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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.

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

Edwin Verin/Shutterstock

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.