Personal Rapid Transit For Heathrow Airport, Dubai Financial Center

Heathrow Airport and Dubai Financial Center are moving forward on robotic vehicle transit technology called personal rapid transit (PRT) with the aim of reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

Heathrow Airport and Dubai Financial Center are moving forward on robotic vehicle transit technology called personal rapid transit (PRT) with the aim of reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions

The British Airport Authority (BAA) is investing $13.1M for a 25% interest in PRT maker Advanced Transport Systems (ATS). Applications of PRT at Heathrow promise to reduce passenger transfer time from Terminal 1 to Terminal 4 from 75 minutes to 10 minutes. In Dubai, a planned 1.2km PRT network will connect with the planned Dubai LRT station via express moving walkways.

Leading New Urbanist Peter Calthorpe has recently advised Dubai and has also called for new transit circulation technology "that offers fundamentally different choices in mobility and access" as a complement to existing smart growth tools. At the June 2005 Pasadena CNU Conference, Calthorpe lamented "90-year-old transit technologies," calling for "elevated, electric, small-vehicle" transit.

Thanks to Steve Raney

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Don't Believe The PRT Hype.

PRT has a 30-year history of controversy and failure. Yet, the PRT publicity mill grinds out press releases about this or that PRT project. When the project flops... and they always do... there is rarely a follow-up.

Here's an incomplete, but long list of PRT failures as well as failing and soon-to-be-forgotten PRT/gadgetbahn projects:

Learn more about the so-called PRT projects in Dubai and Heathrow at:

Learn what PRT is really about:

Don't Believe "Don't Believe the Hype"

Below is my take, excerpted from a paper on PRT from Microsoft Campus (


PRT technology will be difficult to implement, and especially difficult to implement in a cost-effective manner. Multiple efforts may be required – it is not at all clear that the first fully funded effort will succeed. PRT represents the first truly new transportation mode since the airplane. It is useful to reflect on the difficulty in bringing about the airplane. Before the Wright Brothers succeeded, there were many failed attempts (collectively known as the "Wrong Brothers"). Many very intelligent people believed that man would never fly.

It is possible to produce PRT at a low delivered cost of $10M per mile, as well as a high $40M per mile. A model whereby engineers have financial incentives to keep costs down will be more advantageous than that of a traditional "cost plus" manufacturer that passes on cost overruns to taxpayers. Likewise, IBM required a "skunkworks" culture to bring about the PC, and a similar structure may be necessary for PRT. Traditional component vendors may be forsaken for cost-conscious roller coaster and gondola makers, or even Daimler-Chrysler's semi-autonomous GEM subsidiary. The winner of the first DARPA grand robotic vehicle challenge spent $1M to claim the $1M prize. The second place finisher, the Golem Group, spent only $35K. Golem provides another excellent example of desired PRT vendor characteristics.

PRT systems share more in common with today's complex hardware/software systems than with the traditional civil/transportation engineering discipline. The largest technical challenge is in developing the "control system" that safely choreographs vehicles maneuvering only 10 feet apart. In order to obtain liability insurance, the control system safety must be proven via a painstaking, time-consuming process.

Most of PRT control system technology has already been prototyped in research projects such as: U.C. PATH's automated car tailgating, Frog Navigation's Park Shuttle, Daimler-Chrysler's Chauffer II truck tailgating, and Toyota's IMTS bus.

The European Commission's Research Director for Urban Sustainability claims the major PRT implementation obstacles have been non-technical in nature. One such problem is that no American city wants to take on the downside risk of hosting the first PRT system (many cities want to be the second host city). Our mature democracy favors incremental change while resisting large-scale innovative change.

In addition here are two of many well-researched responses to PRT skeptics:

Steve Raney, Cities21, Palo Alto, CA

PRT in Practice

As long as PRT systems worldwide continue to cost near infinite dollars per passenger all the advocacy and performance claims are mere speculation. PRT is not personal, not rapid and not realistic. Once again we are promised that PRT will incorporate all that is good in every other transport mode and none that is bad. All bad observations are characteristics of conventional systems. All good characteristics are unique to the innovative PRT concept. (And the check is in the mail.)

Vuvich said it best; "PRT is an attempt to cross a pig with millipede in the hopes of 1000 hams."

Wright Brothers vs. Wrong Brothers

Well put Robert! There’s a very real need for your curmudgeonly skepticism towards new technologies. If PRT is commercialized for $80M per mile (rather than the projected $10M), then it will absolutely dreadful. More than 40 different contributions to the PRT debate can be found at this Popular Science Top 50 site:, including two by Vukan R. Vuchic (with rebuttals). Per my previous post, Vuchic damns the Wright Brothers by citing the Wrong Brothers.

Of course, we also need a few people with sufficient optimism to move forward with better solutions to meet the needs of customers. Cities21 has proposed PRT as a better transit circulator to make train, bus, carpooling, and carsharing more effective: (peer reviewed research can be found off of this link).

"Our current transportation policy path in the U. S. is clearly unsustainable. Traffic, its environmental impacts and its impact on quality of life continue to get worse virtually everywhere in the country. Innovative new ideas and new approaches are badly needed. We need a portfolio of innovative approaches spread across the United States, with each one pushing the envelope towards a more sustainable future transportation system. Cities21 and its Suburban Silver Bullet should be in this portfolio. It is innovative; it is forward-looking; it addresses many key transportation challenges; and the potential benefits - if widely disseminated - are large." - Steve Offutt, EPA's Best Workplaces for Commuters.

"I've long thought personal rapid transit would be a silver bullet for Edge City transportation woes if you could keep it as simple, customizable, scalable, affordable, and profitable as Legos. Cities21 may have cracked the code." - Joel Garreau, Edge City: Life on the New Frontier

At the June 2005 Congress for New Urbanism Conference and in a recent paper, Peter Calthorpe calls for new, improved transit circulator technology:

In a six-page paper, , Calthorpe writes: "All the advantages of New Urbanism - its compact land saving density, its walkable mix of uses, and its integrated range of housing opportunities - would be supported and amplified by a circulation system that offers fundamentally different choices in mobility and access. Smart Growth and new Urbanism have begun the work of redefining America's twenty-first century development paradigms. Now it is time to redefine the circulation armature that supports them. It is short sighted to think that significant changes in land-use and regional structure can be realized without fundamentally reordering our circulation system."

At CNU, Calthorpe said, "One of my pet peeves is that we've been dealing with 19th Century transit technology. We can do better than LRT. We can have ultra light elevated transit systems (personal rapid transit) with lightweight vehicles. Because the vehicles are lighter, the system will use less energy. I used to be a PRT skeptic, but now the technology is there. It won't be easy to develop PRT technology and get all the kinks out, but it is doable. If you think about what you'd want from the ideal transit technology, it's PRT: a) stations right where you are, within walking distance, b) no waiting."

Steve Raney, Cities21, Palo Alto, CA

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