Stuck in rush hour traffic one night about ten years ago, my friend Andre turned to me and predicted that someday people would zip around above traffic in their own personal pods. I told him it was one of the dumbest things I had ever heard.nbsp;
But it looks like Andre was on to something. For years transportation types have been debating the viability of what is known as Personal Rapid Transit (PRT), and now several projects are underway that indicate the age of the pod may be upon us.
PRTs are systems of independent vehicles that provide private, on-demand, nonstop travel for people or small freight, riding on small, overhead guideways. The cars run above existing roads and are powered entirely by electricity. Advocates of pod transport say it offers the convenience and personal experience of an auto without the gasoline, insurance, pollution, accidents, or congestion.
London is working on a pod transport system for Heathrow Airport called ULTra. In the first phase of the project, passengers will wait a maximum of one minute for one of 18 four passenger, battery powered vehicles. Because each car runs independently and doesn't block the track, passengers can board and disembark at their leisure.
In Sweden, the government has already built and tested a PRT prototype in a suburban football field, and now ten Swedish cities are thinking hard about the pod. First up will be a track that runs between downtown Uppsala to a shopping mall anchored by an IKEA. Very Scandinavian.
Here in the States, the mayor of Ithaca, New York has said that a pod system could be part of a long term transportation program for his city, and in Santa Cruz, California, officials have gone so far as to commission the design of a solar-powered pod system.
The London and Sweden projects are getting the headlines, but there's one PRT network that's been gliding along for decades. In Morgantown, West Virginia (population 29,361), a five station, single line PRT system has shuttled passengers between downtown and the West Virginia University since 1979. According to a piece in Progressive Engineer magazine, the Morgantown system's 55 eight-person cars carry 16,000 people a day when school is in session. During the day, the system operates on demand, with vehicles sent out in response to passenger requests, while at night and on weekends it runs on a fixed schedule, much like a subway or light rail system.
As with most infrastructure projects, price is a problem when it comes to the pod. It costs an estimated $25 to $40 million a mile to build a PRT system, and in today's economic client that's not money any city or state wants to spend. But compare that sum with a major road widening project, or with thenbsp; $100 to $300 million per mile needed for light rail, and suddenly pods look a little more affordable.
And if 16,000 people are riding the pod in a town of 30,000, imagine what could happen if some bigger cities took the plunge.
Photo: Advanced Transport Systems