By Bob Gelfand.
For our biggest traffic frustration, the daily freeway commute, there is now a potential solution. It’s new, and it won’t require increased taxes or twenty years of construction. It’s a bit like something out of Disneyland and a bit of The Jetsons. The technology is being tested right now in California, England, Poland, Korea, and Israel.
So what’s this solution to our commuting woes?
It’s a whole new generation of a technology that has been in existence in various forms for half a century. It has the unwieldy name Personal Rapid Transit (PRT), but it’s a whole lot more. It carries you in privacy and comfort along an elevated guideway, without intermediate stops and starts.
Let’s start by listing a few things we would want a new transportation technology to have, and show how the new technology satisfies them.
- First, it has to be built without a tax increase, or any tax dollars for that matter.
- Second, it has to be accomplished soon — let’s say 3 or 4 years.
- Third, it has to give you a quick, private, inexpensive ride all the way across town to downtown LA, or to Westwood, or to LAX, or to the valley.
- Fourth, it has to carry you in one continuous ride, without lots of jarring, uncomfortable stops, the kind of interruptions you have on a bus or a subway.
- Fifth, it has to be built in a style that doesn’t take up much ground space, or interfere with cars or with pedestrians.
- Sixth, it has to be quiet, nonpolluting, and highly energy efficient.
When you are driving the freeway and you see red tail lights start to fill the road in front of you, what do you feel? Remind yourself of that feeling, and now consider the fact that we can actually do something about it.
What is this techno-fix that can make your lives easier, if only we can develop the political will to get it done?
We know that the solution is not to build another set of freeways. It would take too long, and cost too much, even if we were able to double-deck what we have now. Likewise, we can’t build new freeways alongside the old ones in the LA basin, because there isn’t the open ground to construct them.
So there is nowhere to build except above the ground or down below it. The down-below version is to build tunnels in which we run trains. These are righteous projects which we should be supporting, but they have a limited utility in terms of the overall problem, at least over the next twenty or twenty-five years.
Light rail is also very expensive. By the time you do the planning and the construction, you are looking at spending at least one-hundred million dollars for every mile you complete. The other problem is that the process, from start to finish, is measured in decades rather than months or years. Because tunneling is such a lengthy, expensive process (in excess of $450 million a mile), much of our new light rail will be above ground, which complicates life for those who live along the route.
So what is this new idea we are talking about?
It’s basically similar to the simple monorail or elevated gondola idea, but updated using today’s more robust technology. Think of a narrow elevated rail, or guideway, from which your passenger pod hangs, and along which the pod moves at high speed. Another variant of this idea involves building a narrow elevated track or roadway atop which a passenger vehicle moves under the control of a centralized computer.
Now think about a small station near where you live, where a private passenger pod comes to meet you. You click an icon on your cell phone, telling the system your destination, and you are whisked away in comfort and silence. The pod takes you directly to the stop where you want to go. No stopping and starting at every intermediate station, because you go right past them.
Physically, the system involves putting up poles about the size of ordinary light poles. A rail is hung from pole to pole, and carries the passenger pods.
Why haven’t we seen this type of system sooner? Largely, the answer is that it has taken a confluence of several technologies to make the potential into reality. Modern computer systems and sensing devices mean that pod movements are run by electronic controls that leave the driving to the control system. This means that you don’t have to hit the accelerator and the brake. You can play on your computer, or listen to music, or read a book, or just sightsee.
Current prognostications are that construction costs will be about ten million dollars a mile, enormously cheaper than the hundreds of millions of dollars that it costs to dig tunnels for full-scale subways and ten times cheaper than putting rail above ground. That means that a PRT system can be built using private investment capital rather than tax funds. The cost of taking a ride on the PRT is going to be around the same price you would pay to take the bus, and probably will be considerably cheaper than what it currently costs you in gasoline.
This kind of system is also much quicker to build. A truck pulls up to the site of a planned support pole, drills a hole in the ground, and another truck comes along and pours some concrete into a mold. A few days later, a third truck arrives and inserts the support pole. Do this every couple of hundred feet along a road (more or less like you would do for lighting poles), attach the guide rail, and you’re done. Arrange to have stations for getting on and off at convenient intervals. Stations can even be situated in buildings. All you need is an entrance and exit at the second or third story level, and there you have it.
