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Spacepod? Not quite. But an Indian city may soon be driving its citizens around in small, autonomous pods.

2012-01-17

Personal Rapid Transit Is Coming... To India

Little pods that shoot you from your door to major transit hubs are a staple of science fiction, and plans to make them reality have often failed. But a new venture in India aims to be the first fully operation PRT system in the world.

Imagine a public transportation system that takes you door to door on demand, like a taxi, but is clean and cheap and doesn’t crowd the streets. That’s the promise of Personal Rapid Transit.

In a PRT system, a fleet of small, two- to six-person automated cars, running on a dense network of guideways, provides individual nonstop rides between any two stations.

There has been interest in Personal Rapid Transit since the 1960s and '70s, but it’s been slow in coming. One very sparse PRT system (one line; five stations) was built in Morgantown, West Virginia, in 1975 and is still operational. In more recent years, small PRT systems have been developed for Abu Dhabi’s planned city of Masdar and for London’s Heathrow Airport. But no city has committed to a full-blown urban PRT system yet.

It looks like Amistar, an Indian city of 1.5 million in the state of Punjab, may be the first. ULTra Global PRT, the company that developed Heathrow’s system, just announced it has reached an agreement with the Punjab government to build the world’s first large-scale PRT system. In its first phase, the system will have 200 pods, seven stations, and roughly two miles of track. The company estimates it could serve as many as 100,000 passengers per day. Eventually, the system would expand to 35 stations.

PRT systems have a number of touted advantages. They’re convenient because they can shuttle passengers directly to their destinations without stopping at intervening stations; they’re electric, so they can, in theory, run on clean energy; and the pods themselves are small and have short turning radii, so they can fit into dense urban areas. They may also help solve the so-called "last mile problem": getting people from large transportation hubs like train stations to their final destinations.

That said, it should be noted that projects like this have a way of getting… derailed. Masdar’s planners initially promised a PRT system that would serve the entire city. In the end, that ambitious vision was scaled back to a five-station system.

If things do go according to schedule, however, Amistar will begin construction of the system this year and bring it online in 2014. And if it works well, the world just might have a new model for efficient, clean urban transportation.

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8 Comments

  • DevilsAdvocate

    Bikes are a good idea Spencer, but they have some serious disadvantages that disqualify them from being an egalitarian city wide transportation infrastructure:

    1. You must be in relatively good shape to ride a bike. Proposing a city wide bike transport system is like proposing 'healthy people only' public transportation. Not to mention disabled people who just CANT ride.
    2. Its pretty tough to carry anything larger than a backpack on a bike. This makes coming back from the airport with your luggage (for example) basically impossible.

    3. In inclement weather biking becomes dangerous/impossible (though people will still try, which is another problem altogether). 

    4. Bikes are slow. Commutes jump from an hour long to 2-3 hours depending on your personal fittness.

    5. Bikes are easy to steal/lose/break. Any public institution has to operate like a prison. Everything has to be bolted down and cater to the lowest common denominator. You're going to get 200 idiots the first year who just bike off a dock into a lake and say 'Fuck it. not my bike'. Then you'll get 200 criminals who just steal the bikes and sell them in the next town over. And finally, 1000 opportunists who crash the bikes and not only utterly ruin the them, but then try to sue the government for damages.I appreciate the Utopian vision of a city full of healthy, ipad toting, bike sharing hipsters, but when you're an obese inner city mom of 5 trying to get to the grocery store and back home before dinner during a thunderstorm that bike the city has provided to you (and those wonderful bike lanes) will be little comfort. I love biking and local and national governments should be doing all they can to encourage biking among their citizens, but as a method of rapid, cheap, effective public transport bikes are impractical.However, bike rickshaws may alleviate some of these issues, as well as provide jobs to those unemployed, healthy, ipad toting hipsters...

  • KBW

    .  @ Spencer: Amritsar is a city of over a million people. The city has an intercity rail line, but as far as I can tell local transit is a a haphazard bus system and, as I noted, the rickshaw taxis are the congestion and emissions problem. As I understand it emissions are a pressing concern because of the deteriorating effect on the Golden Temple.

    In a major urban center like this, a national and global tourism destination, a public transit system has to be considered BASIC community infrastructure (and I really believe this is true across all cultures). Eliminating coal generation is vital, but a separate issue -- making it a prerequisite for building transit complicates both of these already complicated issues. Policy paralysis would likely ensue, meaning the city would fail to address the community need. 

    It's also a mistake to frame the situation as one in which bikes and transit are in competition, as we know they work together. Maybe the innovative configuration of PRT makes us see it as something other than transit, but it is transit. Local government considered conventional technology, but buses would not be fast enough because of congestion, and there is not enough room to construct surface rail.

