet drug deal than your own private skypod.

A fine idea, indeed.

-- Joshua Banner

Your article about Personal Rapid Transit was lacking in both context and perspective. The data on rail passenger-mile efficiency are not "skewed" by the success of the New York City subway or by scheduling that takes into account ridership patterns.

Further, the quote from Rep. Mark Olson does not even mention the battle in Minnesota over the highly politicized new (electric) light-rail line in Minneapolis. PRT has long been offered as an alternative to light rail in the Twin Cities by out-of-state Republicans who are against rail and in favor of more highways. This may be because PRT is currently in use exactly nowhere, and Minnesota Republicans expect and hope the status quo will continue in that respect.

Finally, your writer was evidently unable to find anyone who disagrees with the businesspeople/cheerleaders quoted in this piece. It's hard to believe that nobody has a question about PRT. Transit is a vitally important issue, but one-sided articles serve only to hinder informed discussion.

-- Mark Lazar

Unfortunately, there is no panacea for urban transit. It's unrealistic to think that this one system will solve the problems of congestion and pollution. Any detailed analysis of this system exposes many flaws in its operation. Where do all the extra cars go that are waiting to pick someone up? Lots of storage and extra sidetracks and many stations must be built in the sky, which won't look very attractive. I also doubt that there is a consensus among planners that building transport systems in the sky is optimal. What about the land-use impacts inherent in a system that encourages sprawling low-density exurbs? That's one of its benefits, right -- that it functions like a car? The massive land consumption as a result of this kind of system should be included in the environmental impact, not just emissions.

-- Doug Giuliano

PRT does not exist and never will. Its sole purpose for 30 years has been to spread misinformation about real transit systems.

What disturbs me most about this article is the total lack of skepticism. The unsubstantiated claims of the PRT proponents are presented in the present tense as if the system is a proven success, which it isn't. I am also disturbed that no critics appeared in this article.

In the 2001 OKI Central Loop Study, the OKI study's engineers (Parsons Brinkerhoff) found many serious flaws in the PRT design. That study cost the taxpayers in the Cincinnati area $625,000.

The more interesting story is how well PRT has performed as a stalking horse for the highway construction industry. PRT proponents spread misinformation about real transit that divides and conquers the neighborhood and environmental opposition to highway projects such as the 35W Access Project in Minneapolis. PRT was also used in this year's session of the Minnesota Legislature to block funding for the North Star commuter line. These are just some instances where the PRT flimflam was used to bamboozle citizens into rejecting real transportation alternatives that can help Americans free themselves from gridlock, pollution and dependence on foreign oil.

-- Ken Avidor

There has been a PRT in little Morgantown, W.V. (home of West Virginia University -- Go Mountaineers!) for almost 20 years. It only goes from one part of campus to another. It's free for WVU students, and costs about 50 cents for others to ride (maybe a little more by now). The PRTs hold about 8-10 people max, but the cars are only filled to capacity during peak hours. When I was going to school there (1991-95) they were still used quite a lot, and on the whole, it's pretty cool. This is really just to point out that, like many good ideas, PRT is not exactly a new idea.

-- Jen Baker

I was surprised that your recent story on "Incredibles"-style Personal Rapid Transit failed to mention the pioneering efforts of Morgantown, W.V., which has had a PRT system up and running since the early 1980s. It opened when I was a kid; I remember all sorts of adults grumbling about it as a tax boondoggle, and perhaps it was. But it has served West Virginia University for a long time, moving students along a track that runs parallel to the Monongahela River and connects the hospital outside the city center to downtown. I'm sure that many improvements have been made since, but computer-driven, individual cars have been riding up and down this stretch of Appalachia for two decades.

-- John Randolph

Priya Jain responds: As Salon's West Virginian readers have rightly pointed out, there is in fact a PRT system that connects parts of the West Virginia University campus to downtown Morgantown. Although this system is open to the public, it is privately owned and operated by the university and relies on older technology than the new PRT systems. Still, it should have been mentioned in the article.

Salon Staff

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