Now think about getting on a passenger pod at LA International Airport and riding without stopping, all the way to downtown LA, or to the valley, or to Westwood.
Imagine creating a PRT system that will connect up Santa Monica with West LA and downtown. Think about the city of Los Angeles being able to move thirty or forty thousand people an hour using PRT lines. It’s the equivalent of adding two or three brand new freeways.
Imagine being able to carry ten thousand people an hour into and out of LAX. It’s the quicker, more intelligent version of park and ride.
Los Angeles has taken on a brave experiment in light rail construction. We can’t help but be pleased that this is finally taking place. But there are limits to light rail. There are only so many routes we can afford to build using this technology. In addition, the process is going to take time. Figure another few billion dollars and another ten or twenty years to get the whole system put up.
Besides its immediate goal of providing some respite to freeway gridlock, PRT can also provide the remaining links in a comprehensive system that will include rail, freeways, and public streets. It will start by taking a huge load off of the freeways that serve the commuter and which become such a nightmare during our rush hours. Our recent experience is that the major freeways serving commuters — the 405, the 10, the 101, and the 110 — are becoming clogged at almost every waking hour. Even weekends are finding these freeways jammed at inopportune times.
Imagine that we build a PRT to serve the 405 corridor. The engineering is straightforward, the cost is minimal, and the need is painfully obvious.
This is why City Councilman Paul Koretz has been supportive of the PRT concept. His constituents, like so many of the rest of us, have been crying out for a solution to our transportation misery.
There is lots more to talk about, including the several companies that are developing competing systems, any one of which might work in Los Angeles.
The Skytran corporation, located in California, has just signed a deal to build a demonstration PRT that will be located in Tel Aviv, using an innovative system of magnetic levitation and electric propulsion that promises to move people in near silence, and at much reduced energy cost. Skytran will compete with other American companies such as Jpods. Vectus is applying Swedish technology to a PRT project in Suncheon Bay, South Korea. Any or all of these companies may be competitive in the Los Angeles market.
As mentioned in the desired specifications listed above, a PRT system, correctly designed and engineered, can probably be installed using private investment funding, rather than tax dollars. There is no need to add to the sales tax in order to install PRT in Los Angeles.
The political landscape
A group of volunteers has been working on educating the public and the transportation community. (Disclosure: I am part of that group, and although I don’t have any economic interest in PRT at this time, it is a field I would love to become involved in. We are currently talking about creating a nonprofit educational arm of our group in order to do public education.) That volunteer group includes an engineer who formerly worked on the design of the Space Station and interplanetary probes. It also includes people who originally met each other through the neighborhood council system. We hope to explain the idea of PRT to additional community groups and neighborhood councils over the next few months.
Here is the link to the PRT Task Force website. If you look carefully, you will find that different companies are taking different approaches. One is to run the PRT cars above an elevated roadway. You can see that in the Vectus approach, for example. The other way is to hang the pods from a narrow guide rail, as Skytran is doing. This approach has an advantage in terms of taking up very little space at street level, and can be installed pretty much anywhere, including crowded city avenues.
The major lesson is that we can supplement commuter travel without building new freeways, and without breaking the bank.
There is lots more to be said. The most important, for you the reader, is to visit the PRT website and, if you are somewhat convinced that we should start to think about this approach, then we invite you to sign the petition.
The Economic Impact of building a whole new export industry
One last word. Los Angeles was, at one time, the transportation leader for the world. The Douglas DC3 was invented and built here. The DC6 became the workhorse of civil aviation. The Space Shuttle was built here, as were multiple generations of top line fighter aircraft.
We’ve lost a lot of that lead, but this is a chance to take it back. Los Angeles, should it decide to invite the construction of a PRT system here, will get manufacturing businesses and construction jobs. Along the way, we will improve our air quality through the installation of an all-electric system of commuter transport. There is a certain urgency in getting started, because other countries would like to compete for the business of building and exporting PRT.
Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for City Watch. He can be reached at email@example.com.