    As I understand it, after this PRT project enters service it could expand to cover a larger area. But the station spacings they're talking about still does not preclude implementation of robust bike infrastructure. I don't know what the tax structure is like, but Punjab is regarded as India's most prosperous region, I assume they could afford do both.

  • Spencer

    #5's a good point,  
    Devilsadvocate. Should've clarified: I'm asking about building a bike infrastructure, not a city-funded bikeshare program, a venture probably best left to the people/market because of concerns you raise. But I'm inquiring about appropriate technology.To address your points:Pt. 1: Yes, you must be able to walk to ride a bike, but you don't have to be Lance Armstrong. Older or overweight people ride daily--in China, in Japan, in Europe--and it works.Pt. 2: You got me. Carrying luggage on a typical bike sucks or is impossible. Sounds like a market niche, eh?Pt. 3, I'd argue. Here in the U.S., Bicycling Magazine voted Minneapolis, MN, the best bike city in 2011. Av'g January temps: 13.1 F/ -10 C. Portland, OR, is regularly identified as a huge biking city, and it rains there all the time. Is it possible to divert the cost of laying PRT track to, for example, put weatherproof tarps over bike lanes? Pt. 4: Can you clarify what you mean by "commute?" If we're comparing cruising speeds, of course a vehicle is faster. But Amritsar's problem is congestion--too many vehicles crammed together, moving at far below cruising speed. An hour spent in a car in heavy urban congestion, you might travel three miles. An hour on a bike, ridden by an average healthy person on a reasonably-busy dedicated bike lane, can easily cover twice that distance without the fossil-fuel use or pollution. ULTra Global PRT's proposal is for 200 pods, seven stations, and only 2 miles of track. If the goal is safe, cheap, clean, uncrowded urban transit system for the end user, I doubt PRT would win over bike infrastructure in a cost-benefit analysis.Pt. 5: Appropriate technology exists in a specific cultural setting. Equating iPad-toting hipsters with bike-riding is a distinctly Western bias. Again in Asia, many groups identify bike-riding with being poor. In Africa, bikes make possible access to education, water, healthcare to a lot of rural populations. Early last century in Europe and the U.S., bikes were equated with gender equality. My 55-year old, female, African-American landlord rides her bike everywhere she goes. I'm pretty sure she doesn't own an iPad, but that might be my cultural bias. :) Just a guess, but bikes in Amritsar likely carry a different cultural code than bikes where you live. Again, an initial question before building an urban transit system should be, Does provide the greatest yield for the least cost? Is that a PRT or a bike system? P.S. @KBW, electric PRTs rely on fossil-fuel-generated electricity. That's why I mentioned 55% of electricity in India is fueled by coal: You have to generate the electricity from somewhere, even if you're storing it in batteries.As for high temps, I found citation for 113F in summer--holy crap, that's hot--which would be a problem, along w/ monsoons. I just think that another massive, fossil-fuel-based, government-funded engineering project is simplifying the problem, and that there's a more graceful answer.

    Jeebus H., it's time for me to get back to work!

  • Spencer

    With respect, the world has a model for efficient, clean urban transportation (yeah, wait for it): bikes.

    If Amritsar can construct/finance two miles of PRT track, they can probably construct/finance ten miles of bikeways. Bikes are egalitarian, much more than vehicle. Nearly anyone can operate one, and nearly every neighborhood can support a bike mechanic. Bikes run on clean energy (55% of electricity in India is fueled by coal, so electricity isn't necessarily clean). They're small and have short turning radii. They already fit in dense urban areas. They're cheap (especially when you share them--spinlister.com!) and existing urban infrastructures can, and do, readily support them.The geek in me appreciates the steampunk aesthetic of this design. But it's a regressive transportation answer to a world of increasing people and decreasing resources. Is it oversimplifying the issue to direct government/private funding towards human-scale tech--bikes over fossil-fuel supported vehicles? Which design yields the most beneficial results for most people, at the least cost- PRT or bike infrastructure?

  • KBW

    Spencer:

    You like bikes. Good, I do as well. But to answer your query, Yes, you are oversimplifying the issue (and what do fossil-fuel supported vehicles have to do with electric PRT?).

    Articles about Amritsar and PRT indicate a decision motivated by the
    need to do something about congestion, which is caused by the city's rickshaw
    paratransit. It is their single-occupancy vehicle problem. Your solution would put bikes in the middle of that.

    It is also folly to base a public transit system in a climate where the temperature reaches upward of 120 degrees, not to mention monsoons.